Panamanian people’s organizations and unions win more victories

The organizations which called for the national strike recently signed two agreements to increase the public education budget and to establish price caps for medicines

August 02, 2022 by Tanya Wadhwa
After a month of national strike, Panamanian social organizations and trade unions have signed four agreements with the right-wing government. (Photo: SUNTRACS/Twitter)

On July 30 and 31, popular movements, social organizations and trade unions, which have been mobilizing across Panama since July 1, protesting the high cost of living and lack of support from the right-wing government, won two more victories.

The representatives of the People United for Life Alliance, the National Alliance for the Rights of the Organized People (ANADEPO), and the Indigenous Peoples Alliance, the main organizers of the ongoing national strike and nationwide demonstrations, signed agreements with the Laurentino Cortizo government to increase the public education budget to 6% of the GDP as demanded by teachers’ unions, and to establish price caps for around 150 medicines.

The government agreed to gradually expand the education budget in the next two years. It will allocate 5.5% of the GDP in 2023 and 6% of the GDP to education in 2024.

In addition to increasing the budget, the government also promised to definitively close the 1,200 “ranch” schools which are underfunded rural schools that consist of improvised open-air structures and to improve the conditions of existing schools in rural areas. The government committed to finishing over 100 school infrastructure projects and to repair existing schools. It pledged to add science, computer and other laboratories to all schools, open school canteens and boarding schools, provide dignified restrooms, ensure availability of drinking water and electricity in all educational centers, among others promises. It also vowed to guarantee bilingual and intercultural education.

The Education Ministry swore to end the bureaucratic barriers to accessing money from the Fund for Equity and Quality of Education (FECE), and to introduce a new mechanism that facilitates distribution by using an online public contracting platform.

In total, the teachers’ associations won 22 agreements. The representatives of the unions and the government agreed to establish a subsequent process to monitor compliance with the agreements.

Teachers’ unions presented the signed agreements with grassroots movements on August 1, and collectively decided to end the strike in the sector that began on July 6. According to Luis Sánchez, general secretary of the Association of Educators of Veraguas, the teachers will return to the classes on August 2 with a restructured and extended school year, to be concluded by the end of the year. Teachers also drafted a methodology to recover lost classes, which they will now present to the Education Ministry for its approval. The unions and the ministry had already agreed that there would not be a school break for the rest of the year.

With regard to the agreement to resolve the issue of high prices and shortages of medicines, the government committed to guaranteeing access to quality medicines at affordable prices without excessive bureaucracy in a time not exceeding 90 days from the signing of the agreement. It also promised to create mechanisms for direct purchases from international agents such as the United Nations and the Council of Health Ministers of Central America (COMISCA) to further address the issue. It also established price caps for around 150 medicinal drugs.

The government vowed to modify the regulations on transparency so that the information on the supply of medicines is available to the public, and to sanction anyone who falsifies or hides information regarding the supply of medicines or fails to comply with the purchasing processes to benefit one or another company or to the detriment of the institutions. The government also agreed to encourage companies to manufacture medicines within the country.

On the other hand, there remain several disagreements between the government and the social movements. Saúl Méndez, general secretary of the Single Union of Construction Workers (SUNTRACS) and one of the representatives of the People United for Life Alliance, lamented that the government didn’t agree to create a special entity to regulate the profit margin in the chain of purchase and distribution of private pharmacy drugs. “The president favors five large oligopolies that dominate the sector and enrich themselves at the expense of Panamanians and their taxes,” said Méndez.

Last week, the organizations signed two agreements with the conservative government: one to reduce and freeze the price of fuel at USD 3.25 per gallon, and the other to reduce the cost of 72 essential commodities by 30%.

The allocation of a greater budget for the education sector, the freezing of the price of medicines and resolving the lack of medicine supply, the reduction and freezing of the price of fuel and the reduction and freezing of the price of basic commodities are four of the eight essential demands of the people’s organizations. Other demands include reducing and freezing the price of electricity, measures to combat corruption, evaluation of the crisis of the social security fund, and the establishment of an official instance to monitor the compliance of the agreements with all sectors.

The next session of the negotiations will resume on Wednesday, August 3. The movement is expected to present proposals on the reduction and freezing of the electricity tariff, as well as anti-corruption measures.

Meanwhile, hundreds of citizens continue to remain in the streets in defense of the right to a dignified life. They have declared that they will continue to mobilize until all demands are achieved. At the same time, the right-wing oligarchy and business class, which are against the negotiation process, have been running a defamation campaign against the mobilizing sectors in mainstream and social media. The people’s organizations have been actively responding to their false claims.