Social Issues

Panama’s squatters struggling to put a roof over their heads amid pandemic

By Ana de Leon

Panama City, Dec 2 (efe-epa).- A group of squatters pushed deeper into poverty by the coronavirus crisis are erecting makeshift dwellings on a muddy plot of land they have occupied on the outskirts of Panama’s capital.

The landscape is desolate, with recent rains complicating the task of transporting building materials. And a rudimentary electrical system made up of stolen wiring doesn’t yet provide power to all sections of this future shantytown.

“We’re struggling to get by,” one member of this group of “precaristas,” the term for squatters in Panama, told Efe.

Some 500 families have settled in “Victoriano Lorenzo,” a vacant lot named after a 19th-century indigenous leader and Panamanian national hero. Some of the squatters said the severe economic repercussions of the pandemic had left them no choice but to occupy the terrain.

Aris Gonzalez, who describes herself as one of the five leaders of the squatter camp’s “Victoriano Lorenzo” committee, said she and her family had been evicted by a landlord.

“Most of us were laid off, and we have no way to pay rent,” she said.

Land invasions were already common in Panama prior to this latest crisis, a Housing and Land Planning Ministry (Miviot) employee who spoke on condition of anonymity told Efe, adding that “the government is not capable of fully resolving the nationwide housing deficit.”

Miviot has identified scores of squatter communities in different parts of Panama City’s metropolitan area, including 22 in Panama Centro, 68 in Panama Este, 60 in Panama Norte and 33 in the San Miguelito district.

The severe economic crisis triggered by the novel coronavirus, meanwhile, may very well have exacerbated the situation.

According to squatter leaders, each family has 200 square meters (2,150 square feet) of space to build on the 10-hectare (25-acre) lot, although neither the “Victoriano Lorenzo” committee nor Miviot have the precise figures.

Construction began about a month ago at the camp, and the ministry says no complaints have yet been lodged by its apparent owner even though it is surrounded by residential areas.

A portion of the squatters are still not living at the camp. Some are continuing to rent rooms despite being behind on their payments, while others are residing with family members.

Domingo Miranda, a 29-year-old who has worked in the informal economy since being laid off early this year from a recycling company, is one of them.

He has two small children who play during the day on construction rubble; at night, he takes them to their grandmother’s house so he can provide them with an evening meal and a bath.

Miranda was among the first squatters to settle at “Victoriano Lorenzo,” and his house is now one of the most fully completed – just one room with a bed that is covered by a tin roof and held up by wooden pillars that appear to be secure.

He said he hopes to build a bathroom and a kitchen in the near future.

“People come by to sell us material and take advantage of us. They sell to us at (high prices),” Miranda said.

Gonzalez, for her part, told Efe that she investigated the property and found out that, “fortunately,” it belongs to the government.

“This belongs to the people, and we need a street, potable water and electricity,” Gonzalez said on a dirt road just outside her home.

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