Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Ricardo Martinelli of the Democratic Change party took office as president in July 2009 after defeating Balbina Herrera, the candidate of the incumbent Democratic Revolutionary Party, by the widest margin in a presidential election since Panama’s transition to democracy. Martinelli faced challenges related to Panama’s slowed economic growth, record crime rates, and increasing exposure to drug trafficking.
As of the end of 2009, the U.S. Congress had yet to ratify a bilateral free-trade pact signed with Panama in 2007. Meanwhile, Panama pushed ahead with its $5.25 billion canal expansion project, set to be completed in 2014. 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. The canal is the country’s largest source of income, but both it and the Colon Free Zone, a commerce and export-processing hub, felt the effects of the global economic slowdown in 2009. Workers in the free zone staged a strike in August to protest proposed increases in taxes and fees that they feared would do more damage to trade.
Panama is an electoral democracy. The 2009 national elections were considered free and fair by international observers. The president and deputies to the 71-seat unicameral National Assembly are elected by popular vote for five-year terms. Presidents may not seek consecutive terms. The constitution guarantees freedom for political parties and organizations.
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 ILO 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 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report removed Panama from its Tier 2 Watch List, but the country remains classified as Tier 2 and does not fully comply with minimum international standards. In 2008, the government eliminated its alternadora visa category, which had been used to traffic foreign women for Panama’s sex trade.