CIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Panama with Eileen Ng Fábrega, Executive Director of the Panamanian Chamber of Social Development (CAPADESO). CAPADESO is a network of civil society organisations (CSOs) that promote social development in Panama. Its main aim is to highlight the contributions of civil society, strengthen civil society and foster alliances to influence public policies.
What was the trigger for recent protests and what were their demands?
The protests were both about immediate problems, such as the cost of fuel and the basic food basket, and structural issues, such as inequality and corruption. The immediate issues were the catalyst that caused social discontent with the structural problems to boil over. This led to protests on issues such as health, education, poverty and food insecurity.
Although different groups expressed different priorities and had different ways of mobilising, I personally consider most of their demands to be legitimate, as they are a reflection and consequence of structural inequalities in our country and of frustration at blatant corruption that robs Panamanians of the possibility of satisfying their needs and achieving better living conditions.
It is worth noting that although many protesters were part of organised groups, such as teachers’ and workers’ unions and Indigenous groups, the protests produced much broader social mobilisation, in person and online, which prompted the country at large to discuss more deeply about how we have reached this turning point.
What has been the government’s response to the protests?
The protests began in June and reached their peak in July. The government tried to negotiate or to open separate negotiations with some of the groups or coalitions involved. Under pressure, it set up a Dialogue Roundtable to analyse the immediate issues. Since July the Roundtable has been in the process of negotiating with various parties involved in the protests, representing some, but not all, sectors of society.
In August, some groups continued to protest with a focus on specific demands or rejected agreements reached at the Roundtable, but there have not been large mobilisations as in July. This does not mean that protests cannot be reactivated, but rather that the current context is different from the one that attracted the most media coverage at the time.
Facilitated by the Catholic Church, the Roundtable has reached certain agreements, such as freezing the price of fuel and some basic goods. One agreed point that has been particularly relevant for CAPADESO’s member organisations, many of which work with children and focus on education, is the commitment to allocate 5.5 per cent of GDP to education by 2023 and 6 per cent by 2024. If invested in items such as teacher training, catching up on learning lost during the pandemic and decent infrastructure, this budget allocation could drive real educational transformation.
The government has now informally announced a next phase of negotiations to address other, structural issues with the participation of civil society groups, including CAPADESO, and the private sector. We believe this dialogue will be key to agreeing on a comprehensive, inclusive and sustainable development vision for our country.
How has society reacted to the protests, and what has been CAPADESO’s position?
Reactions have varied greatly, ranging from positive to negative in a constantly evolving situation: from support for protesting groups to frustration with the results of the talks, to distrust that changes will be sustained over time or that solutions will be accepted beyond the Roundtable, and to concern out of the certainty that dealing exclusively with short-term issues will result in another social explosion later.
While we recognised that the protest was legitimate, we expressed our concern about the prolonged teachers’ strike and the impact of street closures on the most vulnerable people, because one of CAPADESO’s main objectives is to ensure that CSOs can continue to provide uninterrupted services to the most vulnerable populations. But we are also interested in ensuring that these populations are no longer disproportionately affected by the system’s structural flaws; hence our proposal that the national dialogue should focus first and foremost on improving the living conditions of all Panamanians and reducing inequalities.
Our proposal has five points: prioritise the needs of vulnerable populations and groups; guarantee food security; ensure national healthcare and improve access to health and medicines and the quality of the health system; urgently address the problem of learning loss through profound changes that guarantee quality education; and demand concrete and measurable actions from public institutions to dismantle corruption in all sectors, ensure transparency and enforce punishments for acts of corruption to change the present system of incentives.
As an organisation, however, we are concerned that, once the treatment of short-term issues has progressed, the Roundtable may be trying to move forward with talks or negotiations on structural issues, without the participation of the sectors directly concerned.
What should the government and others do next to address the situation?
It is difficult to give an opinion on what the current government should do, because the demands raised by the protests, although directed at the government, refer to problems that are not the exclusive result of its actions but of deep historical gaps involving many others. There is a lot to be done and we are only just getting started.
It will be key to formally establish a dialogue roundtable to discuss structural issues, representative of all sectors and with a solid working methodology and clear processes, to demonstrate the government’s willingness to rebuild trust among all parts of society.
The current turning point has shown that civil society is eager to see profound changes in our country, and that it has the will to participate in building these changes.
The government could take actions that demonstrate its genuine commitment to listening to civil society and its will to act consistently with what is demanded of it, by establishing transparent austerity policies within institutions that demonstrate a turnaround from how the country has been run so far.
For our part, CAPADESO views this moment as an opportunity to place social justice at the centre of the national agenda. We will continue to advocate for this in various advocacy spaces and, we trust, in representing civil society at the upcoming structural dialogue table.
Civic space in Panama is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.