Panama is located on the strip of land that connects North and South America and is a republic of Central America. Its position between two continents and separating two oceans has played a role on Panama’s people and history. The Panama Canal, completed in 1914, represented a great engineering achievement. But a controversial treaty gave the United States control over the canal and important segments of Panama’s territory and economy. This prevented Panamanians from controlling a facility they considered crucial for their well-being and national development.
Much of modern Panama’s istory centers on the struggle of its people to benefit from the Panama Canal and the lands through which it passed, the Panama Canal Zone. Panama has a population of 2,821,085 (2000 estimate), up from 2. 4 million in 1990. The population is concentrated heavily along the Panama Canal and in the cities on either end of the passage. It is a highly diverse society, descended from native people and immigrants over thousands of years. About 70 percent of Panamanians are mestizos, people of mixed European and Native American descent, or mulattoes, those of European and African heritage.
Blacks, mostly from the West Indies, make up about 14 percent of the population, whites are about 10 percent, and Native Americans about 6 percent. The folk music of Panama reflects African, Spanish, indigenous, and North American influences. There are three main music genres: the cumbia, the tamborito, and the mejorana. The tamborito is Panama’s national dance. Its call-and-response vocal phrasing and interlocking drum patterns show clear African antecedents. The lyrics tend to be repetitive.
Panama’s foreign trade in 1998 included exports worth $771 million. 75 percent of exports were food products such as bananas, shrimp, sugar, and offee. The major buyers were the United States, Germany, Costa Rica, Sweden, and Belgium. Panama’s official monetary unit is the balboa, whose value is fixed at one U. S. dollar. Panama has no paper currency of its own. The only paper money is the dollar. Fractional coins, based on 100 centesimos per balboa, are almost identical in denomination to U. S. coinage.
The president is the single most powerful figure in government, running the executive branch and wielding influence over the legislative and judicial branches and the many autonomous agencies of government. The president governs with the help of two elected vice presidents and an ppointed cabinet. Presidents are elected by popular vote, serve five-year terms, and may not be reelected. In the early 1800s Spain’s American empire broke apart as the movement for Latin American independence swept through the colonies.
Panama declared independence from Spain in 1821 and decided to become part of the newly independent Republic of Colombia. The United States negotiated a treaty with Colombia for rights to build the canal, but the Colombian senate refused to ratify it. When the Panamanians rebelled, U. S. troops prevented Colombian forces from moving in to suppress the revolt. The Republic of Panama became independent on November 3, 1903. The Torrijos era brought Panama a mixture of military rule, social and economic reforms, and a more vigorous, left-wing foreign policy.
Torrijos suspended the constitution and eventually replaced it with one that gave him full powers as head of state for six years. The Noriega years witnessed widespread corruption, repression of political opposition, and a troubled economy. Noriega was accused of ordering the torture and murder of a popular figure, Hugo Spadaforas, in 1985, but when Panama’s president promised to investigate, Noriega replaced him with another civilian. Noriega used the military to imprison, torture, nd sometimes kill his opponents. Noriega also was linked to the international narcotics trade.
He was accused of helping smuggle drugs and launder money for Colombian drug cartels. In August 1998 Panamanian voters rejected a proposed constitutional amendment to allow Prez Balladares to serve a second term in office. In May 1999 Mireya Moscoso de Gruber, widow of former president Arnulfo Arias, won the country’s presidential election. On December 31, 1999, Panama completed the takeover of the canal, military bases, and all adjacent facilities, giving it control of all its territory for the first time in the nation’s history.