Freedom in the World
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The governing Alliance for Change coalition collapsed in September 2011 when the Panameñista Party withdrew in protest over President Ricardo Martinelli’s plan to hold a referendum on electoral reforms that could allow him to run for a second consecutive term. Juan Carlos Varela, head of the Panameñista Party, was subsequently dismissed from his position as foreign minister. Freedom of the press continued to be infringed upon in 2011.
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 signing the 1977 Panama Canal Treaty with the United States, under which the canal was gradually transferred to Panamanian control by 1999, Torrijos promised democratization.
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 later that year, and ADOC’s Guillermo Endara became president. Both the PRD and the Arnulfista Party won elections in the 1990s. Presidential and legislative elections in 2004 returned the PRD to power, with Martín Torrijos, son of the former strongman, winning the presidency.
In the 2009 elections, Ricardo Martinelli of the center-right, business-oriented Democratic Change (CD) party won the presidency as part of the Alliance for Change coalition with the Panameñista Party (PP), capturing 60 percent of the vote. Balbina Herrera of the PRD, who had served as housing minister under the outgoing administration, placed second with 38 percent. The PRD won 26 of 71 congressional seats, followed by the PP with 22 seats, the CD with 14 seats, and smaller parties and independents each taking fewer than 5 seats.
Martinelli made several controversial decisions in 2010, including the passage of Law 30, which weakened labor unions, relaxed environmental laws, and reduced penalties for police officers who break the law while on duty. In October, Martinelli agreed to repeal the controversial measures contained in the original legislation following public protests.
The CD’s congressional representation increased from 17 to 35 members by the end of 2011 due to changes in party affiliation by several deputies. The CD’s alliance with the PP collapsed in August 2011 when Martinelli announced plans to hold a referendum on proposed electoral reforms, including abolishing the requirement that presidents may not seek consecutive terms in office. The PP’s opposition to the proposal also led to Martinelli dismissing Juan Carlos Varela—the president of the PP and the country’s vice president—as foreign minister. The finance minister and several other PP ministers, who had been widely credited with Panama’s economic growth, tendered their resignations shortly thereafter. Martinelli’s approval ratings declined from 64 percent in May to 48 percent in November. Proposals to reform the constitution were continuing at year’s end.
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 terms before running again.
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 electoral reforms have been criticized for failing to improve the transparency of campaign financing. Panama and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime signed an agreement in June 2011 to establish a regional anticorruption academy. After serving 20 years in a U.S. jail for drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering, former dictator Manuel Noriega was extradited to France in April 2010 to complete a seven-year prison term on money laundering charges. However, in December 2011, France extradited Noriega to Panama to serve a 20-year sentence related to human rights violations. Panama was ranked 86 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
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. Ebrahim Asvat, president of El Siglo and La Estrella newspapers, resigned in January 2011 after President Ricardo Martinelli allegedly pressured the papers’ owners to have him removed. The legislature considered a bill to make it illegal to criticize the country’s president and other top officials, but it abandoned the proposal in January amid international and national pressure. Darío Fernández Jaén, owner of radio station Radio Mi Favorita and an outspoken critic of Martinelli, was murdered in November; one of the suspects arrested allegedly confessed to being hired to commit the crime. Internet access is unrestricted.
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. In July 2010, opposition to Law 30 erupted into violence during a strike led by 5,000 banana plantation workers in Bocas del Toro. After the demonstration was violently suppressed by security forces, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned the violence and expressed concern over the government’s restrictions on freedom of association. That same month, authorities violently dispersed a similar protest organized by Panama Canal construction workers, which resulted in the arrest of several union leaders. In March 2011, public protests forced the government to repeal Law 8, which had imposed controversial reforms to the Mining Code; this was regarded as a victory for environmental and indigenous groups.
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. The prison system is marked by violent disturbances in decrepit, overcrowded facilities. As of August 2011, the prison system held 13,069 prisoners in a system designed to hold 7,342. In January, juvenile offenders at a prison in Tocumen rioted over a lack of clean drinking water. Several young men were badly injured, five of them fatally.
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. Opponents warned of a return to Panama’s military past and said the changes lacked safeguards against abuse of power. Panama’s growing importance as a regional transport center makes it appealing to drug traffickers and money launderers. The quantity of cocaine seizures declined from 50 metric tons in 2010 to 34 metric tons in 2011.
Refugees from Colombia have faced difficulty obtaining work permits and other forms of legal recognition. The Martinelli administration had suggested measures to normalize the status of thousands of undocumented Colombians living in Panama without official refugee status, but minimal progress had been made on these measures. 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. Of the approximately 2,500 refugee and asylum seekers living in Panama at the end of 2010, 41 were granted refugee status in 2011.
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 formal land demarcations. In July 2011, authorities used tear gas to break up a protest by the Ngabe-Bugle indigenous people against mining and hydroelectric projects. The indigenous Embera-Wounaan community continued to protest illegal settlements on its land in 2011, leading to violent confrontations in August, but government negotiations eventually defused tensions.
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. However, law enforcement is weak, the penal code does not prohibit trafficking for forced labor, and the government provides inadequate assistance to victims.