Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
In 2010, Panama’s government approved troubling restrictions on freedoms of assembly, association, and speech, sparking protests from labor unions, journalists, and domestic and international nongovernmental organizations. President Ricardo Martinelli agreed to soften the measures affecting unions in October. Martinelli’s popularity declined during the year due to controversial political appointments that were viewed by the opposition as attempts to consolidate power.
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) won elections in the 1990s. Presidential and legislative elections in 2004 returned the PRD to power, with Martín Torrijos, the son of the former strongman, winning the presidency.
In the May 2009 presidential and parliamentary elections, Ricardo Martinelli of the center-right, business-oriented Democratic Change (CD) party easily won the presidency with 60 percent of the vote. Balbina Herrera of the PRD, who had served as housing minister under the outgoing administration, placed second with 37.6 percent, and Endara garnered 2 percent. In the parliamentary contest, the PRD won 26 of 71 seats, followed by the Panameñista Party with 21 seats, the CD with 15, and smaller parties and independents all taking less than five seats. Voter turnout was 74 percent.
Martinelli’s popularity plummeted in 2010 due to several controversial decisions, such as replacing the attorney general and Supreme Court judges with political allies, decreeing jail time for street protestors in May, and planning to invest $13 billion in large-scale copper mining and other infrastructure projects without conducting environmental impact assessments. The most controversial decision was the passage in June of Law 30, which weakened labor unions, relaxed environmental laws, and reduced penalties for police officers who break the law while on duty. However, following the protests and criticism, Martinelli agreed in October to repeal the controversial measures contained in the original legislation.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Panama is an electoral democracy. The 2009 national elections were considered free and fair by international observers. The president and deputies of the 71-seat unicameral National Assembly are elected by popular vote for five-year terms. Presidents may not seek consecutive terms, and must wait two terns before running again. The constitution guarantees freedom for political parties and organizations.
Anonymous campaign contributions were banned in 1999 in an effort to stem the infiltration of drug money into the political process. Nevertheless, corruption remains widespread, and the 2006 electoral reforms have been criticized for failing to improve the transparency of campaign financing.Former dictator Manuel Noriega was sentenced to seven years in prison by a French court in July 2010 on charges of money laundering in French banks; Noriega had been extradited from the United States to France in April. Panama was ranked 73 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 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, media ownership is generally concentrated among relatives and associates of former president Ernesto Pérez Balladares (1994–99) of the PRD. Panama maintains a harsh legal environment for journalists. In 2007, then-President Martín Torrijos enacted criminal code reforms that lengthened sentences for offenses including libel. In September 2010, the Court of Appeals reversed the acquittal of journalists Sabrina Bacal and Justino González in connection to a 2005 investigation in which they accused immigration officials of participating in human trafficking; the reversal resulted in one-year prison sentences for both journalists.The decision was criticized by journalists and human rights groups, leading President Ricardo Martinelli to pardon the journalists in October. Internet access is unrestricted.
Freedom of religion is respected, and academic freedom is generally honored.
Freedom of assembly is recognized, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are free to operate. Although only about 10 percent of the labor force is organized, unions are cohesive and powerful. In July 2010, opposition to Law 30 erupted into violence during a strike led by 5,000 banana plantation workers in Bocas del Toro. The demonstration was violently suppressed by security forces, leading to at least two deaths, hundreds of injuries, and a hundred arrests. In August, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned the violence and expressed its concern over the government’s restrictions on freedom of association. Also in July, authorities violently dispersed a similar protest organized by Panama Canal construction workers, which resulted in the arrest of a number of union leaders.
The judicial system remains overburdened, inefficient, politicized, and prone to corruption. Criminal code reforms that took effect in 2008 increased sentences for a number of offenses and raised questions about human rights. The prison system is marked by violent disturbances in its decrepit, overcrowded facilities. The prisoner-to-public ratio is high, with approximately300 inmates for every 100,000 residents.
The police and other security forces are poorly disciplined and corrupt. Security decrees issued by the Torrijos government in 2008 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. 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 the abuse of power. Former Noriega military lieutenant Gustavo Pérez, nominated by Martinelli, took office as chief of police in July 2009 amid protests.
The government’s counternarcotics campaign has been limited by a lack of resources, weak border enforcement, and corruption. Analysts believe that Panama is emerging as a transit point for drug trafficking from Colombia to the United States, and the quantity of drug seizures, mostly cocaine, has grown from around 32,000 kilograms in 2005 to 54,000 kilograms in 2009. While the overall crime rate continued to rise, the number of homicides decreased from 818 in 2009 to 707 in 2010.Most violent crimes are reportedly drug related.
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 2010, mainly Colombians.The Martinelli administration had suggested measures to normalize the status of thousands of undocumented Colombians living in Panama without official refugee status, but no progress had been made on these measures in 2010. New immigration rules that took effect in 2008 tightened controls on foreigners, but other legislation grants recognized refugees who have lived in Panama for more than 10 years the right to apply for permanent residency. This law applies 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 lives 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 2009, police leveled indigenous Naso communities in Bocas del Toro in response to a peaceful protest against a hydroelectric dam project, reportedly leaving over 200 people homeless.Separately, NGOs 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 Changuinola River, and in June 2009 the commission called on Panama to suspend all work on the dam.
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 Labour Organization on information campaigns addressing the issue, and it has created a special unit to investigate cases of trafficking for the purpose of prostitution. In 2008, the government eliminated its alternadora visa category, which had been used to traffic foreign women for Panama’s sex trade. However, the U.S. State Department’s 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report criticized Panama for its failure to comply with minimum international standards to combat human trafficking. Law enforcement is weak, the penal code does not prohibit trafficking for forced labor, and the government provides inadequate assistance to victims.