Freedom in the World
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In 2006, plans to expand the Panama Canal passed in a national referendum. The country also experienced public protests against the mining industry and reforms to the country’s criminal code. Panama continued to confront problems with drug trafficking, violence, and trafficking in persons.
Panama was part of Colombia until 1903, when a U.S.-supported revolt resulted in the proclamation of an independent republic. 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 treaty with the United States, under which the canal was gradually transferred to full Panamanian control by 1999, Torrijos promised democratization; the 1972 constitution was revised to provide for the direct election of the president and National Assembly for five-year terms. However, a real transition to democracy would not come for another dozen years.
After Torrijos’s death in 1981, General Manuel Noriega emerged as Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) chief. He rigged the 1984 elections that brought to power the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), which was then the political arm of the PDF. The Democratic Alliance of Civic Opposition (ADOC) won the 1989 elections, but Noriega annulled the vote and declared himself head of state. He was removed during a U.S. military invasion late that year, and ADOC’s Guillermo Endara became president.
Both the PRD and the Arnulfista Party (PA)—named after the late Arnulfo Arias, who was president three times between 1940 and 1968—won elections in the 1990s. Presidential and legislative elections in May 2004 returned the PRD to power, with Martin Torrijos, the son of the former strongman, defeating a number of presidential candidates from various parties; former president Endara of the Solidarity Party (PS) was his closest challenger. The PRD also 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 fallout from the elections continued to affect Panama’s political parties in 2005. Endara broke with the PS to form a new political party, the Moral Vanguard of the Fatherland (MVP). The PS formed a four-party coalition with a variety of minor parties to create the leading legislative opposition to the PRD; the new opposition coalition is known as the Coordinated National Opposition (CNO). The PA forced out its founder, Arias’s widow and former president Mireya Moscoso, and the party changed its name to the Panamenista Party (PP).
Late in 2006, a majority of voters approved a Torrijos-backed referendum that proposed the expansion of the Panama Canal. Construction work on a third set of locks in the canal, which would double its current size, was due to begin during the first half of 2007. Although the government planned to move ahead with the project, estimated to cost $5.3 billion, there were concerns about a lack of popular support, reflected in low voter turnout at 42 percent. Critics of the expansion plan maintained that the projected cost may have been underestimated and that the funds should instead be used to reduce poverty and improve education and health care. The Panama Canal Authority, however, asserted that the expansion would boost the gross domestic product by 2 percent annually.
Economic concerns continued in 2006. Although Panama’s economy boasted the highest growth rates in Central America, unease over the growing debt, inflation, fiscal reforms, and social security escalated. Increased debt received the most attention from international financial institutions and economic analysts, as the external debt surpassed $10 billion and grew by 14 percent compared with the debt incurred by the previous administration. Additionally, the government raised electricity rates by 30 percent at the beginning of 2006, eliciting strong objections from consumers, but electric company financial statements requested by the government subsequently showed that company profits were higher than legally permitted. Confronted with a discontented public, government officials declared that construction of additional hydroelectric plants would be undertaken in the future to increase supply and reduce rates.
The government in 2006 authorized exploration at the Petaquilla gold and copper mine, prompting public protests, particularly from indigenous activists claiming that mining would have adverse effects on their land and the environment. In recent years, the mining industry in Panama had been mostly inactive. However, due to an increase in world mineral prices, the industry has been reenergized, and the National Assembly undertook reforms of the Mineral Code in response to changes in the mining sector. However, the reforms had yet to be passed by Congress at year’s end. It was also uncertain whether such legislation would benefit local indigenous groups, which were most likely to experience negative repercussions from the reactivation of the mining sector.
Reforms to Panama’s criminal code were submitted for consideration by President Torrijos and the National Assembly in 2006. The proposal envisaged a general increase in penalties for a variety of criminal acts. However, the changes’ potential infringement on freedom of speech provoked outcries and protests on behalf of journalists and international media organizations. Critics of the reforms maintained that they were an attack on freedom of expression and a violation of human rights conventions. Additionally, opponents stated concerns that the proposal to lengthen prison sentences would lead to neglect of prisoners’ human rights and a more chaotic situation in the already substandard and overcrowded prisons. In response to the strong criticism, a commission composed of members of the original reform board and journalists’ organizations was formed and tasked with revising the draft measures.
Drug trafficking and related violence continued to plague Panama in 2006. The government has been stepping up its efforts to curb the illegal trade, and 200 percent more drugs were reportedly seized in 2005 than in the previous year. However, the overall success of the government’s campaign has been limited by a lack of resources, weak border enforcement, and government corruption. Additionally, money laundering, the trafficking of persons, and the presence of Colombian guerrilla and paramilitary forces along Panama’s southern border remained causes for concern.
Panama is an electoral democracy. 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. The PRD gained a legislative majority after winning 42 seats in the National Assembly in the 2004 elections.
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, widespread corruption of the governmental apparatus indicates the difficulty of enforcing any such bans. The administration of President Torrijos, who took power in 2004, established a special commission to deal with corruption scandals from the previous Moscoso administration and to uncover new abuses. Upon taking office, Torrijos implemented a Transparency Law that had been suspended by Moscoso. However, since that initiative, he has worked to limit the scope of the law, preventing the release of the minutes from cabinet meetings and keeping the disclosure of assets by public officials from public view. Panama was ranked 84 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
All of the country’s media outlets are privately owned with the exception of one state-owned television network and a network operated by the Catholic Church. However, there is a considerable concentration of media ownership by relatives and associates of former president Ernesto Perez Balladares of the PRD. There are five national daily newspapers.
Panama is notable for its harsh legal environment for journalists. Although former president Moscoso was unable to repeal restrictive gag rules in Panama’s 1972 constitution, she did pardon more than 80 journalists accused of criminal libel. Torrijos was criticized by international journalism groups when he took office without setting any plans to repeal the gag laws or the tough criminal libel statutes. However, in 2005, the gag laws were repealed and the country’s censorship board was disbanded. In 2006, the Torrijos administration undertook reforms of the country’s criminal code, proposing lengthened sentences for offenses including libel. Panamanian journalists and international organizations called the proposed reforms an attack on freedom of expression and a violation of human rights conventions. Despite restrictive laws, there is free access to the internet.
Freedom of religion is respected, and academic freedom is generally honored.
Freedom of assembly is generally recognized, and nongovernmental organizations are free to operate. Although only about 10 percent of the labor force is organized, the unions are cohesive and powerful, as demonstrated by their ability to block Torrijos’s social security reform initiative in 2005. However, there are limitations on unions’ ability to strike. In recent years, the government has extended union-organization and collective-bargaining rights to special export-processing zones where they had previously been restricted, but the right to strike remains limited.
The judicial system, headed by the Supreme Court, was revamped in 1990. However, it remains overburdened 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. The Torrijos administration’s 2006 criminal code reform proposal emphasized longer sentences, leading to questions about the potential repercussions for the penal system and human rights. Currently, roughly two-thirds of defendants face delays of nearly 24 months before having their cases heard. The State Department’s 2006 human rights report maintains that “pretrial detention in excess of the maximum sentence for the alleged crime was common.” The penal system is marked by violent disturbances in decrepit facilities that are severely overcrowded.
The PDF was dismantled after 1989, and the military was formally abolished in 1994. The Panamanian Public Forces that replaced the PDF, while accountable to civilian authorities through a publicly disclosed budget, are poorly disciplined and corrupt. They consist of 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 the semiautonomous Judicial Technical Police. Like the country’s prison guards, police officers frequently use excessive force, and in 2005, several high-ranking officers were accused of sexually abusing minors.
Discrimination against darker-skinned Panamanians is widespread. The country’s Asian, Middle Eastern, and indigenous populations are similarly singled out. The living standards of indigenous people, who often do not speak Spanish, are significantly lower than those of the general population. Some 90 percent of the indigenous population in Panama live in extreme poverty, and along with other minority groups, 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. In 2006, proposed legislation showed some promise of recognizing indigenous territorial rights, but there were doubts regarding the implementation of such laws, which have been postponed indefinitely. Indigenous communities do enjoy a degree of autonomy and self-government.
Violence against women and children is widespread and common. Panama is a source, destination, and transit country for human trafficking. The Panamanian government has worked with the International Labor Organization on information campaigns addressing the issue, and it has created a special sex-crimes unit to investigate cases of trafficking for the purpose of prostitution. However, the resources dedicated to this special unit and other efforts to combat trafficking remain insufficient.