Panama is a central American country, with a population of 2,839,170 (2000). It shares borders with Costa Rica to the west and Colombia to the east. Panama’s social, economic, political, and cultural history has been marked by its strategic geopolitical location. Panamanian intellectuals have considered their republic a “place of transit,” and have struggled to develop an identity to define a country characterized by large temporary and permanent migrations. During colonial times, (early 16th to mid-19th century) Panama (known then as Castilla de Oro) became a tactical site for the Spanish Empire, as it was a point of connection between the Caribbean and the Pacific, and therefore a communications node between the Viceroyalty of New Granada (with its capital in Mexico City) and the Peruvian Viceroyalty administered from Lima. Slavery (1508-1852) in Panama was not closely linked, as in other regions of America, to plantation life, although some slave labor was used for tobacco and sugar plantations. The economy of colonial Panama rested on six major activities: mining, agriculture, cattle herding, handicraft production, commerce, and domestic work. The most important of these was mining, which used black labor almost entirely. Black labor and, to a lesser degree, indigenous labor were used to build roads and infrastructure to support the Spanish Crown’s transportation of wealth. For instance, 60% of the total production of silver in the Viceroyalty of Peru passed through Panama. In addition, Panama served as a major port for transshipment of slave labor to other Spanish colonies.
As a result of this strategic position, Panama’s history is marked by a series of important infrastructure projects with consequent transformations for the society. From 1850 to 1855, the Panama Railroad was built as a suitable route to facilitate communication between the West and East of the United States. From 1880 to 1890, the French Company of the Isthmus worked toward the construction of the Panama Canal under the direction of Count Ferdinand de Lesseps (whose major work prior to this was the Suez Canal). By 1884, there were more than 18,000 workers on the project. However, the project was an economic failure that left stranded the thousands of workers brought from the Caribbean, Europe, and China. During the first decade of the 20th century, the United States oversaw the construction of the Panama Canal (1904-1914), and enlisted more than 45,000 workers to continue this monumental task. Most of these workers resided on Barbados and other Caribbean islands. Workers from Colombia, England, France, Germany, India, Austria, and China also worked on the project.
Another element essential to understand Panama is its relationship with Colombia. Panama became a colony of the Spanish Empire in the early 1500s. It became independent from Spain in 1821, and in 1822 it voluntarily allied itself to Colombia, then known as New Grenada, and throughout the 19th century was a neglected province of New Grenada. Some scholars argue that failed negotiations with Colombia for the construction of a transisthmian canal led the United States to support Panama’s independence from Colombia in 1903. Most Panamanian scholars, however, emphasize that a movement toward independence was already in effect, and that the United States did not participate in Panama’s process of independence, noting that between the years of 1862 and 1903 there were more than 50 rebellions to establish independence from Colombia. This contentious issue continues to be an important debate in the historical memory of Panamanians.
The Panama Canal was officially finished in 1914. Due to a series of treaties signed by the Panamanian and United States governments, the territory that was christened the Canal Zone became a territory of the United States. From then until the return of the Canal to Panama on December 31,1999, Panama has struggled to assert its sovereignty over the Canal Zone. As a result of this constant presence, and of Panama’s condition of virtual protectorate of the United States, Panamanian intellectuals have emphasized the need to develop a strong national character for the country. This situation has produced a marked yet contradictory nationalism, a blend of xenophilic and xenophobic feelings toward foreign influences and culture.
Panama’s condition of “place of transit” has also influenced the country’s racial makeup. Panama is a very diverse country, with eight different indigenous groups (Ngobe, Bugle, Bokota, Embera, Wounaan, Bri Bri (recent migrants from Costa Rica), Kuna, and Teribe (or Naso), two distinctive Afro-Panamanian groups (Afro-Colonials and Afro-Antilleans), Mestizo peasant groups, and a Mestizo elite that considers itself white. There are also Asian minorities (Chinese and East Indian in particular), as well as Greek, Italian, and Spanish minorities. Statistical findings establish that 60% of the population identifies as Mestizo, 20% as black and mulatto, 10% as indigenous, 10% as black, and 2% as Asian. As with any other Latin American country, there are distinctive social, political, and economic inequalities in Panama.
Mestizaje became the fundamental founder of this country’s cultural identities. Ethnic identity has been shaped by the competition between Britain, the United States, and Central American states. The presence of a variety of ethnic and racial groups has produced the illusion of a country devoid of racism, a true Latin American “melting pot” or, as Panamanians call it, “un crisol de razas.” However, racism against black and indigenous populations is a constant reality. When Dr. Arnulfo Arias Madrid, a Harvard-trained Panamanian physician, was elected president in 1940, he developed the idea of “races of prohibited migration” and changed the Panamanian Constitution in 1941 (also known as the Panamenista Constitution) to prevent the arrival of persons of African and Chinese descent unless they were able to speak Spanish and had knowledge of Panamanian history. Although these clearly racist attitudes were modified in an amendment to the Constitution in 1946, as of today, the Panamanian Constitution does not consider Panama a pluriethnic or multicultural nation.
Afro-Antillean and indigenous groups have been particularly affected by racism. Afro-Antilleans have migrated to Panama since the 1820s to work on banana plantations, the Panamanian railroad, and the French and United States efforts to build the Panama Canal. Afro-Antilleans were brought to the Isthmus from different islands of the British West Indies such as Grenada, Saint Lucia, and Antigua but mostly from Jamaica and Barbados. They also came from Haiti, Martinique, and Cuba, and they constituted the largest ethnic group to work in the construction of these infrastructure projects. However, since their migration to the country Afro-Antilleans have been one of the ethnic groups at the bottom of the social, political, and economic hierarchy. For long periods, Panamanian Afro-Antilleans perceived themselves, and were perceived by Panamanians of other ethnic groups, as temporary migrants. Because of the isolation that they were forced to endure both inside and outside the Canal Zone, and on the banana plantations in Bocas del Toro Province, Afro-Antilleans were able to maintain many of their distinctive customs and traditions (language, religious traditions, and architecture, among others). This distinctiveness was viewed by mainstream Panamanian society as a problem, particularly since many Afro-Antilleans were determined to maintain their “British” way of life.
Indigenous peoples in Panama represent approximately 10% of the total population. The Ngobe are the largest indigenous group (169,130 in 2000). Until the end of the 19th century, most Ngobe were able to have a livelihood exclusively based on slash-and-burn agriculture (maize, beans, bananas, tubers), complemented by hunting, fishing and gathering. From the 1930s, wage labor became an increasingly important supplement to subsistence activities. The Ngobe complain that they have received little governmental attention to their problems. Currently, two of the most pressing issues faced by this group include their struggle to establish clear boundaries for their comarca (reserve) and their increasing poverty.
Perhaps the best-known indigenous group in Panama is the Kuna (61,707 in 2000). Historically, the Kuna have negotiated from a position of strength in relationship to the Panamanian government, and have been able to achieve some level of recognition by the nation-state. When Panama gained independence, the state led campaigns of Christianization and “civilization,” bringing with it western transformations were not welcomed by the Kuna. In 1923, Kuna leaders Nele Kantule and Cimral Colman organized to prevent any non-Kuna person from living in Kuna territory, and later led an uprising against the Panamanian government in 1925. As a result, they were granted the status of a Kuna-run semi-autonomous territory in 1938, becoming the first legally recognized comarca in Panama. Since then, the Kuna have become the trademark of Panamanian tourism, particularly because of their culture, their land-base, and the famous molas (an artwork of fabric appliqué made by women).
Politically, Panama has had one of the most resilient military periods in Latin America, from 1968 to 1989. One of the most prominent leaders in the history of this period is General Omar Torrijos. Although he was never the formal president of the country, Torrijos was the de facto leader from 1968 to 1981. Torrijos (a Lieutenant Colonel at the time) was part of a military junta that organized a coup d’etat on October 11,1968 against Dr. Arnulfo Arias during his third presidential period. Colonel José Maria Pinilla and Colonel Bolivar Urrutia formed this Provisional Junta, with Torrijos being the most prominent figure. This was the first time that there was a successful military uprising against a civil government in the history of the republic. The ideological notions presented by the Junta were the cleaning up of the public administration and the rejection of communism. Engineer Demetrio Basilio Lakas and Arturo Sucre were chosen as the president and vice president, respectively, of the new government. On March 11, 1969, Omar Torrijos was named General of the Republic. A new constitution, replacing the Constitution of 1946, was ratified in 1972. Under this constitution, Torrijos became Maximum Leader of the Panamanian Revolution, which gave him almost unlimited powers during Lakas’s six-year presidential period. Torrijos was named coordinator of the public administration and external relations of the Republic.
Torrijos governed the country with a very informal approach and an ideology leaning to the left. Under his leadership, the state became an investor in projects such as sugar cane refineries, food and coffee factories, and cement factories, among others. Part of Torrijos’s strategy of modernization was to create industries in both urban and rural areas. Schools, electricity, sewage, and water facilities were built or improved under his regime. Indigenous populations were particularly targeted for assistance during his presidency, not a popular policy in the eyes of non-indigenous groups. Simultaneously, Torrijos implemented policies conducive to maintaining a romanticized peasant past as the dominant representation of Panamanian folklore and national identity. These policies were the result of decades of emphasis by the Latino upper classes upon the connection between Panama and Hispanic America.
In regard to foreign policy, Torrijos supported socialist movements such as the Sandinistas and the Cuban revolution (although his common motto was “Neither with the right nor with the left, with Panama!”). The United States government viewed this support negatively. In addition, Torrijos applied aggressive diplomacy with the goal of bringing the international community to work for Panama’s causes and to negotiate the return of the Panama Canal to Panamanian hands. On February 7, 1974, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Juan Antonio Tack signed the Declaration of the Eight Points. This declaration established the basic principles of the new contractual relationship between the two countries, including the elimination of the concept of perpetuity, the end of the U.S. jurisdiction in Panamanian territory, the return of the Canal Zone to Panama, and access by Panama to the benefits derived from the operation of the Canal, among others. After long and complicated negotiations, the United States and Panama signed the new Treaty of the Panama Canal on September 7, 1977, at the OEA in Washington, as well as the Treaty of Permanent Neutrality and Functioning of the Panama Canal, better known as the Torrijos-Carter Treaties. This treaty recognized the sovereignty of Panama over the Canal Zone and established that the United States would return the rights to operate the Canal in its entirety to Panama, along with all lands and facilities still remaining under U.S. control, on December 31, 1999. It also guaranteed that, in the interim, the administration of the Canal was to be conducted by a U.S. governmental agency whose board was to be composed of United States and Panamanian members. Both nations compromised to protect and defend the Canal, and in terms of economic benefits, they were to revert to Panama 60% of the land and infrastructure of the Canal area. On December 31, 1999, all remaining property was turned over to Panama and administered by the Inter-Oceanic Regional Authority. On December 31,1999, elected president Mireya Moscoso officially received the Panama Canal from United States President William Clinton.
In 1978, Torrijos was offered the presidency of Panama. He declined and conceded the presidency to Aristides Royo and the vice-presidency to Ricardo de la Espriella. Torrijos’s death in a suspicious plane accident on July 31, 1981 produced instability in Royo’s government. His presidency lasted for one more year after the death of Torrijos. After this, there was a strong period of instability in the country, which brought to the presidency seven presidents in seven years. The most notorious leader in this period was General Manuel Antonio Noriega who took control of the National Guard and the country in 1983. A period of brutal political and civil repression followed. The Panamanian National Police, instituted in the 1940s and highly militarized, was transformed into the Guardia Nacional in 1953. Noriega renamed the guard the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) in 1983, and used it to maintain a highly repressive regime. Noriega’s policies led to the invasion of Panama by United States military forces in December 1989, and the elimination of the PDF.
Economically, the main revenues for Panama have generally come from the Panama Canal, the Duty Free Zone, and banana production. Since the 1990s, one of the most important (and currently, the most important) income earner for the country has been tourism. Tourism has produced a fundamental turnabout in the political policies of the country. Following the end of the military dictatorship of General Manuel Noriega, Presidents Guillermo Endara (1990-1994) and Ernesto Perez Balladares (1994-1999) sought to develop tourism (more specifically ethno- and eco-tourism) as one of the most important industries of the country. Endara declared tourism a national priority for the country, and Perez Balladares imposed laws that facilitated foreign investment related to tourism. The most current numbers are available for the year 2003. In that year, tourism generated more earnings for Panama ($805 million) than the Panama Canal ($690.3 million), the Canal Zone ($487.7 million) and banana production. This amount represents a growth in tourism income of 18.6% in relationship to the year 2002 ($678.8 million). As a result of this focus on tourism, marginalized groups (such as Afro-Antilleans and some indigenous groups) have had some access to a more important presence in the national context.
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- Howe, J. (1998).A people who would not kneel: Panama, the United States and the San Blas Kuna. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
- Lewis, L. (1980). The West Indian in Panama: Black Labor in Panama, 1850-1914. Washington, DC: University Press of America.
- Young, P. D. (1971). Ngawbe: Tradition and change among the Western Guaymt of Panama, Illinois Studies in Anthropology, Vol. 7. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.