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The Latest Panama Protests: What’s Going On?

A look at the current Panama protests over a mining concession. What is happening in Panama right now?

In a world that appears to be going increasingly mad, it’s possible you might have missed the massive protests engulfing two Central American countries at the moment. With the economy, Ukraine, the Middle East, cost of living, and everything else, it’s easy to overlook Central America. But we’re in a bit of turmoil down here, too.

We already looked at what’s been happening in Guatemala in the light of their recent election, so now we turn our attention to Panama, another country engulfed by massive protests at the moment.

What’s going on, exactly, with these Panama protests?

Panama has been experiencing social unrest this week with demonstrations, street blockades, and strikes. These protests come in the wake of the government’s approval of a new 40-year concession for the Cobre Panamá copper mine, Central America’s largest. The mine is owned by Canadian mining company First Quantum Minerals (FQM).

Protesters, who include indigenous groups, environmentalists, students, teachers, doctors, and labor unions, are demanding that this contract be canceled, citing concerns about the mine’s environmental impact and its lack of benefits for the local community. They also argue that the government’s decision to approve the contract was corrupt and undemocratic.

Clashes between polices and protesters becoming violent

The protests have been largely peaceful, but clashes with police have been increasing. there have been some clashes with police. According to the U.S. Embassy in Panama City, “Clashes between police and demonstrators in the downtown area of Panama City have occurred, particularly after nightfall, since October 23. Panamanian National Police have used tear gas and other riot control measures in response to the current demonstrations, particularly when they have blocked roadways or resulted in aggression against the police.

The protests have had a major impact on Panama’s economy, disrupting mining operations and blocking major roads. The government has warned that the protests could lead to a recession if they continue.

What the protesters demand:

  • A cancellation of the new concession for the Cobre Panamá copper mine.
  • An investigation of government officials involved in the approval of the contract, followed by prosecution if said investigation finds any irregularities.
  • Public consultations held on any future mining projects.
  • Panama to implement stricter environmental regulations for mining operations.
  • An increase in the share of mining profits that go to the local community.
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What the government says

The government has defended its decision to approve the new concession. It argues that it will protect/create thousands of jobs and generate revenue. According to the new concession, Panama will earn some $375 million per year from FQM. Since February 2019, the mine has produces some 300,000 tons of copper concentrate per year. This provides over 4% of GDP and 75% of export income.

President Nito Cortizo says most of income earned from the mine will go towards balancing the budget and increasing state pensions. He said that over 120,000 pensioners and retirees would receive $350 a month because of this contract. Problem is, no one believes him.

That said, the government says it will increase the share of mining profits that go to the local community. Yesterday, it said it would ban any new mining concessions going forward, but will still continue with this one.

The problems in Panama go way beyond this particular mining concession

The protests are a sign of growing discontent in Panama over corruption and inequality. In 2020, Panama implemented one of the most severe lockdowns in the world during the pandemic, a move that crippled the economy and impoverished many. Despite total lockdown, Panama had one of the highest infection and death rates in Latin America. In short, Panama handled the pandemic appallingly and the administration became despised.

Since the pandemic, continued corruption allegations, lack of transparency, increased inequality, and poor quality of government services have all, little by little, combined into the mass of seething rage we’re seeing from Panamanians this week. Put simply, they’ve had enough.

It’s not like nobody saw this coming. At the end of last year, insiders and Panama-watchers were predicting increased social unrest in 2023. None of this is any surprise. July 2023 saw mass protests over cost of living and nothing was done to address that. Political analyst José Eugenio Stoute predicted in December that “social peace would break in 2023.” He wasn’t wrong.

Where to now, then?

Although the government has said it would halt any future mining concessions and has promised a higher share of mining profits to local communities, at this stage, that’s not enough. No one believes a word the government says. Protesters say they will continue until the FQM concession is cancelled. The government says it won’t cancel the FQM concession. It feels like a stalemate.

November is the Mes de Patria in Panama, a celebratory month to honor its independence. It seems that, in a cynical way, the government might be prepared to wait the protesters out in the hope that they give up on their own and go home to enjoy the festivities. The next few weeks will determine whether that actually happens.

Should I travel to Panama right now?

Tocumen Airport, Central America’s biggest hub, remains open and flights in and out of Panama are, as yet, unaffected by the protests. However, with large parts of Panama City blocked off and road closures all over the place, getting to and from the airport is problematic. We can’t recommend traveling to Panama at this time.

CA Staff

CA Staff