Bus drivers in Panama City began an indefinite strike Monday, unleashing transit chaos as the capital prepared to host the Summit of the Americas.
The shut-down of a transit system used by half a million people daily brought unwelcome attention to the city as it finalized preparations for Friday and Saturday's summit, the potential scene of a historic sit-down between US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro.
"Taking advantage of this critical moment at a time when the government is in a position of weakness -- because, obviously, we have an international event approaching -- leaves much to be desired of the bus drivers and their leaders," said Security Minister Rodolfo Aguilera.
Tumultuous scenes reigned at bus stops, where desperate commuters tried to crowd aboard the few buses circulating, and at terminals, where police arrested striking workers who blocked buses from leaving.
The strikers are demanding the immediate transfer of $12 million in severance pay to nearly 5,000 workers facing layoffs as the government cancels its contract with private bus operator MiBus over service issues.
The government has promised the workers will be paid once the negotiations with MiBus are finished, but union leaders accuse it of striking a secret deal with the company then stalling on their payouts.
The strike comes with 34 heads of state and government set to meet in the Panamanian capital, including Castro, the first time Cuba has participated in the summit.
The summit, which comes in the wake of the landmark US-Cuban rapprochement announced on December 17, could bring the first substantive meeting between US and Cuban leaders in half a century.