Indigenous people block main Panama route demanding improvements in communities

San Juan Oriente, Panama, Aug 7 (EFE).- Members of the Ngabe-Bugle indigenous people on Monday blocked the Inter-American Highway (IAH) – which crosses all of Panama connecting the country with the rest of Central America – demanding that the government of Laurentino Cortizo make improvements in their communities, which they said have long been promised but so far remain unaccomplished.

Panamanian authorities “have been signing agreement after agreement for a long time that have not been complied with and the population has had to resort to this pressure tactic so that the government will respond,” the spokesman for the protesters, Aquilino Montezuma, told EFE.

Montezuma was one of the almost 300 protesters who blocked the IAH at San Juan Oriente, a town in the western province of Chiriqui, on the border with Costa Rica, after 2 pm, under the watchful eyes of a strong police contingent.

The IAH is the only highway that crosses Panama, and this is why it is the main communications route for agricultural and livestock producers in the country’s interior with the capital, as well as being a conduit for international commercial cargo arriving via the Panama Canal and then entering the Panamanian distribution network for destinations throughout Central America.

A little over a year ago, open-ended blockades were set up on the roadway by protesters incensed about the high cost of fuel, food, medicine and demanding greater resources for education. The blockade created significant shortages of products in Panama and affected the transit of merchandise to and from Central America resulting in millions of dollars in losses.

On Monday afternoon, a long line of cars and buses had already developed, including tourist and cargo vehicles, at San Juan Oriente, EFE ascertained.

A government commission headed by Public Works Minister Rafael Sabonge and Government Minister Roger Tejada, traveled on Monday morning to the Ngabe-Bugle region – near Chiriqui – to talk with the communities with an eye toward avoiding the closure of the road.

Sabonge told local media outlets that the government, via an “emergency resolution,” had provided $7 million “to attack critical points in the region” and that another $200 million is already being invested in road and bridge projects.

“Many things have been done in the region. The president (Cortizo) has come (here) many times, 17 in all,” he added.

If there were to be no “positive response” from the authorities to the protesters’ demands at the meeting, Montezuma told EFE that they would keep the road closed “indefinitely” and “the (negotiators at the) dialogue table would get up and join this (group) and other (protesters).”

The strikers have announced blockades of the IAH at various other points besides San Juan Oriente.

“If the minister does not have the answer, the president’s presence would be requested,” Cortizo added.

EFE –/bp

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