Panama | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2005

2005 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


In Panama's May 2004 presidential elections, the Democratic Revolutionary Party's (PRD) Martin Torrijos defeated his nearest challenger, former president Guillermo Endara, and the PRD also enjoyed a decisive victory in concurrent parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, the country continued to be plagued by violence, including by armed guerillas and other groups from neighboring Colombia.

Panama was part of Colombia until 1903, when a U.S.-supported revolt resulted in the proclamation of an independent Republic of Panama. A period of weak civilian rule ended with a 1968 military coup that brought General Omar Torrijos to power. After the signing of the 1977 canal treaties with the United States, Torrijos promised democratization. The 1972 constitution had been revised to provide for the direct election of the president and Legislative Assembly for five years.

After Torrijos's death in 1981, General Manuel Noriega emerged as Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) chief; he subsequently rigged the 1984 election that brought to power the PRD, which was then the political arm of the PDF. The Democratic Alliance of Civic Opposition (ADOC) won the 1989 election, but Noriega annulled the vote and declared himself head of state. He was removed during a U.S. military invasion, and ADOC's Endara became president.

In May 1999, the Arnulfista Party's (PA) Mireya Moscoso, the widow of three-time president Arnulfo Arias and herself an unsuccessful presidential candidate in 1994, won 44.8 percent of the vote, more than 7 percent above the amount garnered by her rival, Martin Torrijos. Moscoso's government was hampered by its inability to effectively reduce corruption and incompetence in the public sector. Toward the end of her administration, there was generalized discontent with the government's efforts to fight corruption and with its running of the state and handling of the economy. Though the economy began to pick up in 2004, 40 percent of Panamanians live below the poverty level, 14 percent are unemployed, and an additional 4 percent are underemployed.

The May 2, 2004 presidential and parliamentary elections may have marked a change in the composition of the party system. Martin Torrijos, son of former strongman Omar Torrijos, received 47 percent of the votes in the presidential poll, easily outdistancing runner-up and former president Endara (1989 - 1994) of the Solidarity Party (PS), who received 31 percent of the vote. Jose Miguel Aleman, representing the PA, the discredited party of outgoing president Moscoso, captured only 17 percent of the vote. In the legislative election, the PRD won a majority of 42 seats in the 78-seat National Assembly, followed by the PA with only 17 seats; several other parties captured fewer than 10 seats each. The trouncing of the PA was seen as a rejection of Moscoso's corrupt and failure-ridden rule of the party; significantly, Aleman immediately withdrew from politics.

Armed violence has increased significantly in Panama in the past several years. Weekend police checkpoints are now commonplace both in Panama City and in crime-ridden Colon, although the country remains relatively safe when compared with many of its regional neighbors. In her last months in office, President Moscoso failed to pass her own version of the Hard Hand (Mano Dura) policy adopted by other regional countries such as Honduras and El Salvador. President Torrijos has promised a new campaign of Integral Security with Force and Firmness that does not only depend on heavy prison sentences, but also on reducing the national poverty level and creating jobs.

Repeated incursions into Panamanian territory by Colombian guerrillas, self-defense armed irregulars, and drug traffickers continue to spark concerns in the region about the spillover effects of Colombia's civil war. Panama has no military and instead relies on the police to provide both internal security and defense of its borders. Dozens of confrontations between armed Colombian groups and the Panamanian police raised questions about whether the latter are up to the challenge provided by the seasoned Colombians.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Panama's citizens can change their government democratically. The 2004 national elections were considered free and fair by international observers. The president and deputies to the 78-seat unicameral National Assembly are elected by popular vote for five-year terms. The constitution guarantees freedom of political organizations. In early 1999, Panama's largest political parties agreed to ban anonymous campaign contributions in an effort to stem the infiltration of drug money into the political process. Nevertheless, the widespread corruption of the governmental apparatus indicates the difficulty in enforcing any such bans. In the early stages of President Torrijos' campaign, Hugo, his cousin and campaign manager had to resign over allegations of corruption.

Even before taking office the president-elect proposed a number of constitutional amendments, providing for structural and functional changes in the three powers of the state, provisions on the Panama Canal Authority and granting constitutional status to the office of the public ombudsman. He accomplished this on September 2, thus easing the eventual passage of these amendments, which requires amendments be approved by two successive sessions of congress. An additional amendment would shorten the period between the election of the president and the assumption office, from 4 to 2 months.

Upon taking office, the Torrijos administration established a National Anti-Corruption Commission and opened investigations throughout the government in an effort to root out corruption. Torrijos also made initial efforts to implement a Transparency Law intended to allow greater public access to information about various state entities, but has since acted to limit it's scope. In November, the administration exempted cabinet meetings minutes from public release under the law, and in October the Solicitor General advised against the disclosure of officials' assets. Panama was ranked 62 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Panama's media include an assortment of radio and television stations, daily newspapers, and weekly publications. There are 5 national dailies, 4 private television stations, 2 educational television broadcasters, and 100 or so radio stations. Restrictive media laws dating back to the regime of General Manuel Noriega remain on the books. The law permits the government to prosecute individual reporters and media owners for criminal libel and calumny, and officials can remand anyone who defames the government to jail without trial. A censorship board can fine radio stations for use of abusive language. There is free access to the Internet.

Freedom of religion is respected, and academic freedom is generally honored.

The judicial system, headed by the Supreme Court, was revamped in 1990. However, it remains overworked and its administration is inefficient, politicized, and prone to corruption. An unwieldy criminal code and a surge in cases, many against former soldiers and officials of the military period, complicate the judicial process. About two-thirds of prisoners face delays of about 18 months in having their cases heard. Slow progress has been made in making the legal system more responsive and also developing special skills, such as forensic auditing, which recently located accounts of indicted ex-Presidents Arnolfo Aleman of Nicaragua and Alfonso Portillo of Guatemala.

The Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) was dismantled after 1989, and the military was formally abolished in 1994. However, the civilian-run Panamanian Public Forces (the national police) that replaced the PDF, although accountable to civilian authorities through a publicly disclosed budget, are poorly disciplined and corrupt. There are four components: the Panamanian National Police, the National Maritime Service, the National Air Service, and the Institutional Protection Service. Criminal investigations are the responsibility of a semiautonomous Judicial Technical Police. Like the country's prison guards, officers frequently use excessive force. The penal system is marked by violent disturbances in decrepit facilities that are severely overcrowded.

Nongovernmental organizations are free to organize. Freedom of assembly is generally recognized. Labor unions are well organized, but only 10 percent of the labor force is unionized. However, labor rights were diluted in 1995 when President Ernesto Perez Balladares pushed labor code revisions through congress. Furthermore, the government has issued decrees that do not allow union organization in export processing zones.

Discrimination against darker-skinned Panamanians, especially those from Colon, is widespread. The country's Asian, Middle Eastern, and Indian populations are similarly singled out. The living conditions of the indigenous populations, who often do not speak Spanish, are significantly lower than those of the general population and they face significant discrimination in employment. Since 1993, indigenous groups have protested the encroachment of illegal settlers on Indian lands and delays by the government in formally demarcating the boundaries of those lands. Indian communities do enjoy, however, a large degree of autonomy and self-government. Late in 2003, the President of the Supreme Court, Cesar Pereira Burgos proposed creating the establishment of indigenous tribunals for the country's indigenous districts. This proposal is a direct response to the lack of legal facilities in these communities to deal with local problems, such as land disputes and sexual violence.

Violence against women and children is widespread and common. Panama is both a destination and a transit point for human trafficking.