Today is a government holiday and all offices as well as the majority of business establishments and retail stores are closed to celebrate the inauguration of the new President and assumption of power by the new administration.
I've been watching the special news coverage of President Varela's activities for his first day in office. He was scheduled to sign a proclamation freezing food prices for Panama's Canasta Basica at 4:00 pm. It finally happened at around 6:00 pm, when he listed the 22 items involved and the prices at which each item was frozen. This was positive, as many supermarkets have been raising prices for a few weeks in what may have been the mistaken belief that the prices would be frozen at the price they were on the day the new President took office. Instead,prices have been set and frozen. The prices won't go into effect until July 7, however, because additional time is needed to implement monitoring procedures. President Varela did announce, that all supermarkets, small stores, corner markets and open air vendors are expected to maintain the established prices. Below is the listing of prices.
These prices are acclaimed to save the normal Panamanian household about $58 per month.
Following the signing of the emergency food pricing decree, the new President flew to Colon. Upon arrival he was transported by car to the town center where local leaders, government officials, and a large crowd awaited him. It was actually quite frightening to watch, because the crowd engulfed the vehicle and people pushed, and shoved and insulted security forces in attempts to approach Mr. Varela. I couldn't help but feel concern over security matters, because people were reaching inside the vehicle and the body guards on the outside were unable to fend them off. The vehicle couldn't proceed more than a few inches at a time because of the surrounding populace, and my thoughts kept turning to how easy it would be for someone to pull out a gun and shoot, if they were so inclined. I kept wondering why the route hadn't been cordoned off with police, as would have happened in the USA. The television announcer also seemed somewhat concerned, as one could hear the nervousness in her voice. She mentioned that additional security forces had been called up, but they weren't there at the time of the filming, when the car was still some ways from the podium. If this weren't enough, President Varela opened the car door when the vehicle was about 6 feet away, and walked to the podium.
Given the fact that Colon is a city known for violence and gangs, this struck me as less than safe. I caught my breath and kept reminding myself we were in Panama, not the USA. And effectively, everything was just fine.
President Varela did take the opportunity to plead with the city's youth to give up their gang affiliations and turn over a new leaf in their lifestyles. He pledged to give financial support to the city, to establish new employment opportunities, and to renovate some of the housing ruins, such as the Wilcox building which houses some 100 underprivileged families. He promised to visit often and vowed not to fall back on any promises. He mentioned that in a city consisting of 16 streets and 30 youth gangs, he hoped to convert Colon into a city of 30 integrated families and 16 beautiful streets with renovated architecture reminiscent of New Orleans in the USA. He expressed his desire to be different than all the other newly elected Presidents who promised to come to Colon's aide and somehow failed to do so. His speech seemed sincere, if not somewhat idealistic. He hinted at the responsibility of the free zone to do more for the city, and perhaps he will levy some taxes on very wealthy merchants in the free zone to help with some of the renovation. I personally would see no harm in this tactic. The city of Colon, which houses the Canal free zone, receives a pittance from the lowly rents collected by the national government from the wealthy foreign merchants.
After Colon, President Varela was headed back to Panama City, to the Cinta Costera, for additional festivities scheduled there. His first day in office must have felt a lot like a busy day of campaigning...He has pledged transparency in all government activities and his first day has certainly been an inspiring one.