by Luis Vega

Panama City, Panama my first time in a little over year and things are much different than they were 15 months ago. In March of 2004, a couple of months before presidential elections all you saw were “Si Se Puede” posters (the English equivalent to “Yes We Can”) with presidential candidate Martin Torrijos along side the now famous phrase. Martin Torrijos is son of the late Omar Torrijos, military dictator from 1968-1980 until he was killed in a mysterious plane crash. A couple of months later in May Martin Torrijos won by a landslide and he was declared president of Panama through democratic election process.

A little over a year later things have changed dramatically in the country of Panama. It is nothing in comparison to the political situation in Bolivia or the energy problems in Nicaragua but the issue still very important. In fact, the Panamanian people are dealing issues very similar to that of the United States although not in the same light, and that is the Social Security issues. It is not a question of how much money or if there will be any money left for the generation growing up and generations after that, in Panama it is an issue of raising the age of men and women who will qualify for social security once they reach their later years in life.

The proposal was to raise the age of men to sixty-five from sixty, and the age of women to sixty-two from fifty-seven. This may not sound important and significant to the American people, but for Latin America it is quite pertinent to problem concerning Latin America especially since Panama is the country that connects Central and South America. Political unrest in Panama cannot amount to any good. Protests have emerged in all of Panama not only the capital. Colon, Bocas Del Toro, Chiriqui, and other provinces have been subject to protesting people walking the streets waiving red flags with the phrase “SUNTRAC” all over it signifying the United Syndicate of Construction Workers. These people have been affected the most because they work extremely hard and are a lot less likely to see Social Security collections in their later years. Streets have been closed down; police have been directing traffic in full riot gear in and out of the cities. Particularly in Panama City where all the main universities in Panama are located, the students have marched through campuses ultimately forcing them to be closed down for the time being.

Pleasure in Life
Many Panamanians are upset for age increase in order to collect Social Security. In a country where the life expectancy for men is 69 years of age and for women it is 74 years. They will not be able to take pleasure in life after retirement. Collecting social security paychecks for 3 years, 6 if you are lucky seems a little unfair especially after 30 some odd years of hard work. Those five years that have been increased are critical years for the elderly. The little money one does receive from “Seguro Social” in Panama it is very hard to enjoy life once those critical ages are reached. Some Panamanians have dreams of taking their entire savings and social security collections once they retire of moving back to the country to buy a small land plot and live life simple. As an elderly Panamanian told me “it is very difficult to live comfortably in Panama as it is, it would be catastrophic for the government to impose such new laws because it would begin the downfall of a somewhat fair government, and would also bring Panama back to the Nightmare that it was in the mid and late 80’s.

The problem of “Seguro Social” in Panama is much bigger than it is being credited for because now any new laws that are proposed that are not in complete favor of the Panamanian people will cause unrest and protest will be almost guaranteed and the protest will get bigger and bigger with more people following because of a problem that could have been easily rectified in the beginning. It is difficult to easily assess why the ages of social security have gone up in Panama. The government claims fiscal problems, but the people claim corruption by the government. The Panamanian government is asking for the people to cooperate with them, while in Latin America where governments are known for wide spread corruption and thievery. So who is really to trust? Is the Panamanian government really trustworthy, nobody will really know?

Another Blunder?
Now that the protest have subsided and the children are back in school, and teachers are back at work will the next blunder in Panama cause the kinds of riots and government boycotts that have occurred in other parts of Latin America. In Panama things seem stable and it looks like the economy is on the up and up, but it is quite difficult to tell what will happen next. Being the bridge between Central and South America the politics in Panama are very important in the region. Any signs of instability will likely empower the strong “left” in Latin America in Panama. A strong left uprising in Panama will also likely involve the powerful left wing organization from Colombia “FARC” one of its neighboring countries to the south, and an involvement in any left wing movement will most likely involve Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela who seems to be dipping his hands both openly and secretly in the region. While Chavez is becoming a household name in all countries not just his own, if he pushes the wrong buttons the Western power might be forced to intervene. And even though it sounds ridiculous that Venezuela could even compete with Western forces, as more and more democratic countries drop to left leaning regimes the fight might not be as easily guaranteed as one would think.

Martin Torrijos has a lot on his plate and should deal with it in respectable fashion because a troubled Panama is a troubled Latin America, and the majority of people do not want to go back to “the eighties” (Noriega days).