Freedom in the World
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In 2008, President Martin Torrijos used executive decrees to enact controversial security reforms during a summer legislative recess, raising concerns about possible militarization and abuse of power. Labor unions staged a nationwide strike in September to protest the reforms as well as poor working conditions, inflation, and the rising cost of living.
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 Panama Canal Treaty with the United States, under which the canal was gradually transferred to Panamanian control by 1999, Torrijos promised democratization. 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 to bring the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), then the PDF’s political arm, to power. 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 former president Arnulfo Arias—won elections in the 1990s. Presidential and legislative elections in 2004 returned the PRD to power, with Martin Torrijos, the son of the former strongman, defeating Endara of the Solidarity Party (PS) and a number of other candidates. The PRD also won 42 of 78 National Assembly seats, followed by the PA with 17. Several other parties each captured fewer than 10 seats.
In 2007, Torrijos shuffled his cabinet in the wake of national scandals involving toxic consumer products and poor enforcement of construction safety rules. Construction workers mounted strikes in February 2008 after one of their comrades was shot dead by police during protests over safety standards. Clashes that month between protesters and police resulted in 500 arrests; 30 union members and 16 police officers were injured. The government attempted to respond to public and union demands, issuing a decree to improve health and safety standards for construction workers. In August, Torrijos also announced a series of measures to combat the rising cost of living, including pay increases for public-sector workers and an income-tax reimbursement. Critics said the $36.2 million plan was a PRD attempt to buy back waning popular support.
Separately, during a legislative recess in July and August, Torrijos issued decrees to enact controversial security reforms. They included the creation of a national aero-naval service, a border service, a council for public security and national defense, and a national intelligence service. Panama had abolished its military in 1994. Torrijos also named former soldier Jaime Ruiz to the post of police chief. He argued that the reforms were needed to combat drug trafficking and possible terrorist attacks on the Panama Canal, but opponents warned of a return to Panama’s military past and said the changes lacked safeguards against abuse of power. A number of business groups called for the reforms to be rescinded and submitted to the legislature for reconsideration. In September, labor unions and their allies organized the first nationwide strike since 2004, demanding the repeal of the security reforms as well as salary increases and price freezes.
Also during the year, political parties began preparations for the 2009 presidential election, and cabinet ministers who planned to run resigned their positions in keeping with protocol. Former housing minister Balbina Herrera won the PRD’s nomination in September.
At the end of 2008, the U.S. Congress had yet to ratify a bilateral free-trade pact signed with Panama in June 2007. One sticking point was the August 2007 election of Pedro Miguel Gonzalez, who was wanted in the United States for a fatal attack on U.S. soldiers in 1992, as president of Panama’s legislature. Meanwhile, construction continued on a major expansion of the Panama Canal begun in September 2007; supporters of the project said it would boost Panama’s economy, but opponents argued that the funds would be better spent on antipoverty programs, education, and health care. While Panama’s economy achieved an 8.3 percent growth rate in 2008, the country registered an estimated 10.6 percent inflation in 2008, its highest rate in over 17 years. Nearly 38 percent of Panamanians live in poverty, and the wealthiest 20 percent make 32 times the average income of the poorest 20 percent.
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 for political parties and organizations. The PRD’s 2004 electoral victories caused a shake-up of the ideologically similar opposition parties; two new leftist parties formed in early 2007 as an alternative.
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, corruption remains widespread, and 2006 electoral reforms have been criticized as lacking key elements to improve transparency, especially regarding campaign financing. Former president Manuel Noriega completed a U.S. prison sentence for drug trafficking in 2007, but he remained in U.S. custody at the end of 2008 as he fought extradition to France, where he had been convicted in absentia on money laundering charges. Noriega also faced up to 60 years in prison in Panama for embezzlement and corruption convictions.
President Martin Torrijos, who took power in 2004, established a commission to deal with corruption under his predecessor, Mireya Moscoso, and to uncover new abuses. He also implemented a transparency law that had been suspended by Moscoso, but has since worked to limit its scope, preventing the release of minutes from cabinet meetings and asset disclosures by public officials. In 2008, Torrijos came under scrutiny after it was revealed that he had accepted $1 million from the government of the Dominican Republic between 2001 and 2004. Panama was ranked 85 out of 180 countries surveyed on Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
All of the country’s media outlets are privately owned, with the exceptions of the state-owned television network and a network operated by the Roman Catholic Church. However, there is a considerable concentration of media ownership among relatives and associates of former president Ernesto Perez Balladares of the PRD. There are five national daily newspapers, and internet access is unrestricted. Panama is notable for its harsh legal environment for journalists. In 2005, the country’s restrictive gag rules were repealed and the censorship board was disbanded, but Torrijos in 2007 enacted criminal code reforms that lengthened sentences for offenses including libel.
Freedom of religion is respected, and academic freedom is generally honored.
Freedom of assembly is recognized, and nongovernmental organizations are free to operate. Although only about 10 percent of the labor force is organized, unions are cohesive and powerful. Labor groups mounted a number of protests in 2008, sometimes clashing violently with police but also winning government concessions.
The judicial system remains overburdened, inefficient, politicized, and prone to corruption. Criminal code reforms enacted in 2007 took effect in May 2008, increasing sentences for a number of offenses and raising questions about human rights. The prison system is already marked by violent disturbances in decrepit, overcrowded facilities. The prisoner-to-public ratio is high, with 354 inmates for every 100,000 residents.
The military was formally abolished in 1994. The police and other security forces that remain, while accountable to civilian authorities through a publicly disclosed budget, are poorly disciplined and corrupt. Like the country’s prison guards, police officers frequently use excessive force.
The government’s counternarcotics campaign has been limited by a lack of resources, weak border enforcement, and corruption. According to the attorney general’s office, the number of homicides prosecuted in Panama has increased by 33 percent since 2005. While crime rates have risen overall, the proportion of homicides has grown from 0.3 percent of all crimes between 2000 and 2007, to 1.4 percent in 2008. It is estimated that 90 percent of violent crimes are drug related.
Money laundering, human trafficking, and the presence of Colombian guerrilla and paramilitary forces along the southern border remain causes for concern. Refugees from Colombia have faced difficulty obtaining work permits and other forms of legal recognition. There were approximately 1,900 recognized refugees living in Panama in 2008, mainly Colombians. New immigration rules that took effect during the year tightened controls on foreigners, but other legislation gave recognized refugees who have lived in Panama for more than 10 years the right to apply for permanent residency. This law would apply mostly to long-standing refugees who fled Central American conflicts in the 1980s.
Discrimination against darker-skinned Panamanians is widespread. The country’s Asian, Middle Eastern, and indigenous populations are similarly singled out. Indigenous communities enjoy a degree of autonomy and self-government, but some 90 percent of the indigenous population live in extreme poverty. Since 1993, indigenous groups have protested the encroachment of illegal settlers on their lands and government delays in formally demarcating them. In March 2008, nongovernmental organizations condemned the government before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for using force and intimidation to displace thousands of indigenous people in connection with a hydroelectric project on the Rio Changuinola.
Violence against women and children is widespread and common. Panama is a source, destination, and transit country for human trafficking. The government has worked with the International Labor Organization on information campaigns addressing the issue, and it has created a special unit to investigate cases of trafficking for the purpose of prostitution. However, the resources dedicated to such efforts remain insufficient. The U.S. State Department’s 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report downgraded Panama to the Tier 2 Watch List and found that it does not fully comply with minimum international standards. While Panamanian law does not prohibit all forms of trafficking, it does criminalize trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation; prosecutors obtained the first conviction under that provision in 2007.