The Catholic Church in Panama has always enjoyed great social recognition, because at all times, even during the most difficult years of the military dictatorship (1968-1989), it has maintained a conciliatory position. Throughout history - also during democracy - it has been the guarantor, at the request of both the rulers in power and civil society, of fruitful dialogues in search of peace and the common good.
This is what is happening at the moment when the product of more than three weeks of protests The national government, headed by President Laurentino Cortizo, asked the Catholic Church to serve as "mediator" so that both the protesting sectors and the government could reach agreements that would lead to the opening of free transit throughout the country and the reestablishment of social peace.
The causes of discontent
The protests focused on issues such as the high cost of living, mainly the price of fuel that was about to reach US$4.00/gallon, the increase in the basic family basket, corruption, lack of transparency in public finances, among others. It was a national social outburst unprecedented in the Panamanian democratic era. The demonstrators had different leaders in the different regions of the country and this made it difficult for the Government to reach agreements since it did not have a single interlocutor. In fact, the Government's proposal to freeze the price of fuel at US$3.95 was accepted by some sectors, while others rejected it.
At the request of the national government, the Catholic Church in the country, in the figure of the Metropolitan Archbishop, José Domingo Ulloa Mendieta, accepted to be a "facilitator", not a mediator, because as the Archbishop explained, "the Church cannot be a mediator". "To be a mediator is to be in the middle, and the Church will always be on the side of those most in need." Through a communiqué dated July 16, "the Catholic Church accepted to be a facilitator of a process that will not only help to resolve the difficult situation that is being experienced but, above all, to initiate a process of structural change that will really make Panama a more just and equitable country".
To this end, the Church proposed some principles that conditioned its acceptance, namely: 1) Dialogue at a single table; 2) Consensus on a single agenda with all the actors; 3) A process divided into stages, first the urgent and, later, a more in-depth dialogue; 4) That the actors in the first stage would be the groups that were expressing their unease and discontent through actions in the streets and roads of the country and that, in the second stage, the actors would be the representatives of all sectors of society; 5) That the Church would begin its work when all the actors officially accepted it along with the conditions established for carrying out its role.
The actors accepted the role of the Church and the process began. When asked why the Church accepted to be facilitatorUlloa pointed out: "Faith is daring. We did not think much about it, and if you look at it with human eyes, it was daring. When we were already at the dialogue table, surrounded by dissatisfied and upset people, on the one hand, and the Government on the other, without the necessary resources to attend to both sides, we understood that the only thing left was to put ourselves in God's hands so that everything would work out well".
And so the dialogue process is progressing. In the first stage, rapid results have been obtained which led to the reopening of free transit by the demonstrators, as well as the freezing of fuel prices at US$3.25/gallon and price controls on more than seventy products in the shopping basket by the national government.
Eight topics were agreed to be discussed at the single table: shopping basket, fuel prices, reduction and supply of medicines in the national health system, education financing, energy reduction, discussion of the Social Security Fund, corruption and transparency, intersectoral and follow-up table. However, although important steps are being taken, there are points on which agreements have not been reached in this first stage.
In addition, there is great pressure from business associations and guilds that were not part of the groups that were expressing their discontent through actions in the streets and roads of the country, with the intention of being included from now on in a dialogue that they consider to be exclusive and of which they express fears of a possible imposition of an economic system that limits free enterprise. The Government has requested that other sectors be included, but for the time being the dialogue is still in the first stage, following the road map initially agreed upon.
The Bishops of the Panamanian Episcopal Conference have joined the work initiated by the Metropolitan Archbishop together with a team of facilitators, including the rector of the Santa María la Antigua University, the president of the Justice and Peace Commission, among others.
Ulloa has invited representatives of other churches, who have also contributed their part in this delicate moment, to show that this is a matter of national unity and not only of a Catholic nature. It is worth mentioning the work of lay people and volunteers who have put their hands to work to support a dialogue on which will depend, to a great extent, the stability and social peace of a small and thriving nation, but at the same time with great challenges, one of them, social inequality.