Panama City, Jul 13 (EFE).- Strikers paralyzed construction activities on Wednesday in Panama, with protests having been under way more than a week throughout the country against the high cost of living and creating a situation where some food items are increasingly scarce in the capital.
The powerful Suntracs construction union launched a “24-hour warning” strike that was adhered to by some 96 percent of workers in the sector, the union’s general secretary, Saul Mendez, told EFE, adding that the strikers were demanding lower prices for medications, food and fuel and a general pay hike, among other things.
The construction strike on Wednesday, just like the teachers’ strike and multiple street protests that began last week, is being held despite the government’s announcements that it would extend to the general public a freeze on fuel prices – initially approved only for certain sectors – and halt certain “austerity” measures designed to collect the necessary funds to subsidize the price of gasoline.
President Laurentino Cortizo on Tuesday announced “austerity” measures, including a reduction of 10 percent in the state payroll – some 20,000 workers – and the suspension of pay increases, a measure that he relayed to Parliament, which promised to halt new hiring contracts and to reduce spending on fuel by 50 percent, among other things.
Mendez, however, said that the austerity measures should be to “reduce the salaries of government ministers, lawmakers, judges and even police commissioners.”
“The concrete issue is to take care of the basic needs of the people. That is, the curtailment of spending we’ve mentioned, which one assumes is correct, but we also have to resolve the problems like reducing the price of electricity, the prices of food, medicine, fuel and having a general pay increase,” he added.
The ongoing blockades of the Inter-American Highway, which crosses the country and connects it with Central America, as well as other roadways in the interior, have prevented many food items from getting to the capital and the shortages are already starting to be seen on store shelves.
Yoris Morales, the president of the Panamanian Merchants Association, told the daily La Prensa that “there are shortages of all vegetables” in the capital’s central market.
“The situation is critical. The retail area has been left without merchandise,” Morales said.
Local media also reported that gasoline is running out at a number of service stations in the western province of Chiriqui, one of the areas most affected by the blockades.
The protests began last week, pushed by the People’s United Alliance for Life, to which Suntracs belongs, and the National Alliance for the Rights of the Organized People (Anadepo), which incorporates dozens of unions and public organizations throughout the country and which has been growing in recent days.
The government launched a dialogue with Anadepo but it foundered, while spokespeople for the United Alliance have spoken of certain tentative agreements with the government, all of which have – so far – come to nought.
The unions have asked Cortizo to call for a “great national dialogue,” which should immediately work to reestablish normality throughout the country.
Besides freezing the gasoline price at $3.95 per gallon for a period of three months, Cortizo also froze the prices of 10 basic food items, in addition to the eight items on which prices had already been frozen.