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Tuesday, February 19 2019 @ 03:43 PM UTC

After three weeks, there's no end in sight...

Panama NewsMore than 80,000 people are still on strike, 500 people have been arrested, and the economy has taken a $80 million dollar hit. Martin Torrijos' approval rating has dropped about 30 points, from the 60% range to the mid-20% range. And, it's still going on. The coordinators of opposition movement are calling for "parallel demonstrations" today against the law. They want to coordinate their actions and pull off coordinated protests to freeze the country. It's been 21 days so far, and there's no end in sight. This morning at a news conference, the leaders of the movement trying to stop or change the Law 17 that modified the social security system talked about talking. They discussed the dialog with the Torrijos administration. At this point, the talks have basically broken down, and the two sides are not talking right now.

The leaders of the movement are asking for a 90-day suspension of the Law #17 before they will return to the table. President Martin Torrijos has said that suspending the law does not make any sense, considering that the changes in the law do not take effect until the year 2007. In other words, if the law is "suspended" or not, there is no practical change to what people have to do and pay.

A rep from the University of Panama Law School responded that "of course the law can be suspended" and pointed out it would be an act of good faith on the part of the government, to show they are serious in their desire to continue the dialog, and really understand that most people in Panama are against the law.

By the way, there's old polling data available in La Prensa from February that says (at the time) 74% of the people thought it would be a good time to address the issue of social security reform.

The basic underlying dynamics have not changed. People are still mad at the Torrijos government for the way the law was passed. It was basically shoved down their throats without enough time for thoughful consideration or discussion.

The leaders of the opposition movement have also demanded that a mediator be assigned to the talks. They want someone who can do more than just observe. The government reps have said that a mediator is not necessary, since they are the ministers who can advise the government. In reality, the government would simply not attend meetings or a dialog with a mediator, because that would mean giving up their position of power as legally appointed and elected representatives of the government and people. The opposition reps really want an arbitrator, who can force the government side to make and accept changes. That's not going to happen.

All sides acknowledge that the strike has cost millions on all sides. The SUNTRACS rep said that the constructions workers are taking the biggest hit, and collectively they have lost millions in pay. Believe it or not, the Panamanian government paid the striking teachers, even though they are not working.

Drawing attention to the cause; The strike, marches, and demonstrations continue nationwide. In Azuero; Teachers are still burning tires, closing streets, and holding demonstrations. At the time there were tourists in the area. The demonstrators and students blocked the streets, and were dispursed by police. On the television this monring there was some video of some tourists who had gotten off of their tour bus to take pictures and video of the protestors. The demonstrators had slingshots and molotov's ready, but they didn't use them.

In Chitre; Doctors, nurses, and health workers continue to strike. The only services being provided by the public health system (nationwide) are emergency services. All "routine" appointments are being pushed back and rescheduled.

Yesterday afternoon some demonstrators apparently got violent in front of the presidetial palace.

At 4:00 PM today there will be another large march to the Presidential palace.

Also, at 4:00 PM in Colon there's a large march scheduled as well. The striking workers (government, health, and construction) are meeting right now to plan their actions for this afternoon. They have said that they plan to hold a "passive" or non-violent march, but in the same breath they are talking about the effects of tear gas that was fired yesterday during demonstrations.

The word on the street is that today the demonstrations and activity against the government will spike-up. So, as usual, take appropriate actions to avoid getting caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Amid Unrest, Panama President Agrees to Talks

Two weeks of protests lead Torrijos to agree to a 'discussion period' with opponents of new laws aimed at bolstering the nation's finances.

By Chris Kraul, Times Staff Writer

PANAMA CITY — After two weeks of protests that reflected a sharp decline in his popularity, President Martin Torrijos has blinked in the standoff with unions and business leaders over a far-reaching reform plan.

In a nationwide address this week, Torrijos agreed to a 90-day "discussion period" with the growing ranks of opponents of new laws he backed to put Panama's finances on stronger footing and lay the groundwork for a $5-billion expansion of the Panama Canal.

The announcement comes as polls show that Torrijos' approval rating has fallen below 30% from the mid-60s a month ago. More than 500 people have been arrested during the demonstrations, and businesses estimate their losses caused by the disturbances at $80 million. Classes at public schools and two universities have been suspended indefinitely.

A referendum on the 10-year project to expand the canal had been planned for November. But reaction to Torrijos' reforms and the severe financial pain they inflict on the middle class have been so vehement that many observers doubt the referendum would pass if were it held today.

"People are angry because there was little public consultation or debate over the reforms," said Jorge Giannareas, a political analyst and law professor. "Although sentiment in Panama is in favor of the canal expansion, many people would vote against it now just to punish Torrijos."

As a result of the reforms, which take full effect next year, average middle-class wage earners stand to lose 25% of their take-home pay, Giannareas said.

More than 80,000 teachers, construction workers and government employees have been on strike since Torrijos-backed legislators passed a bill in late May to overhaul Panama's generous social security system. Many Latin countries are facing similar crises, but Panama's pension system is perhaps closest to hitting the wall. If left untouched, it could go broke as early as 2010.

The reform increases contributions by wage earners by nearly 40%, while extending the retirement ages of men to 65 from 62 and of women to 62 from 57, changes strongly opposed by unions. To receive full benefits, workers now must contribute a portion of their wages for a minimum of 25 years, up from 15.

In February, Torrijos rammed through a bill to erase yawning deficits and broaden the tax base, one of the weakest in the hemisphere. Annual tax collections equate to only 9% of annual economic output. Mexico, which is often singled out as a country with weak tax collection, takes in 12% of annual economic output.

Wall Street generally applauded the Torrijos changes as politically courageous and fiscally responsible.

"Panama is reducing its deficit and giving the country greater flexibility as it considers a canal expansion that may be as much as 50% financed by issuing bonds," said debt analyst Lisa Schineller, of credit-rating firm Standard & Poor's. The firm lifted a "negative watch" rating on Panama's bonds after the measure passed.

The Panama Canal Authority, which operates the waterway, is nominally independent of the government. But Schineller said, "The canal is part of the government and fiscally prudent management of government finances could translate into more cost-effective financing for the canal."

Enrique De Obarrio, president of the Panamanian Assn. of Business Executives, said members were worried that the new taxes could cut economic growth in half.

He said the pension revision, as drastic as it was, didn't offer a long-term cure.

"The law passed was important and showed the courage of the president," De Obarrio said. "But it is not enough. It's just an extension of the agony."

Giannareas said that pushing the legislation through Congress with a minimum of public debate and transparency had cost Torrijos support.

"He's like a supermarket shopper who has a lot of things on his list but no idea what it's all going to add up to in the kitchen," the law professor said.

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