It’s no secret that for decades, Panama has been known as one of the best places in the world for North Americans to retire to, invest in, and start a business in. For that very reason, it’s also been involved in its fair share of scandals like the notorious Panama Papers and more recently, Pandora Papers. Regardless, thanks to the cash-cow that is the Panama Canal, this little country has been viewed as the most developed in Central America, one of the top havens in all of Latin America, and one of the world’s best offshore havens.
Developing countries are no strangers to corruption, but Panamanians in particular had remained pretty quiet since 1989 when the United States intervened and invaded the country in order to take Noriega down. Fast-forward 33 years later to a country trying to recover from the pandemic but taking continuous blows to its economy thanks to many corrupt government officials. Coincidentally, under the same political party that was in power when the U.S. had to step in last time.
Gas prices reached exorbitantly high levels, even higher than in the United States. Food prices went through the roof, the already struggling education system got worse, with children missing classes due to crumbling infrastructure and teachers constantly on strike because they weren’t being paid. The health sector has progressively deteriorated with lack of equipment and infrastructure, underpaid doctors, and a corrupt pharmaceutical sector among a long list of national scandals.
To give you an idea, pills that cost $28 in Panama, cost just $3.75 next door in Colombia. Plus, if you need certain tests done, you’re placed on a waiting list of more than a year, just for an appointment. In fact, the country’s president was recently diagnosed with cancer and flew to the United States for care rather than in a Panamanian hospital.
With one scandal after the next, Panamanians have finally started to voice their concerns. It started 3 weeks ago with teachers protesting against the rising gas prices and were then joined by the indigenous, retirees, SUNTRACS (construction workers’ union), students, and fed-up civilians. The result was a nationwide shutdown of all major roads including access to Tocumen International Airport (tourists were seen walking for miles with their luggage to get to their flights) and the highly important Pan-American Highway. Produce coming from inland to the city was lost and supplies like oxygen for hospitals, gas, and chlorine to make water potable were cut off from reaching their destinations.
The streets were filled with Panamanians protesting in their own way… people dancing to murgas, kids playing soccer in the middle of closed roads, and good Samaritans serving sancocho to hungry protestors. But what started out as peaceful protesting has taken an ugly turn. When the President finally decided to start a conversation to settle the issue, they did so in Azuero, as it turns out, the protest wasn’t as united as people thought and the solution to freeze gas prices at $3.65/gallon was not accepted by protestors in other parts of the country. The indigenous want the President to sit with them, SUNTRACS in the city want the President to meet with them instead, and it’s turned into a violent tug-of-war.
What was left of a police car after protestors set it on fire…
Most of the corruption seems to come from the Asamblea Nacional where lawmakers party it up with $400 whiskey bottles, get luxurious paid trips, and have their extended families appointed to government positions with juicy salaries without meeting the requirements for the role. There are hundreds of unqualified people stealing money from Panamanian taxpayers and shoving it right into their pockets. Take the dean of the University of Chiriquí who earns more than $13,000 while everyone has been asking for her resignation due to her incompetence and little regard for what’s going on. For reference, the minimum wage depending on the sector in Panama is $315.
Panama is also home to a lot of Venezuelans who recall seeing this before. Many have already started fleeing the country out of worry that it will follow in Venezuela’s footsteps. Panamanians, on the other hand, hang on to hope that that will not be the case.
It seems like Panama has finally awoken, making enough noise for international media to take notice. But until the country unites and decides on a single negotiation table, the protests will continue to become more violent, and the entire country will fall into a state of emergency.
How do the protests affect expats and digital nomads?
For starters, the food shortage in the capital affects everyone living in Panama City. The road closures as well, people in the city are finding themselves confined to certain areas for fear of getting caught up in the protests.
Police vs protestors in Santiago, Veraguas…
Safety has also become an issue. While most protestors are on the street for good reason, there are some that take advantage of the times to vandalize and steal. Cars are being stopped on the highway and forced to pay an extra toll to those blocking the roads and if not, they throw rocks at your car. There are a lot of rich people in Panama who are exploring options.
A lot of stores and restaurants are understaffed because people can’t get to their jobs so finding a place to eat out has become somewhat of a challenge. And if you’re anywhere in the Casco Viejo area, it’s recommended you stay indoors for safety. Coffee shops are boarding up their windows and sending employees home early… Panama City looks like a war zone as of writing this. Travel is not recommended.
On a brighter note…
In one of the many negotiation tables, the government has decided to freeze gas prices to $3.25/gallon and are set to keep dialogue open in order to meet with the rest of demands. Hopefully soon the chaos will die down and the government will find solutions to deal with such a corrupt system. When that happens, it’s speculated that Panama’s growth will spike because the resources are there… what’s lacking is the proper administration.
Happy citizens make for a country that thrives, and that’s what will hopefully be in the cards for Panama. Take a breather and visit some of the best beaches in Panama.