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POPULATION: 3,292,693 million
LANGUAGE: Spanish; English; native Amerindian languages
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Protestantism; Islam; small number of Jews, Hindus, and Baha'is


In 1501 the Spanish expedition led by Rodrigo de Bastidas, Juan de la Cosa, and Vasco Nuňez de Balboa traveled around the Atlantic Isthmus of Panama. The 1513 Spanish expedition led by Vasco Nuňez de Balboa made an even greater impact on history as Balboa crossed the isthmus and discovered the Pacific Ocean. This geography made Panama a strategic link for the Spanish empire, especially for the transshipment of gold and silver from Peru. English buccaneers, notably Sir Francis Drake and Henry Morgan, burned and looted the country's ports and towns. Panama declared its independence from Spain in 1821 and became part of Colombia.

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 brought hundreds of thousands of fortune seekers from Europe and the east coast of the United States to Panama, since the isthmus crossing was, for them, the fastest route to the gold fields. A rail line was constructed to speed them on their way. In the 1880s the French tried, but failed, to build a canal across the isthmus. When Colombia balked at allowing the United States to take over the project, Panama declared its independence, with U.S. backing, in 1903. The United States was granted "in perpetuity" an 8-km (5-mi) strip on either side of the canal, which was completed in 1914.

Before long, Panamanians were demanding a revision of the treaty that, in effect, cut their nation in two. A settlement was not reached until 1977, when the United States agreed to return the Canal Zone to Panama in 1979 and to return the canal itself to Panama at the beginning of the year 2000. Relations plummeted again in 1988, when Panama's strongman, General Manuel Antonio Noriega, was indicted in U.S. courts for drug trafficking. In December 1989, 23,000 U.S. troops landed in Panama City, seizing Noriega and installing a new government. At least 4,000 people died in the assault, mostly civilians.

In the 1994 presidential elections, Ernesto Pérez Balladares won with the support of the Democratic Revolutionary Party. His administration was marked by his tireless effort to maintain good relations with the United States and to reform the economy. Balladares' policies focused on privatizing several government companies in pivotal areas, such as the telephone system. Under his administration the country reduced trade barriers and encouraged private investment. In addition, his government decreased unemployment and crime rates and began an ambitious program of highway construction. In spite of his economic achievements, Panamanians voted against Balladares' reelection in the 1998 referendum. A year later, Mireya Mocoso ran a successful campaign and became Panama's first woman president. Mocoso's priority was on improving income distribution in the country. Even though she achieved some of her goals, her government was marked by several corruption scandals.
Consequently, in 2004 Martin Torrijos—the illegitimate son of a former dictator—won the presidential race. Under Torrijos' administration the country has experimented economic growth. However, corruption and government inefficiency have remained without solution. Despite these setbacks, the economic future of Panama looks buoyant because of the blueprint to improve and bolster the Panama Canal. An expansion project began in 2007 with a completion date set for 2014 at a cost of $5.3 billion dollars (about 30% of GDP). This expansion was expected to double the actual capacity of the canal, thereby increasing tax revenues.


Panama, which is a little smaller than the U.S. state of South Carolina, occupies the narrowest part of the American mainland separating the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It is bounded on the west by Costa Rica, on the east by Colombia, on the north by the Caribbean Sea—an inlet of the Atlantic—and on the south by the Pacific. Heavily forested mountain ranges form the spine of the country, with the highest peak reaching 3,475 km (11,401 ft) above sea level. The Panama Canal runs through a gap in these mountains. There are also more than 1,600 islands off the shores of the mainland. The climate is tropical except at mountain elevations, and rainfall is heavy.

Panama had a population of about 3.2 million in the mid-1990s. In keeping with its position at the crossroads of the world, Panama has a varied racial composition. More than two-thirds of its people are Mestizo, which in Panama includes descent from Africans as well as Indians and Europeans. A smaller number are White or Black, the latter being descendants of migrants from the British West Indies who helped construct the railway and canal and who worked on banana plantations. The Indian population is about 150,000, with the Guaymí, Cuna, and Chocó the chief peoples. There are also significant numbers of Chinese—mostly descendants of railway workers—and of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and Arab countries.


Spanish is the official and almost universally spoken language. Panamanian Spanish is spoken very rapidly in a distinctive accent and includes a lot of slang and many distinctive words. English is the first language of some of the Blacks who are descended from West Indians and is widely spoken and understood in the commercial sector, which includes international banking and trade. It is also the compulsory second language in schools. The Indian groups still speak their own languages, as do immigrants from many parts of the world.


Many peasants believe that on All Souls' Day (November 2), those who died during the previous year are summoned before God and the devil for judgment, with their good and bad deeds weighed on a scale. There are two types of curanderos (folk healers): herbal-medicine practitioners, who also may cure by praying and making the sign of the cross over the patient; and hechiceros (sorcerers), who traffic in secret potions. The witch (bruja) is a malevolent old woman possessed by the devil. Witches can transform themselves into animals, especially deer, but only some can fly. To avoid harm from witches, one should turn a piece of clothing inside out. Also to be feared are black dogs and black cats and the chivato, a malignant animal spirit.

There are numerous other spirits, including duendos (fairies). A red shirt on a newborn wards off evil, as does a necklace of the teeth of jaguars or crocodiles, and the infant is bathed in water in which certain leaves and plants have been steeped. Panamanian folklore is perhaps best expressed in the nation's many festivals, during which folk dramas and dances are performed.


More than 80% of the people are Roman Catholic; Protestants and Muslims account for about another 5% each. The constitution specifies that the Catholic faith shall be taught in public schools, but it is not a compulsory subject. To be completely integrated into the mainstream of Panama society, however, requires at least a nominal adherence to the faith. As elsewhere in Latin America, women are the mainstay of the Catholic Church. There were fewer than 300 Catholic priests in Panama in the mid-1980s. In addition to churches and mosques, Panama City has a Jewish synagogue and Hindu and Baha'i temples.


Carnival is celebrated on the four days before Ash Wednesday (in February), especially in Panama City, where the festivities include music, dancing, costumes, and a big Mardi Gras parade. It comes to an end at dawn on Ash Wednesday with a mock ceremony called the "Burial of the Sardine." Las Tablas also has an outstanding Carnival celebration. Holy Week (late March or early April) also is marked by costumed dances and drama, and by Good Friday processions. Dramatizations of the Passion are held in Rio de Jesús and Pesé. Los Santos holds a traditional Corpus Christi festival.

Portobelo's Festival of the Black Christ, on October 21, draws purple-clad pilgrims to a life-size statue, housed in a colonial-era church, which is said to have miraculous powers and is paraded through the streets on that day. Similar is the pilgrimage to Atalaya on the first Sunday of Lent to the shrine of Jesus of Nazareth. Each town has a yearly fiesta in honor of its patron saint, culminating in a procession in which the saint's image is carried through the streets.

The chief secular holidays are November 2 and 28, which commemorate Panama's independence from Colombia and Spain, respectively. Mother's Day, which falls on the day of the Immaculate Conception (December 8) in the Church calendar, is also a national holiday, reverently observed.


The one indispensable sacrament for Panama's Catholics is baptism. Even peasants in remote areas will make the trek to the nearest church, although they may have to wait for the annual fiesta, when a priest will be present. It is believed that fairies, witches, or the devil can carry away a child who is not baptized. First Communion is generally observed only by the middle and upper classes. A country boy receives his first machete at the age of seven or eight as an early portent of machismo, the spirit of male assertiveness common to Hispanic America. Most boys are put to work early, doing farm chores when not attending school. In the cities, boys can earn money shining shoes or selling papers. Girls help their mothers in the home.

The street is the playground for lower-class urban youth, who also may join a padilla (gang). Girls are more closely supervised. A girl's 15th birthday is an important event and, in well-off families, is marked by a debut with a reception and dance. Middle- and upper-class girls enjoy more freedom than in most other Latin American countries. Nevertheless, dating and courtship are closely linked, and a girl is expected not to date more than one boy at a time.

Every effort is made to bury the dead in consecrated ground. The velorio, or wake, is an all-night affair in the home, with the deceased, in his or her best dress, on display. This is followed by a novena that may be repeated the next month and the next year. A Mass may be held if a church is near.


Like other Hispanic Americans, Panamanians greet friends and relatives more demonstratively than is the custom in the United States. Common among men is the abrazo (embrace), particularly if they have not seen each other for some time. Acquaintances will shake hands both on meeting and departing. Women often embrace and kiss on one or both cheeks. People are likely to stand closer to one another in conversation than is common in North America.


Panama, Costa Rica, and Belize are more prosperous than the other Central American countries. The average life expectancy of 75 years in Panama is almost as long as in North America. In the early 1990s, 80% of the people had access to healthcare services, and 83% had access to safe water and adequate sanitation. Rural areas, however, have disproportionately high infant and maternal mortality rates, and 25% of Panama's children under the age of five are considered to be malnourished.

The basic peasant dwelling is the rancho or quincha, a hut supported by poles, with walls of palm fronds, cane, clay, or boards. The thatched roof is of palm fronds or grass. The building of such a house is a local event in which neighbors gather to help. Houses in town are often of cement block, with a tile roof. The urban poor usually live in overcrowded, decaying two-story frame houses with tin roofs. During the late 20th century, and mainly as a result of the economic boom experimented in urban areas, important sectors of the rural population migrated to the main cities in pursuit of better quality of life for them and their families. Migrants from rural areas often settle in squatter communities on the urban outskirts. Better-class houses generally do not have a front yard but have an enclosed patio in the rear. There are high-rise apartment buildings in Panama City, some of which are condominiums.


The nuclear family of parents and children prevails in Panama, and the average household has five members. Wider kinship relations are essential, however. The extended family provides economic support in a society where the larger community cannot be counted on for help. Married children may visit their parents every day, and grandparents, uncles and aunts, and cousins routinely gather together on Sundays, holidays, and birthdays. Also buttressing the nuclear family are godparents, who are expected to take a lifelong interest in their godchild's welfare as well as to provide gifts on baptism, confirmation, and marriage.

Church and civil marriage are both legal, and a recent marriage code recognizes traditional Indian cultural marriage rites as the equivalent of a civil ceremony. Formal marriage, however, is not the rule outside the middle and upper classes, most new couples merely taking up residence in a new home. One study reported that 72% of Panama's children were born from unstable, short-term unions. There is little social stigma to illegitimacy, and many households are headed by women; some are three-generation households headed by a single mother who has a daughter or daughters who are themselves single mothers. In contrast to men, women are expected to be gentle, long-suffering, forgiving and, above all, devoted to their children.

The average Panamanian woman is more likely to practice birth control than are her Central American sisters, giving birth, on average, to three children. Abortion is illegal except to save the life of the mother. Poor women must work outside the home, at least in urban areas. While the constitution mandates equal pay for equal work, wages for women are often lower than those for men for equivalent work, and women hold only 4% of managerial positions. Middle- and upper-class women are under social pressure to attend church services regularly and otherwise to take part in the religious life of the community.


Peasant clothing has traditionally consisted of simple cotton garments, homemade sandals, and hand-woven straw hats. More recently rural folk have begun to adopt urban dress, which is much like the summertime clothing in North America.

By contrast, there is a wealth of costume displayed at the nation's many fiestas. The spectacular pollera, an embroidered two-piece dress with an off-the-shoulder neckline, is the national costume for women and is perhaps the most beautiful traditional apparel in Latin America. Handmade lace joins the flounces on both blouse and skirt in a color that matches the embroidery. Beneath the skirt are several handmade petticoats. Heavy gold chains are worn around the neck, the hair is studded with flowers and glittering gold jewelry, and the feet are encased in satin slippers. The pollera is of Andalusian origin, while the far simpler and more rustic men's montuno is of Indian origin. Made of unbleached muslin embroidered in bright colors, the montuno consists of a long shirt with a fringe hanging over short trousers, and it is usually accompanied by sandals and a true Panama hat: braided, not woven.


The Panamanian diet differs from that of the other Central American countries (except Belize) because rice is at least as important as corn. A basic breakfast is guacho, rice mixed with red beans. However, meat, yams, yucca, and other ingredients can be added for a more filling meal. Cornmeal is used for tortillas, tamales, and empanadas, which are like tamales but are fried, not steamed. Sancocho is a traditional dish of meat, potatoes, yuccas and yams, corn, perhaps beans or peas, turnips, onions, carrots, and plantains. It is boiled and flavored with the coriander leaf. Lechona (suckling pig) is wedding fare. Carimaňola is yucca root fried and wrapped around seasoned ground meat. Panama's bountiful seafood catch yields many dishes. Roast iguana, tapir, and monkey are treats in the remote forested areas. Chicha is a fruit drink rather than, as elsewhere in Central America, one made from fermented cornmeal. Seco is rum prepared from sugarcane.


Panama had a literacy rate approaching 90% in 1990. Public education is free between the ages of 6 and 15, and six years of primary school are compulsory. About 94.8% of all children of primary-school age, and 50% of those of secondary-school age, are enrolled in school. There are three universities. Nearly 75% of the nation's university students are enrolled at the University of Panama. The other institutions of higher education are Technical University and the Church-run University of Santa Maria la Antigua.


Panamanian traditions are rich in diversity, blending different cultural heritages, such as African, Amerindian, North American, and Spanish influences.

Panama has two traditional song forms, both of Spanish origin: the copla, sung by women, and the mejorana, sung by men and accompanied by the small native guitar of the same name. The saloma is a male song style with yodeling and falsetto. Blacks sing calypso, and the Cuna and Chocó have their own songs to the accompaniment of flutes. Panama has a national symphonic orchestra and a national school of music.

The most popular folk dance, the tamborito, is of African origin. Drums furnish the rhythmic background, while female voices sing coplas to the melody. Couples dance one at a time within a circular area. The cumbia is a circular dance for any number of couples, set to simple repetitive melodies and accented drumbeats. The punto, more graceful and dignified, has precise and formal movements that echo the refinement of 19th-century ballroom dances. As a dance form, the mejorana exists in both rustic and refined versions, with men in one line facing women in the other. A national mejorana festival is held every September 24 in Guararé.

A wealth of costumed folk dramas are performed at festivals. In Los Montezumas, the confrontation of the Spanish and Aztecs in Mexico is recounted. Los Grandiablos, a dance-drama, portrays Lucifer and his band of devils in battle with the Archangel Michael for the possession of a soul. The Congos, descendants of slaves, perform a dance-drama in a special dialect during their Carnival festivities.

Important Panamanian poets have included Dário Herrera and Ricardo Miró. Leading Panamanian painters have included Roberto Lewis and Humberto Ivaldi. Among composers have been Narciso Garay, Roque Cordero, and Gonzalo Brenes. One of Latin America's best-known musicians is the Panamanian salsa singer and actor Rubén Blades.

Panama's architecture is known for its eclectic influences. In 1997 the 17th-century colonial design of Panama City's Historic District was designated as a World Heritage site, as were the old Caribbean coastal fortifications of Portobello and San Lorenzo in 1980.


Panama's leading economic sectors are government services, commerce, and agriculture. Many subsistence farmers still clear plots by slashing and burning, then move on when the soil loses its fertility. However, cattle ranchers are now displacing them. Other peasants find seasonal work on banana, sugar, and coffee plantations. Most factory jobs are in food processing. Panama has become one of the major international banking centers in the Americas, and the Colón Free Zone is the world's most important duty-free trading zone except for Hong Kong. The official unemployment rate of about 15% appears to be considerably understated.


Baseball is Panama's most popular sport. A number of Panamanians have played in the major leagues, and Panama-born Rod Carew is in baseball's Hall of Fame. There have been several Panamanian boxing champions, including Roberto Durán. Swimming, fishing, hunting, and horseback riding are popular. Panama City has horseracing with pari-mutuel betting.

Bullfighting in Panama is merely teasing, in which participants annoy the beast while nimbly avoiding danger. It is performed at festivals. Cockfights, accompanied by wagers, are popular throughout the country. Cuna and Guaymí Indians hold pole-tossing contests. Children play a game like marbles with cashew seeds.


For rural people, festivals are still the high points of the year. These include agricultural fairs, in which a queen is crowned, judges pick prize-winning animals, and carnival rides draw youngsters. Traditional forms of live entertainment, however, are giving way to the lure of discos, movies, and television. By law, all foreign-language movies must be subtitled in Spanish. There are five television stations. Mexican and Venezuelan soap operas are widely popular in Panama. Panama City has lots of nightclubs and more than 20 gambling casinos.


Handicraft articles include baskets, straw hats, net and saddlebags, hammocks, straw mats, gourds, woodcarvings, and masks. Most pottery is dark red and dull-finished. Molas are colorful hand-stitched appliqué textiles made by Cuna women. Georgina Linares is known for her paintings on leather.


There is a serious street-crime problem in urban slums. Spousal violence against women is widespread. According to offi-cial 1994 statistics, one-fifth of all families do not have enough money for a minimum diet, and a further one-fourth cannot meet their basic needs. The nation's forests are being reduced at an alarming rate, and soil erosion is a serious problem.


During the 1990s, considerable progress was made in women's rights at the political and institutional levels as a result of pressure from the women's movement. The Ministry of Youth, Women, Children, and the Family, which includes the National Directorate of Women, was created in 1997 and charged with management of public policies concerning equality of opportunities. To encourage greater women's political participation, an amendment to the Electoral Code, proposed by the National Forum of Women in Political Parties, was adopted in 1998, requiring a minimum electoral quota of 30% for women. Even though Mireya Moscoso was elected as Panama's first female president in 1999, the highest rate of women's participation in government is in the judiciary, where 129 (46.4%) of the 278 judges, magistrates, and court counsels are women. In contrast, women comprise only 8.3% of the legislative assembly.

In addition to political participation, women in Panama have made important advances in education. In Central America, only Costa Rica has a higher adult literacy rate. With a net enrollment ratio of 94.8%, the country has achieved nearly universal coverage of elementary school and women are a majority of the students in higher education. About 68% of the enrolled students at the University of Panama are women.

Even though Panamanian women have always had a lower employment rate than men, the gap has narrowed during the last decades. While in 1970 women's labor force participation rate was 26%, in 2000 this proportion climbed to 35%. However, women are found disproportionately in positions of low prestige and remuneration and are paid less than men in the same positions. Between 1985 and 1995, the average monthly income of Panamanian women was us<$289, or 83% of men's average monthly income of us$349.


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—revised by C. Vergara