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Panama - SOCIETY

Panama - The Society and Its Environment


PANAMANIAN SOCIETY OF the 1980s reflected the country's unusual geographical position as a transit zone. Panama's role as a crossing point had long subjected the isthmus to a variety of outside influences not typically associated with Latin America. The population included East Asian, South Asian, European, North American, and Middle Eastern immigrants and their offspring, who came to Panama to take advantage of the commercial opportunities connected with the Panama Canal. Black Antilleans, descendants of Caribbean laborers who worked on the construction of the canal, formed the largest single minority group; as English-speaking Protestants, they were set apart from the majority by both language and religion. Tribal Indians, often isolated from the larger society, constituted roughly 5 percent of the population in the 1980s. They were distinguished by language, their indigenous belief systems, and a variety of other cultural practices.

Spanish-speaking Roman Catholics formed a large majority. They were often termed mestizos--a term originally denoting mixed Indian and Spanish parentage that was used in an unrestrictive fashion to refer to almost anyone having mixed racial inheritance who conformed to the norms of Hispanic culture.

Ethnicity was broadly associated with class and status, to the extent that white elements were more apparent at the top of the social pyramid and recognizably black and Indian features at the bottom. Members of the elite placed a high value on purported racial purity; extensive ties of intermarriage within the group tended to reinforce this self-image.

Class structure was marked by divisions based on wealth, occupation, education, family background, and culture, in addition to race. The roots of the traditional elite's control lay in the colonial era. The fundamental social distinction was that between wealthier, whiter settlers who managed to purchase political positions from the Spanish crown and poorer mestizos who could not. Landholding formed the basis for the elite's wealth, political office for their power. When the isthmus became more pivotal as a transit zone after completion of the canal, elite control became less focused on landholding and more concerned with food processing and transportation facilities. Occasionally a successful immigrant family acquired wealth as the decades passed. Nevertheless, the older families' control of the country's politics remained virtually intact until the 1968 military coup.

The relationship between landowners and tenants or squatters, between cattle ranchers and subsistence farmers, was the dynamic that underlay social relations in rural Panama in the twentieth century. Cattle ranching had expanded to meet the growing demand for meat in cities. Small farmers cleared the tropical forest for cattle ranchers, planted it for one to two seasons, and then moved on to repeat the process elsewhere. As the population and the demand for meat increased, so too did the rate of movement onto previously unsettled lands, creating a "moving agricultural frontier."

Migration, both to cities and to less settled regions in the country, was a critical component in contemporary social relations. City and countryside were linked because the urban-based elite owned ranches or plantations, farmers and ranchers provisioned cities, and migration was an experience common to tens of thousands of Panamanians. Land and an expanding urban economy were essential to absorb surplus labor from heavily populated regions of the countryside. It remained to be seen how the social system would function in the face of high urban unemployment in the more straitened economic circumstances of the late 1980s.


Panama - Population


Regions of Settlement

Panama has no generally recognized group of geographic regions, and no single set of names is in common use. One system often used by Panamanian geographers, however, portrays the country as divided into five regions that reflect population concentration and economic development as well as geography.

Darién, the largest and most sparsely populated of the regions, extends from the hinterlands of Panama City and Colón to the Colombian border, comprising more than one-third of the national territory. In addition to the province of Darién, it includes the Comarca de San Blas and the eastern part of Panamá Province. Darién--a name that was once applied to the entire isthmus--is a land of rain forest and swamp.

The Central Isthmus does not have precisely definable boundaries. Geographically, it is the low saddle of land that bisects the isthmus at the canal. It extends on the Pacific side from the Darién as far west as the town of La Chorrera. On the Atlantic, it includes small villages and clustered farms around Gatun Lake. East of the canal it terminates gradually as the population grows sparse, and the jungles and swamps of the Darién region begin. More a concept than a region, the Central Isthmus, with a width of about 100 kilometers, is the densely populated historical transportation route between the Atlantic and the Pacific and includes most of Colón Province.

Central Panama lies to the southwest of the canal and is made up of all or most of the provinces of Veraguas, Coclé, Herrera, and Los Santos. Located between the continental divide and the Pacific, the area is sometimes referred to as the Central Provinces. The sparsely populated Santa Fe District of Veraguas Province is located across the continental divide on the Atlantic side, however, and a frontier part of Coclé is also on the Atlantic side of the divide.

The hills and lowlands of Central Panama, dotted with farms and ranches, include most of the country's rural population. Its heartland is a heavily populated rural arc that frames the Bahía de Parita and includes most of the country's largest market towns, including the provincial capitals of Penonomé, Santiago, Chitré, and Las Tablas. This agriculturally productive area has a relatively long dry season and is known as the dry zone of Panama.

The remaining part of the Pacific side of the divide is taken up by Chiriquí Province. Some geographers regard it and Central Panama as a single region. But, the lowlands of the two areas are separated by the hills of the Península de Las Palmas, and the big province of Chiriquí has sufficient individuality to warrant consideration as a separate region. The second largest and second most populous of the nine provinces, Chiriquí is to some extent a territory of pioneers as well as one of considerable economic importance. It is only in Chiriquí that the frontiers of settlement have pushed up well into the interior highlands, and the population has a particular sense of regional identity. A native of Chiriquí can be expected to identify himself, above all, as a Chiricano.

Atlantic Panama includes all of Bocas del Toro Province, the Caribbean coastal portions of Veraguas and Coclé, and the western districts of Colón. It is home to a scant 5 percent of the population, and its only important population concentrations are near the Costa Rican border where banana plantations are located.

Size and Growth

In mid-1987, Panama's population was estimated at 2.3 million, when 40 percent of the population was under 15 years of age. This high proportion suggested continued pressure on the educational system to provide instruction and on the economy to create jobs in the next two decades. Population had increased more than 600 percent since the country's first census in 1911. The annual rate of increase ranged from less than 0.5 percent in the economically depressed 1920s to more than 3 percent in the decade from 1910 to 1920 and in the 1960s. Demographers projected an annual growth rate of 2.2 percent in the 1980s, declining to 1.9 percent by 1990-95.

Provincial growth rates in the 1970s ranged from a low of 0.5 percent in Los Santos to a high of 3.5 percent in Panamá. The population in Bocas del Toro, both in remote and rural areas, grew at an average annual rate of approximately 3.1 percent. This high growth rate was due to a significant influx of migrants in response to the development of the Cerro Colorado copper project in the eastern part of that province. Population density was seventy-five persons per square kilometer. The highest densities and the region of the most concentrated urbanization were located in the corridor along the former Canal Zone from Colón to Panama City.

The crude death rate was 5 persons per 1,000 in the mid-1980s, a decline of nearly 50 percent from the mid-1960s. The crude birth rate was 27 per 1,000, a drop of one-third during the same period. Organized family planning began in 1966 with the establishment of the Panamanian Family Planning Organization, a private group. By 1969 the Ministry of Health was actively involved in family planning; clinics, information, and instruction were becoming more available to the population as a whole. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, more than 60 percent of women of childbearing age were using some form of contraception.

<> Ethnic Groups

Updated population figures for Panama.


Panama - Ethnic Groups


Because the isthmus holds a central position as a transit zone, Panama has long enjoyed a measure of ethnic diversity. This diversity, combined with a variety of regions and environments, has given rise to a number of distinct subcultures. But in the late 1980s, these subcultures were often diffuse in the sense that individuals were frequently difficult to classify as members of one group or the other, and statistics about the groups' respective sizes were rarely precise. Panamanians nonetheless recognized racial and ethnic distinctions, and considered them social realities of considerable importance.

Broadly speaking, Panamanians viewed their society as composed of three principal groups: the Spanish-speaking, Roman Catholic mestizo majority; the English-speaking, Protestant Antillean blacks; and tribal Indians. Small numbers of those of foreign extraction--Chinese, Jews, Arabs, Greeks, South Asians, Lebanese, West Europeans, and North Americans--were also present. They generally lived in the largest cities, and most were involved in the retail trade and commerce. There were a few retired United States citizens--mostly former Canal Zone officials--residing in Chiriquí. The Chinese were a major source of labor on the transisthmian railroad, completed in the mid-nineteenth century. Most went on to California in the gold rush beginning in 1848; of those who remained, most owned retail shops. They suffered considerable discrimination in the early 1940s under the nationalistic government of President Arnulfo Arias Madrid, who sought to rid Panama of non-Hispanics.

There were also small groups of Hispanic blacks, blacks (playeros), and Hispanic Indians (cholos) along the Atlantic coast lowlands and in the Darién. Their settlements, dating from the end of the colonial era, were concentrated along coasts and rivers. They had long relied on mixed farming and livestock raising, adapted to the particular exigencies of the tropical forest environment. In the mid-twentieth century, they began marketing small quantities of livestock, tropical fruits, rice, and coffee. In the 1980s, they were under pressure from the mestizo population, as farmers from the central provinces expanded into these previously isolated regions.

<> Antillean Blacks
<> Indians
<> Cuna



Panama - Antillean Blacks


Black laborers from the British West Indies came to Panama by the tens of thousands in the first half of the twentieth century. Most were involved in the effort to improve the isthmus transportation system, but many came to work on the country's banana plantations as well. By 1910, the Panama Canal Company had employed more than 50,000 workers, three-quarters of whom were Antillean blacks. They formed the nucleus of a community separated from the larger society by race, language, religion, and culture.

Since World War II, immigration from the Caribbean islands has been negligible. Roughly 7 to 8 percent of the population were Antillean blacks in the 1980s. Their share in the total population was decreasing, as younger generations descended from the original immigrants became increasingly assimilated into the Hispanic national society.

The Antillean community continued to be marked by its immigrant, West Indian origins in the 1980s. Some observers noted that Antillean families and gender ideals reflected West Indian patterns and that Antillean women were less submissive than their mestizo counterparts. The Antilleans were originally united by their persistent loyalty to the British crown, to which they had owed allegiance in the home islands. Many migrated to Panama with the intention of returning home as soon as they had earned enough money to permit them to retire. This apparently transient status, coupled with cultural differences, further separated them from the local populace. Another alienating factor was the hostility of Hispanic Panamanians, which increased as the Antilleans prolonged their stay and became entrenched in the canal labor force. They faced racial discrimination from North Americans as well. Their precarious status was underscored by the fact that the 1941 constitution deprived them of their Panamanian citizenship (it was restored by the 1946 constitution). The hostility they faced welded them into a minority united by the cultural antagonisms they confronted.

The cleavage between older and younger generations was particularly marked. Younger Antilleans who opted for inclusion in the Hispanic society at large generally rejected their parents' religion and language in so doing. Newer generations educated in Panamanian schools and speaking Spanish well identified with the national society, enjoying a measure of acceptance there. Nevertheless, there remained substantial numbers of older Antilleans who were trained in schools in the former Canal Zone and spoke English as a first language. They were adrift without strong ties to either the West Indian or the Panamanian Hispanic culture. Isolated from mainstream Panamanian society and increasingly removed from their Antillean origins, they existed, in a sense, on the margins of three societies.

In common with most middle- and many lower-class Panamanians, Antillean blacks valued education as a means of advancement. Parents ardently hoped to give their children as good an education as possible because education and occupation underlay the social hierarchy of the Antillean community. At the top of that hierarchy were ministers of the mainline Protestant religions, professionals such as doctors and lawyers, and white-collar workers. Nonetheless, even a menial worker could hope for respect and some social standing if he or she adhered to middle-class West Indian forms of marriage and family life, membership in an established church, and sobriety. The National Guard, formerly known as the National Police and subsequently called the Panama Defense Forces (Fuerzas de Defensa de Panamá--FDP), served as a means of integration into the national society and upward mobility for poorer blacks (Antilleans and Hispanics), who were recruited in the 1930s and 1940s when few other avenues of advancement were open to them.

More about the <>Ethnic Groups of Panama.


Panama - Indians


According to the 1980 census, Panama's indigenous population numbered slightly over 93,000, or 5 percent of the total population. Censuses showed Indians to be a declining proportion of the total population; they had accounted for nearly 6 percent of all Panamanians in 1960. The figures were only a rough estimate of the numbers of Indians in Panama, however. Precise numbers and even the exact status of several smaller tribes were uncertain, in part because many Indians were in the process of assimilation. Language, although the most certain means of identifying a person as an Indian, was by itself an unreliable guide. There were small groups of people who spoke only Spanish and yet preserved other indigenous practices and were considered Indians by their neighbors. The Guaymí, for example, showed little concern about linguistic purity and had adopted a wide variety of words of Spanish origin; nonetheless, they assiduously preserved indigenous religious belief and practice. By contrast, the far more acculturated Térraba would not use foreign words, even for nonindigenous items.

The Indian population was concentrated in the more remote regions of the country, and for most tribes, isolation was a critical element in their cultural survival. The Guaymí, numbering roughly 50,000 to 55,000, or slightly more than half of the Indian population, inhabited the remote regions of northwest Panama. The Cuna (also referred to as the Kuna) were concentrated mainly along the Caribbean coast east of Colón; their population was approximately 30,000, about one-third of all Indians.

In addition, there were a number of smaller groups scattered in the remote mountains of western Panama and the interior of Darién. The Chocó (or Embera) occupied the southeastern portion of Darién along the border with Colombia. Most were bilingual in Spanish and Chocó, and they reportedly had intermarried extensively with Colombian blacks. They appeared to be in a state of advanced acculturation.

The Bribri were a small section of the Talamanca tribe of Costa Rica. They had substantial contact with outsiders. Many were employed on banana plantations in Costa Rica, and Protestant missionaries were active among them, having made significant numbers of converts.

The Bókatá lived in eastern Bocas del Toro along the Río Calovébora. Linguistically, Bókatá speech was similar to Guaymí, but the two languages were not mutually intelligible. The tribe had not been as exposed to outsiders as had the Guaymí. In the late 1970s, there were virtually no roads through Bókatá territory; by the mid-1980s, there was a small dirt road passable only in dry weather.

The Térraba were another small tribe, living in the environs of the Río Teribe. In the twentieth century, the tribe suffered major population swings. It was decimated by recurrent tuberculosis epidemics between 1910 and 1930, but population expanded rapidly with the availability of better medical care after the 1950s. Contact with outsiders also increased. A Seventh Day Adventist mission was active in the tribe for years, and there was substantial acculturation with the dominant mestizo culture. By the late 1980s, the Térraba had abandoned most of their native crafts production, and their knowledge of the region's natural history was declining. They even looted their ancestral burial mounds for gold to sell. They refused employment on nearby banana plantations until the early 1970s, when a flood swept away most of the alluvial soil they had farmed. The Guaymí attempted to include the Térraba in Guaymí territory, but the Térraba stoutly resisted these efforts.

All of the tribes were under the jurisdiction of both the provincial and national governments. The Indigenous Policy Section of the Ministry of Government and Justice bore primary responsibility for coordinating programs that affected Indians, serving as a liaison between the tribes and the national government. There were a number of special administrative arrangements made for those districts in which Indians constituted the majority of the population. The 1972 Constitution required the government to establish reserves (comarcas) for indigenous tribes, but the extent to which this mandate had been implemented varied. By the mid-1980s, the Cuna were established in the Comarca de San Blas and the Chocó had government approval for official recognition of their own comarca in Darién. The Guaymí and the government continued negotiations about the extent of Guaymí territory. The Guaymí contended that government proposals would leave about half the tribe outside the boundaries of the reserve.

Indian education has frequently been under the de facto control of missionaries. The national government made a late entry into the field, but by the late 1970s there were nearly 200 Indian schools with nearly 15,000 students. Nevertheless, illiteracy among Indians over 10 years of age was almost 80 percent, in comparison with less than 20 percent in the population at large.

More about the <>Ethnic Groups of Panama.


Panama - Cuna


The vast majority of Cuna Indians inhabited the San Blas Islands, with an estimated 3,000 additional Cuna living in small scattered settlements in Darién and in Colombia. The San Blas Islands are clusters of small coral islands, each only a few feet above sea level, along Panama's northeast coast. They contain some fifty densely settled Cuna villages. The density of settlement was one indication of a dramatic increase in population. Official census figures showed a population increase of nearly 60 percent between 1950 and 1980. The 1980 census revealed that village size ranged from 37 to nearly 1,500 inhabitants; half the total population was accounted for in 19 villages ranging in population from 300 to 1,000, with one-third in settlements of more than 1,000. The census seriously undercounted the total Cuna population, however, because it excluded absent workers, whose numbers were significant, given the prevalence of out-migration for wage labor.

Before settling on the San Blas Islands, the Cuna lived in inland settlements concentrated on rivers and streams throughout the Darién. Their contacts with outsiders were confined to trade with pirates and limited interaction with two abortive European colonies attempted in the region in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Then, a 1787 treaty with Spain began roughly a century of profitable trade, and the Cuna specialized in coconut farming, which continues to produce their main cash crop. Pressure from mestizo and Chocó Indians migrating into the Darién from Colombia toward the end of the nineteenth century, gradually pushed the Cuna toward the coast and the villages they still occupied in the late 1980s.

The Cuna's contact with outsiders remained limited and circumscribed until around 1910. Panamanian settlement was focused along the isthmus, and the Colombian government was, in every significant sense, very distant. Although the Cuna themselves traded with passing ships, they did not permit the crews to debark. An individual Cuna might, however, serve a stint as a sailor, and groups would take a large canoe full of trading goods to Colón.

The Cuna were extensively dependent on outside sources for goods--indigenously produced items played little role in farming and fishing. In contrast to many rural mestizos and Indians elsewhere in Panama, the terms on which they bought outside manufactures were relatively favorable. The Cuna dealt only in cash; they bought from many suppliers; and Cuna themselves owned retail stores in San Blas.

By the early years of the twentieth century, the modern settlement pattern of the San Blas Cuna was well defined. Settlements varied in scale from temporary working camps of one to two families to permanent communities numbering in the hundreds. Social life then, as now, was organized around the twin foci of household and village. Descent was reckoned bilaterally, individuals tracing their ancestors and their progeny through both males and females. The household was the most significant grouping of kin. A 1976 survey found that households numbered on average 9.9 persons, with multiple family households the rule. Larger groupings of kin had no formal role in social relations. Adult siblings were rarely close, and contacts between more distant relatives, such as cousins, were even more diffuse.

Cuna households, in their ideal form, were composed of a senior couple, their unmarried children, and their married daughters and sons-in-law and their offspring. The head of the household directed the work of those residing there; a son-in-law's position was extremely subordinate, particularly during the early years of his marriage. After several years of marriage, husbands usually tried to establish their own households, but the shortage of suitable land made this difficult.

Women were a major force in household decisions. Their sewing and household activities were respected work. Men dominated the public-political sphere of Cuna life, however, and women were overwhelmingly subordinate to men outside their homes. Only a few women had been elected to public office, but daughters of leaders sometimes held government appointments.

Politics and kinship were separate aspects of Cuna life. Kin, even close relatives, did not necessarily support one another on specific issues. Although the children of past leaders enjoyed some advantage in pursuing a career in politics, kinship did not define succession to political office.

Villages had formal, ranked elective political offices, including the chiefs and the chiefs' spokespersons (also known as interpreters). Most communities also had a set of committees charged with specific tasks. Chiefs (except in the most acculturated communities where the chiefs did not sing) derived their authority from their knowledge of the sacred chants, and the spokespersons derived theirs from their ability to interpret the chants for the people. Elected officials conducted elaborate meetings dealing with both religious and secular affairs. The number of officials, the presence or absence of a specifically designated meeting place, and the number and complexity of the meetings themselves were all measures of a village's stature.

Meetings or gatherings fell into two categories: chanting or singing gatherings attended by all members of a village, and talking gatherings attended by adult men only. Singing gatherings were highly formalized, combining both indigenous and Spanish elements. The ritualized dialogue that chiefs chanted to their followers was common Indian practice throughout much of Latin America. Much of the actual vocabulary reflected Spanish influence. For example, the Cuna word for chief's spokesperson, arkar, is probably a corruption of the Spanish, alcalde.

Talking gatherings focused on exchanging information and taking care of matters that demanded action--relating travel experiences, requesting permission to leave, or resolving disputes, for example. Resolution was reached through consensus in a gradual process directed by the chief or chiefs. Votes were rarely taken, and then only in the more acculturated communities. Agreement was evident when no further contrary opinions were stated. Historically, if an agreement could not be reached the community would split up.

Cuna also held general congresses as frequently as several times per year. Each village sent a delegation; the size varied but typically at least one chief and a chief's spokesperson were included. The rules of procedure were highly formalized. As with local gatherings, the emphasis was on reaching a consensus of the group rather than acquiring the votes necessary for a majority. And, again, agreement was evident when no further contrary opinions were stated or when they were shouted down by the rest of the delegates.

Villages had considerable discretionary powers and they regulated who could settle there. Most refused to accept Colombian Cuna displaced by cattle ranchers. Others expressed disapproval of landless San Blasinos (residents of San Blas) from other villages marrying into their village. The power of villages to grant or withhold travel permits was used as a sanction against misconduct and a weapon in political disputes. Women were rarely permitted to travel outside San Blas, and until the mid-1960s, many villages required an absentee worker to come home for harvest and planting or pay for a substitute.

Villages varied in their willingness to accept innovations. In general, the Cuna of eastern San Blas were more conservative, while those of the western and central parts more readily accepted outside influences. Modernist villages sent more workers to the larger society; conservative communities tended to rely more extensively on agricultural income for their livelihood. Village politics were concerned with questions of inheritance, boundary disputes, land sales, and property theft.

Land was privately held. As population increased, landholding and inheritance were more critical. In theory, all children had an equal right to inherit their parents' fields. In practice, though, most land passed from father to son. Sons, after fulfilling the labor obligations to their in-laws, farmed with their fathers.

Some coconut groves were held in common by the descendants of the original owner; common ownership gave these groups of descendants a strategic importance in controlling resources. Cooperative societies played a significant role in various economic ventures and had a major impact on coconut production, transporting, and selling.

Slash-and-burn farming on uninhabited islands and the mainland was the major economic activity, providing most subsistence. Bananas were the primary subsistence crop; coconuts, the main cash crop. Sources of nonagricultural income included migrant wage labor, the sale of hand-sewn items by Cuna women, and tourism. Most of the tourists were day visitors, but there were several resorts in the San Blas Islands owned by Cuna, United States citizens, and Panamanians. The Cuna also owned retail stores on the San Blas Islands.

Migrant wage labor was the most common source of nonfarm income. The Cuna have a long history as migrant laborers, beginning with their service as sailors on passing ships in the nineteenth century. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Cuna did short stints in Panama City, Colón, and on banana plantations. Later they worked in the Canal Zone. The United Fruit Company banana plantations in Changuinola and Almirante were frequent destinations for Cuna. The company viewed the Cuna as exemplary employees, and a few were promoted to managerial or semi-managerial positions as of the late 1980s. Migrant labor was a part of the experience of almost every young male Cuna in his late teens or early twenties. In contrast with most of rural Panama, however, women left San Blas very infrequently. A mid-1970s survey found that less than 4 percent of San Blas women of all ages were living away.

Missionary activity among the Cuna began with the Roman Catholics in 1907 and Protestant denominations in 1913. Non- Panamanian Protestants were banned in 1925. A small Baptist mission returned with legal guarantees of freedom of confession in the 1950s. The presence of missionaries was a bone of contention between modernist and traditional Cuna for decades. Christianity spread unevenly through the archipelago, and the San Blasinos often resisted it tenaciously. Converts were often lax in their adherence to the new creeds; indigenous belief and practice remained prominent. The Baptist mission, noted one anthropologist, was "thoroughly Kuna-ized."

Ritual was a major focus of Cuna concern and a significant part of the relations between non-kin. It formed the basis for community solidarity and esprit. A man gained prestige through his mastery of rituals and chants. Virtually the entire village took part in female puberty rites, which were held several times each year; much social interaction followed ritualized patterns closely.

Lavish sharing was an esteemed virtue; stinginess was disparaged. Thus, the Cuna continued to celebrate community solidarity through feasting, gift giving, and ritual. The community offered food to visitors and entertained at public expense. The plethora of celebrations in the Cuna calendar offered ample occasions to display their generosity.

Many Cuna recognized the value of literacy, and schools had a long history in the archipelago. In the nineteenth century, some Cuna learned to read and write during periods of migrant labor. By the early 1900s, there were a few primary schools in San Blas. There was some resistance among the more conservative elements in Cuna society, but in general education encountered far less opposition than did missionaries' proselytizing. In the 1980s, most settlements of any size had a primary school; there were also several secondary schools. It was not uncommon for Cuna to migrate to further their education--there was a contingent of Cuna at the University of Panama, and a few had studied abroad. On islands with the longest history of schooling, illiteracy rates among those ten years of age and older were in the range of 15 percent in the late 1970s. The 4 villages that had refused schools until the late 1960s and early 1970s averaged nearly 95 percent illiterate. Overall, more than half the Cuna population over ten years of age was literate, and a comparable proportion of those aged seven to fifteen were in school.

Cuna relations with outsiders, especially the Panamanian government, have frequently been stormy. In general, however, the Cuna have managed to hold their own more effectively than most indigenous peoples. Early in the twentieth century, there were several Cuna confederacies, each under the aegis of the main village's chief. The chiefs negotiated with outsiders on behalf of the villages within their alliance.

In 1930 the national government recognized the semiautonomous status of the San Blas Cuna; eight years later the government formed the official Cuna reserve, the Comarca de San Blas. The Carta Orgánica, legislated by Law 16 of 1953, established the administrative structure of the reservation.

Tensions between the state and the Cuna increased under the rule of Omar Torrijos Herrera (1968-81) as the government attempted to alter Cuna political institutions. Cuna were unhappy over the appointment of Hispanics rather than Cuna to sensitive posts. Relations reached a low point during the controversy surrounding government plans to promote tourism in the region, threatening San Blas's status as a reserve. The conflict ended, however, with the reaffirmation of the reserve's status. The extent of Cuna disagreements with the national government was reflected in their vote in the 1977 referendum on the Panama Canal treaties: San Blas was the only electoral district to reject the treaties. For the Cuna, this action was less a statement about the fate of the former Canal Zone or Panamanian sovereignty than their rather strongly held views about their autonomy. Although many government-sponsored reforms were incorporated into Cuna political institutions, the San Blasinos continued to exercise a significant measure of autonomy.

More about the <>Ethnic Groups of Panama.


Panama - Guaymi


The Guaymi Indians were concentrated in the more remote regions of Bocas del Toro, Chiriquí, and Veraguas. Because their territory was divided by the Cordillera Central, the Guaymi resided in two sections that were climatically and ecologically distinct. On the Pacific side, small hamlets were scattered throughout the more remote regions of Chiriquí and Veraguas; on the Atlantic side, the people remained in riverine and coastal environments.

Contact was recorded between outsiders and Guaymi in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Spanish colonial policy tried to group the Indians into settlements (reducciones) controlled by missionaries. This policy enjoyed only limited success in the area of modern Panama. Although some Indians converted to Christianity and gradually merged with the surrounding rural mestizo populace, most simply retreated to more remote territories.

Roman Catholic missionaries had sporadic contact with the Guaymi after the colonial era. Protestant missionaries--mostly Methodists and Seventh- Day Adventists--were active on the fringes of Guaymi territory on the Atlantic side, beginning in the early twentieth century. The Guaymi were impressed by missionaries because most missionaries, unlike mestizos, did not try to take advantage of them in economic dealings.

Present-day contact was most intense in Veraguas, where the mestizo farmers were expanding into previously remote lands at a rapid rate. Guaymi in Bocas del Toro and Chiriquí were less affected. The entry of these outsiders effectively partitioned Guaymi lands. There was a rise in the proportion of tribal members bilingual in Spanish and Guaymi, substantial numbers of whom eventually abandoned Guaymi and disclaimed their Indian identity.

Government schools, especially along the Atlantic portion of Guaymi territory, attracted Indian settlements. Many parents were anxious for their children to attend at least primary school. They arranged for their children to board as servants with Antillean black families living in town, so that the children could attend classes. The outcome was a substantial number of Guaymi young adults who were trilingual in Guaymi, Spanish, and English.

Guaymi subsistence relied on crop raising, small-scale livestock production, hunting, and fishing. In contrast to the slash-and-burn agriculture practiced by the majority mestizo population, Guaymi agriculture was more similar to the type of exploitation practiced in the pre-Columbian era. It placed less reliance on machete and match, and more emphasis on the gradual selective clearing and weeding of plots at the seedling stage of crop growth. The Guaymi burned some trees (that did not have to be felled), but generally left more vegetation to decay. This strategy did not subject the fragile tropical soils to the intense leaching that often follows clear cutting and burning of the tropical forest. The Guaymi agricultural system relied upon an intimate and detailed knowledge of the forest flora. The Guaymi marked seasons not as much by changes in temperature and precipitation as by differences in plants. They noted the times of the year by observing when various plants matured. As an agricultural system it was highly diversified, and the wide range of crop varieties planted conferred resistance to the diverse pests that afflict more specialized farming systems. As an example, Guaymi banana trees produced fruit for sale during all the years that blight had essentially shut down the commercial banana plantations in the region.

Like much of rural Panama, Guaymi territories were subjected to considerable pressure. The length of time land was left fallow decreased. In addition, there were few stands of even well- established secondary forest, let alone untouched tropical forest. In the more intensively used regions, cultivators noted the proliferation of the short, coarse grasses that are the bane of traditional slash-and-burn agricultural systems.

The decline in stands of virgin and secondary forest led to a decrease in wildlife, which affected the Guaymi diet. Domestic livestock grew in importance as a source of protein because larger animals, such as tapir, deer, and peccary, once plentiful, were available only occasionally. Smaller livestock, such as poultry, was extremely vulnerable to disease and predation. Pigs and cattle were raised, but they were among the most consistently saleable products available; as a result, the Guaymi had to choose between protein and cash income. Overall, the diet was quite starchy, with bananas, manioc, and yams the main food items.

Wildlife was adversely affected by modern hunting techniques, also. Traditional hunting and fishing techniques had a minimal impact on the species involved. However, the small-caliber rifles, flashlights, and underwater gear used by Guaymi in the modern era were far more destructive.

The link of most Guaymi to the market economy was similar to that of many poorer rural mestizos. The Indians bought such items as clothing, cooking utensils, axes, blankets, alcohol, sewing machines, wristwatches, and radios. They earned the money for these purchases through period wage labor and the sale of livestock, crops, and crafts (the most unpredictable source of income).

Most Guaymi young men had some experience as wage laborers, although their opportunities were usually limited and uncertain. Some acquired permanent or semipermanent jobs. A few managed to get skilled employment as mechanics or overseers. Fewer still became teachers. The principal employers for Guaymi were the surrounding banana plantations and cattle ranches. Because government policy after the 1950s limited the hiring of foreign laborers on the plantations, Guaymi formed a major part of the banana plantation work force. A number of Indian families settled in towns to work on the plantations. Nonetheless, the wages Guaymi earned proved illusory since most, if not all, of their earnings were spent on living expenses while away from home.

The Guaymi link to the national economy not only provided cash for the purchase of a variety of consumer goods but also acted as a safety valve, relieving the pressure on land. Their dependence on this link was evident during the 1960s, when the Guaymi endured a real hardship because of a decline in demand for labor on banana plantations.

Settlement patterns among the Guaymi were intimately linked to kinship and social organization. Hamlets, each typically representing a single extended family, were scattered throughout the territory. There were no larger settlements of any permanence serving as trading or ceremonial centers. A few mestizo towns on the fringes of Guaymi territory served as trading posts.

Each hamlet was ideally composed of a group of consanguineally related males, their wives, and their unmarried children. Nevertheless, this general rule glossed over residence patterns of considerable fluidity and complexity. At least at some points in an individual's life, he or she resided in a three-generation household. Households, however, took many forms, including nuclear families; polygynous households; groups of brothers, their wives, and unmarried children; a couple, their unmarried children, and married sons and their wives and children; or a mother, her married sons, and their wives and children.

A hamlet defined an individual's social identity, and access to land and livelihood was gained through residence in a specific hamlet. Typically, a person's closest kin resided there. The wide variety of family forms represented in hamlets reflected the diverse ways individual Guaymi used the ties of kinship to gain access to land. Depending on the availability of plots, an individual couple might live with the husband's family (the ideal), the wife's kin, the husband's mother (if his parents did not live together), the husband's mother's kin, or his father's mother's kin.

Guaymi had pronounced notions about which tasks were appropriately male or female; but men would build fires, cook, and care for children if necessary and women would, as the occasion demanded, weed and chop firewood. Women were never supposed to clear forest, herd cattle, or hunt. Nonetheless, a measure of expediency dictated who actually performed the required duties. Because most men migrated to look for employment, a significant segment of the agricultural work force was absent for lengthy periods of time. Consequently, women assumed a larger share of the farmwork during those absences. Their own male kinsmen helped with the heavier tasks. Children began assisting their parents at approximately eight years of age. By the time a girl was fourteen to fifteen years old and a boy seventeen to eighteen, they were expected to do the work of an adult.

Sharing of food and labor was an important form of exchange among kin. If a hamlet needed food, a woman or child would be sent to solicit food from relatives. Kin also formed a common labor pool for virtually all agricultural work. Guaymi did not hire each other as wage laborers. Non-kin assisted each other only for specific festive or communal works. Within the hamlet, all able-bodied family members were expected to contribute labor. Kin from different hamlets exchanged labor on a day-by-day basis. Individuals were careful not to incur too many obligations so as not to compromise their own household's agricultural production. Those who received assistance were obliged to provide food, meat, and chicha (a kind of beer) for all the workers. Moreover, there was supposed to be enough food to send a bit home with each worker.

Marriage was the primary means by which Guaymi created social ties to other (non-kin) Guaymi. The ramifications of marriage exchanges extended far beyond the couple concerned. The selection of a spouse was the choice of an allied group and reflected broader concerns such as access to land and wealth, resolution of longstanding disputes, or acquisition of an ally in a previously nonaligned party.

Fathers usually arranged marriages for children. An agreement was marked by a visit of the groom and his parents to the home of the prospective bride and her family. The marriage itself was fixed through a series of visits between the two households involved. No formal ceremony marked the event. Ideally, marriage arrangements were to be balanced exchanges between two kin groups.

Initially the young couple resided with the bride's parents because a son-in-law owed his parents-in-law labor. Thus, a bride usually did not leave her natal hamlet for at least a year. For the husband, persuading his wife to leave her family and join his was a major, and often insurmountable, hurdle. If the marriage conformed to the ideal of a balanced exchange, however, a husband's task was considerably easier in that his wife had to join him or her brother would not receive a wife.

Young men in groups without daughters to exchange in marriage were at a disadvantage. Although they could (and did) ask for wives without giving a sister in return, the fathers of the brides gained significantly. A son-in-law whose family did not provide a bride to his wife's family faced longer labor obligations to his in-laws and uncertainty about when, or if, his wife would join him and his family.

A minority of all marriages were polygynous. Traditionally, a man's ability to support more than one wife was testimony to his wealth and prestige. Co-wives were often sisters. A man could marry his wife's younger sister after he had established a household and acquired sufficient resources to support two families. Wives lived together until their sons matured and married. At that time, an extended household would reconstitute itself around a woman and her married sons and their wives and children. Younger wives in polygynous marriages had a tendency to leave their husbands as they aged. A reasonably successful Guaymi man might expect to begin his married life in a monogamous union, have several wives as he grew more wealthy, and finish his life again in a monogamous marriage.

In general, there were few external indications of differences in wealth, and there was no formal ranking of status in Guaymi society. Prestige accrued to the individual Guaymi male who was able to demonstrate largesse in meeting his obligations to kin and in-laws. A young man began to gain the respect of his in-laws by providing them well with food and labor. He further demonstrated his abilities by farming his own plots well enough to provide for his family and those of his kin who visited.

An individual might also gain prestige through his ability to settle differences. Historically, disputes between Guaymi were settled at public meetings chaired by a person skilled in arbitration. An individual's prestige was in proportion to his ability to reach a consensus among the parties involved in the dispute. In present-day Guaymi society, a government-appointed representative decided the case. Guaymi gained prestige by proposing settlements more acceptable to the disputants than those of the government representative. As an individual's reputation spread, other disputants sought him out to arbitrate. The entire process emphasized the extent to which indigenous political structures were acephalous and loosely organized. There were no durable, well-organized, non-kin groups that functioned in the political sphere; decision making was largely informal and consensual.

In the 1980s, government plans to develop the Cerro Colorado copper mine, along the Cordillera Central in eastern Chiriquí Province, gave impetus to the efforts of some Guaymi to organize politically. Most of the mining project as well as a planned slurry pipeline, a highway, and the Changuinola I Hydroelectric Project were in territory occupied by the Guaymi. Guaymi attended a number of congresses to protect their claims to land and publicize their misgivings about the projects. The Guaymi were concerned about the government's apparent lack of interest in their plight, about the impact on their lands, and their productivity, and about the effect of dam construction on fishing and water supplies. Guaymi were also worried that proposed cash indemnification payments for lands or damages would be of little benefit to them in the long run. As of late 1987, however, the matter had not been fully resolved.

More about the <>Ethnic Groups of Panama.




Family and Kin

In the late 1980s, family and kin continued to play a central role in the social lives of most Panamanians. An individual without kin to turn to for protection and aid was in a precarious position. Loyalty to one's kin was an ingrained value, and family ties were considered one's surest defense against a hostile and uncertain world. This loyalty often outweighed that given to a spouse; indeed, a man frequently gave priority to his responsibility to his parents or siblings over that extended to his wife.

Co-resident parents, children, and others living with them constituted the basic unit of kinship. Family members relied upon each other for assistance in major undertakings throughout life. Extended kin were important as well. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins faithfully gathered to mark birthdays and holidays together. Married children visited their parents frequently--even daily. In some small remote villages and in some classes (such as the elite), generations of intermarriage created a high measure of interrelatedness, and almost everyone could trace a kinship link with everyone else. Co-residence, nonetheless, remained the basis for the most enduring ties an individual formed.

A significant portion of all marriage unions were consensual rather than contractual. A formal marriage ceremony often represented the culmination of a life together for many mestizo and Antillean couples. It served as a mark of economic success. Grown children sometimes promoted their parents' formal marriage. Alternatively, a priest might encourage it for an elderly sick person, as a prerequisite for receiving the rite of the anointing of the sick.

The stability of consensual marriages varied considerably. In rural areas where campesinos' livelihood was reasonably secure and population relatively stable, social controls bolstered informal unions. Mestizos themselves made no distinction between the obligations and duties of couples in a consensual or a legal marriage. Children suffered little social stigma if their parents were not legally married. If the union was unstable and there were children, the paternal grandparents sometimes took in both mother and children. Or, a woman might return to her mother's or her parents' household, leaving behind her children so that she could work. Nevertheless, there were a significant number of femaleheaded families, particularly in cities and among the poorest segment of the population.

Formally constituted legal marriage was the rule among the more prosperous campesinos, cattle ranchers, the urban middle class, and the elite. Marriage played a significant role for the elite in defining and maintaining the family's status. A concern for genealogy, imputed racial purity, and wealth were major considerations. Repeated intermarriage made the older elite families into a broadly interrelated web of kin. As one upper-class wife noted, ". . . no member of my family marries anyone whose greatgrandparents were unknown to us."

Men were expected to be sexually active outside of marriage. Keeping a mistress was acceptable in virtually every class. Among the wealthier classes, a man's relationship with his mistress could take on a quasi-formal, permanent quality. An elite male could entertain his mistress on all but the most formal social occasions, and he could expect to receive friends at the apartment he had provided for her. Furthermore, he would recognize and support the children she bore him.

The ideal focus for a woman, by contrast, was home, family, and children. Children were a woman's main goal and consolation in life. The tie between mother and child was virtually sacrosanct, and filial love and respect deeply held duties. Whatever her husband's extramarital activities, a woman's fidelity had to be above reproach. An elite or middle-class woman derived considerable solace from her status as a man's legal wife. Nevertheless, middleclass and more educated women often found their traditional role and the division of labor irksome, and were particularly offended by the diversion of family funds into their husbands' pursuit of pleasure.

Campesinos, too, divided social life into its properly male and female spheres: "The man is in the fields, the woman is in the home." As a corollary, men were "of the street" and able to visit at will. Women who circulated too freely were likened to prostitutes; men who performed female tasks were thought to be dominated by their wives.

Childrearing practices reinforced the traditional male and female roles and values to a greater or lesser degree among all classes. Boys were permitted considerably more latitude and freedom than girls. Girls were typically tightly supervised, their companions screened, and their activities monitored.

Because children were deeply desired, their birth was celebrated, and a baptism was a major family event. The selection of godparents (padrinos) was an important step that could have a pronounced influence on the child's welfare and future. It resulted in a quasi-kinship relationship that carried with it moral, ceremonial, and religious significance, and broadened family ties of trust, loyalty, and support.

Parents tried to choose for their children godparents whom they respected, and trusted, and who were as high on the social scale as possible. A certain degree of formality and ceremony was expected of godparents in social interaction, but the bonds primarily involved protective responsibility and a willingness to render assistance in adversity.

Campesinos followed two distinct patterns in choosing godparents. The parents might choose a person of wealth, power, or prestige, thereby gaining an influential protector. Such a contact could give a parent the confidence to launch a child into an alien outside world, in which he or she might have little personal status or experience. By contrast, among some campesinos there was strong informal pressure in the opposite direction. They believed it was inappropriate to ask someone of higher economic status to act as a godparent, so they sought out instead a relative or friend, especially one who lived in the same area. The choice here tended to reinforce existing social ties and loyalties.

<> Rural Society
<> Migration
<> Urban Society
<> The Elite
<> The Middle Class
<> The Lower Class


Panama - Rural Society


The opening of the trans-isthmian railroad in the mid- nineteenth century and the Panama Canal early in the twentieth century reinforced the distinctions basic to Panamanian society: the dichotomies between rural and urban inhabitants; small-scale, mixed agriculturalists and larger cattle ranchers; the landless and landowners; and mestizos and whites. By the late 1980s, urban-based control over rural lands was considerable. The metropolitan elite not only had substantial rural landholdings, but monopolized pivotal political posts as well. Wealthy city dwellers also controlled food-processing and transportation facilities. For the bulk of the mestizo peasants, though, limited population and ample reserves of land made elite control of resources less onerous than it might have been, as did the fact that urban elites tended to view their holdings less as agricultural enterprises than as estates in the countryside.

Traditional slash-and-burn agriculture was the basis of rural livelihood for most human settlement on the isthmus. All able-bodied household members were expected to contribute to the family's support. The peasant family was a single production and consumption unit. There was a marked division of labor by sex, and most of the work associated with crops and planting was done by men. Mestizos recognized the significant contribution children made to the agricultural output of a household. Boys and girls gradually assumed responsibilities for assisting with the duties deemed appropriate to their gender. As children, especially boys, grew older, they received part of the income from the sale of crops or part of a field that was "in their name."

Agricultural production was geared to the household's consumption. A family typically kept some livestock and planted a variety of foodstuffs, of which maize was the principal crop. Peasants gained temporary access to land by entering an agreement to clear and maintain cattle pasture for absentee landowners. A family would agree to clear a stand of forest (ideally secondary growth) and plant it in crops for one to two years. At the end of the cycle, they would often seed the plot with grasses before moving on to a new site. Peasants also owed landowners a minimal number of days in labor each year. They faced further demands on their labor to build and maintain communal buildings, such as churches and schools, and to assist with certain public works required by the government.

Since the 1950s, however, traditional slash-and-burn farming and the system of social relations it supports have been in the throes of change. Increasing population pressure, the rapid expansion of cattle ranching, and production of a variety of other cash crops in the interior provinces have put pressure on the land base necessary to maintain slash-and-burn agriculture while preserving the tropical forest. Improved transportation has been accompanied by a rapid expansion in cattle ranching in regions hitherto inaccessible. The process as a whole has meant an increasing consolidation of landholdings and displacement of traditional small-scale farmers engaged in mixed crop and livestock production. The number of farms classified as family owned and operated has declined, in favor of larger units worked by agricultural laborers. This pattern has been accompanied by an increase in and intensification of land disputes.

The consolidation process has been particularly intense in the lowlands of the Pacific coast and in Colón Province southwest of the city of Colón. In these regions, the expansion of the road network and the increasing number of all-weather roads have given potential cattle ranchers access to the large urban beef markets in Colón and Panama City. Cattle ranches grew five-fold in size in the hinterlands of Colón Province in the 1960s. Similar forces had a comparable impact on the Pacific coast, where cattle ranching increased by more than 400 percent from the 1950s through the 1970s, and land values tripled.

The increased demands on the land base affected peasant farmers on many levels. Growing population pressure and the felling of most untouched stands of tropical forest meant a decrease of hunting and, therefore, of animal protein in the family diet. Peccary, deer, and iguana, once relatively common supplements to the mestizo diet, were less available. The same process limited the forest products available for home construction and firewood. Ironically, the expansion in cattle ranching limited the ability of small-scale farmers to keep larger livestock. The purchase price of cattle rose; and, because increased planting meant that animals could not forage as freely as before, they had to be penned or fenced. Finally, where drought-resistant pasture grasses were seeded, the forest itself regenerated much more slowly--limiting still further the land's ability to support an expanding population of both cattle ranchers and small farmers.

The decline in the land available for slash-and-burn agriculture and the increase in cash cropping also drew peasants more deeply into commercialized agriculture in the 1980s. At the same time that small farmers faced declining harvests and increased pressure on the family's subsistence base, they were forced to compete in markets for cash crops where the price was largely determined by larger-scale producers. Most of their production of cash crops was sporadic and in response to unpredictable situations. Difficulties in marketing placed small producers at a further disadvantage.

Sugarcane provides an instructive example. Farmers often planted sugarcane as a second-year crop in the fields they had cleared. The crop was pressed on the draft-animal presses some families owned and used for home consumption. As transportation improved, more small farmers gained access to large-scale, commercial sugarcane mills and had the option of growing sugarcane on contract for the mills. Although this opportunity offered the cultivator a possible source of more reliable income, small farmers were disadvantaged in a number of ways. Planting cane precludes using a plot for foodstuffs during the second year of cultivation. In addition, it requires hired labor, and small-scale producers were hard pressed to offer wages competitive with those that larger farmers or the mills themselves could pay. Finally, small farmers were unable to control the timing of their harvesting, which is essential for gaining optimal yields, because producers had to cut and transport their harvest whenever they were able to contract laborers and truckers for hauling the crop to the mill.

By the late 1980s, peasant families had become vastly more dependent on the money economy. In many regions, consumer goods replaced the traditional craft items produced at home, and hired labor was used in preference to labor exchange among households. Neighbors previously linked through myriad ties of exchange and interdependence were now bound by their common link with external markets. The amount of cash purchases families had to make rose dramatically: corrugated roofing replaced thatch, metal cookware replaced gourds and wooden utensils, nails served instead of vines as fasteners, and, in rare instances, gas stoves were used instead of wood-burning ranges.

Peasant families had a variety of subsidiary sources of income at their disposal. Men and women alike had opportunities to earn a little cash income. Women husked and cleaned rice for neighbors who could afford to pay, sewed, made hats, cooked, and washed clothes, while men made furniture. Those fortunate enough to own draft animals or trucks hauled goods for other farmers. Depending on location, season, and a variety of other factors, there was occasional demand for casual laborers. Such options represented a "safety net" that farmers took advantage of when crops failed or harvests were short. Nevertheless, nonfarming sources of income did not represent a viable alternative to agriculture for most families.

The general increase in cash in circulation affected various segments of the rural population differently. Younger or more highly educated and trained workers were able to compete for better-paying jobs and thus outearn their parents. Despite this, the impact on family life was cushioned because parents never counted on controlling their grown children. In one sense, families were better off because well-employed children were better able to assist their elderly parents. Where the increased cash purchases included milled rice, women were spared the arduous task of husking and milling rice themselves. Educational opportunities benefited all able to take advantage of them. Women gained in particular from the increase in employment opportunities for primary-school teachers.

In addition to peasant farmers and ranchers, Panama had the core of a rural educated middle class by the mid-twentieth century. Frequently educated at the teachers' college in Santiago, in the province of Veraguas, these educated sons and daughters of more prosperous agriculturalists and small merchants were of marginal influence in comparison with the urban elite. Long excluded from any effective role in the nation's politics, they proved a bulwark of support for the Torrijos regime.

Land reform legislation drafted under the influence of the Alliance for Progress in the early 1960s recognized the peasants' right to land. Nevertheless, the law's consequences in the countryside were often unforeseen. The plots allocated under the law were usually too small to support slash-and-burn agriculture; they did not allow sufficient land for fallowing. And, for a substantial portion of peasant families, the cash outlay required to purchase land was prohibitive. Although the relatively poor were unable to assume such debts, the more prosperous were. Some of the more successful emigrants to the city managed to acquire land through land reform and rented it to farmers under terms equivalent to those previously available through larger absentee owners.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the government attempted to model its land reform efforts on a collective farming system borrowed from Chile. The government acquired tax-delinquent properties and set up a variety of collectively operated agro-enterprises. The collectives enjoyed mixed success, however. They tended to be heavily mechanized and dependent on outside infusions of technical assistance and capital, while they generated only minimal employment. The most dramatic successes were achieved in regions like Veraguas Province where small farmers competed with cattle ranchers for land. Collectives were less successful in areas where smallholdings predominated.

Where small farmers held title to their lands--an infrequent pattern in traditional rural Panama--they often sold their lands to the larger, more heavily capitalized cattle ranches. The numbers of landless, or nearly landless, cultivators in search of plots to "borrow" for a season's planting rose. Substantial numbers of these displaced small farmers chose migration as an alternative.

Mestizo migrants from regions where cattle ranching was expanding entered the lowlands of the Atlantic coast and the Darién Peninsula in increasing numbers. Migrants arrived and cleared forest land (generally away from the rivers favored by the region's earlier black, Indian, Hispanic Indian, and Hispanic black settlers). The process then repeated itself: the new settlers remained for a few years until improved roads brought more cattle ranchers; the colonos (internal migrants) who originally cleared the forest then sold their lands and moved yet deeper into the tropical forest.


Panama - Migration


Migration has played an increasingly significant role in the lives of Panamanians and has followed a distinct pattern throughout the twentieth century. Population movement has been into those districts and provinces enjoying a period of economic prosperity, typically associated with the canal. As the economic boom peters out, the migrant population moves back to the primarily agricultural districts, to be reabsorbed into subsistence farming or small-scale businesses and services in the country's predominantly rural interior. The pattern has been repeated several times with the ebb and flow of economic activity. In the late 1980s, it remained to be seen what adaptations migrants would make given the shrinking rural land base.

The 1911 census provides a baseline for population movements throughout the century. At that time, the provinces of Chiriquí and Panamá accounted for nearly 40 percent of the total population. Chiriquí's growth was the result of migrants from Colombia in the nineteenth century; Panamá's came as a result of the canal construction begun just after the turn of the century. The central provinces--Veraguas, Coclé, Los Santos, and Herrera (in order of population)--accounted for slightly more than 40 percent of the total. The entire region had been populated along the coasts since the colonial era and had grown in response to increased demand for foodstuffs in Panama City and Colón in the second half of the nineteenth century. The decade following the census saw dramatic population growth in response to the United States presence and the building of the Panama Canal. The need to feed the massive numbers of black Antillean laborers who came to work on the construction project generated a boom in agriculture.

Subsequent censuses revealed a specific pattern of rural-rural and rural-urban migration. Some rural districts of a province lost population, while others even relatively close grew rapidly. The pattern reversed itself during periods of economic stagnation. Then, migrants retreated into subsistence agriculture in regions that had enjoyed limited participation in the previous boom. Between 1910 and 1920, for example, the Chepigana District in Darién was in the midst of a boom and enjoyed a significant influx of population, while the neighboring Pinogana District lost population. Their roles were reversed in the following decade.

The 1920s represented such a period of stagnation. The regions of highest growth in the previous decade grew much more slowly--if they grew at all. Colón and Bocas del Toro were the most heavily affected. Panamá Province continued to grow at rates slightly in excess of the national average; nonetheless, a large number of foreign workers left, as did a significant portion of the small business owners who had provisioned them and who were ruined by the decline in clientele.

Rural regions absorbed these surplus laborers and served as centers of population growth throughout the 1920s. Some such as Veraguas and Darién grew in excess of 5 percent annually during the intercensal period. District capitals in predominantly rural provinces tended to enjoy significant growth as well, probably as a result of their administrative functions, and the rise of banana plantations in Chiriquí attracted workers from throughout Central America.

The pattern reversed again in the late 1930s and mid-1940s. The immediate pre-World War II period as well as the war itself were times of significant economic expansion for the country as a whole. The province of Panamá headed the country in population growth, and the entire western portion of the province was a region of economic expansion. Colón, by contrast, lost in importance. Its annual rate of increase, 1.44 percent, was barely half the national average. The decline in Colón's fortunes reflected the centralization of economic and administrative activity in Panama City. Furthermore, Colón's importance as a port on the Atlantic diminished with the construction of the Trans-isthmian Highway (also known as the Boyd- Roosevelt Highway).

The economic expansion accompanying World War II eliminated problems associated with the increase in large-scale agro- enterprises in the interior. Although substantial numbers of small farmers were displaced, they were readily absorbed by the demand for labor in cities and the countryside. Even in the period of economic contraction following the war, cities in predominantly rural provinces enjoyed significant growth. The war fueled the development of small-scale industrial and processing activities throughout the country. The dimensions of this growth were such that large numbers of rural youngsters--sons and daughters of small farmers--remained in the provinces in which they were born rather than migrating to Panama City or the Canal Zone.

World War II also saw Panama's last major influx of foreign workers. Most of these workers left with the economic slowdown at the war's end. As in previous periods of economic contraction, increasing numbers of displaced migrants took refuge in subsistence farming. The late 1940s was a time of growth for the rural regions of the country.

Overall, population grew at an annual rate of 2.9 percent in the 1950s; Panama was in the midst of a demographic transition as birth rates remained high while death rates dropped. The press of the population on the land base reached critical proportions. Peasants, displaced by the spread of large-scale agro-enterprises in the country, found it more and more difficult to find unoccupied land to put into production. At the same time, rural-urban migrants found it increasingly difficult simply to return home and resume farming during periods of economic contraction.

The pressure on the land base was acute enough to precipitate significant conflict over holdings in the 1950s and 1960s. In the province of Panamá, peasants invaded and seized the land around Gatun Lake as well as some regions of the districts of La Chorrera, Capira, and Chaime. Although many of these squatters were successful in maintaining their claim on the holdings, most peasants in other parts of the country were not so fortunate. The expansion of large cattle ranches in much of Los Santos and Veraguas continued the migratory process begun earlier, and peasants were pushed farther and farther along the agricultural frontier.

Substantial numbers of these displaced peasants migrated to less settled regions in Chiriquí, Los Santos, and Veraguas. Likewise, banana plantations in Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro drew significant numbers of migrants. The principal destination for much of the rural populace, however, was Greater Panama City.

Nearly two-thirds of all migrants had as their destination the heavily urban province of Panamá--a proportion that has remained roughly constant since the 1950s. In terms of absolute numbers, Los Santos and Veraguas were the major contributors to the migration stream: together they accounted for one-third of all migrants. The relatively depressed districts around Colón contributed large numbers of migrants, as did a number of districts in Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro. Based on rates of out-migration rather than absolute numbers, Los Santos, Darién, and Coclé were the main places of origin.

Within the province of Panamá, the greater metropolitan area of Panama City attracted most migrants. The districts surrounding the city averaged a growth rate of more than 10 percent per year in the 1960s and 1970s. Panama City played a significant role in the migration patterns of virtually every other province in the country. Over 90 percent of the migrants from Darién went there, as did roughly 80 percent of those from Coclé, Colón, Los Santos, and Veraguas. In the relatively prosperous mid-1960s to mid-1970s, most migrants managed to find employment. Many joined the ranks of peddlers and other small-scale self-employed individuals.

The manufacturing sector expanded significantly during the 1960s, resulting in a doubling of the industrial labor force. The service sector--traditionally the country's most dynamic--was fueled by the expansion of manufacturing as well as Panama's pivotal position as a transit zone. The service sector absorbed more than half the increase in the economically active population and grew at a rate of more than 6 percent annually. For the city- bound migrant, that meant jobs in public and domestic service and construction. Nevertheless, some observers expected the rate of migration to the metropolitan region to decline with economic reverses in the 1980s and the increase in opportunities in other regions, such as the Cerro Colorado copper project in Chiriquí.

Overall, the migration stream in the 1970s was composed of three components: rural-urban migrants (accounting for more than half of all migrants), urban-urban migrants (roughly one-quarter of all migrants), and urban-rural migrants (nearly 20 percent of those questioned about their place of residence five years earlier had been living in a city). The exact proportion and significance of urban-rural migration were difficult to judge. Approximately half the migrants were former residents of the smaller cities of the interior and presumably had left their farms for seasonal work in a nearby city or to attend school. Nearly one-third of these return migrants had lived in Panama City and its environs. Many were specialized workers; others were peasants unable to find permanent employment in the city; still others were children sent home to be cared for by kin.

Those people who migrated were, as a whole, young. In the 1970s nearly 75 percent of them were under 35 years of age; among rural- urban migrants, the percentage rose to more than 80 percent. School-age migrants represented a significant group in the migration stream. Although many simply accompanied their parents on moves, a significant minority were sent by their rural families for education in nearby cities. Men formed the majority among rural- urban migrants to Colón; women, however, accounted for a slight majority of all rural-urban migrants. This tendency was most marked in migration of women to cities in the interior, but was also found among migrants to Panama City. In general, observers attributed the high rate of female migration to the metropolitan region to the opportunities for employment available for young women there. Unemployment was lower among urban females than among their rural counterparts, whereas the reverse was true for males.


Panama - Urban Society


Since the 1950s, Panama has been in the midst of massive urban expansion. In 1960 slightly more than one-third of the total population was classified as urban; by the early 1980s, the figure had risen to 55 percent. Between 1970 and 1980, overall population increased by 2.5 percent per year, urban population by 2.8 percent, and the metropolitan population surrounding Panama City by 3.7 percent. Regional cities shared in the general urban expansion: the number of people in Santiago grew at 4.1 percent annually; David, 3.7 percent; and Chitré, 3.3 percent. Economically depressed Colón lagged with an annual increase of less than 0.5 a percent. Economic activity and population density in Panama were concentrated along two main axes: the Pan-American Highway (also known as the the Inter-American Highway) on the Pacific corridor from La Chorrera to Tocumen and the Trans-isthmian Highway from Panama City to Colón.

Far and away the most significant focus of urban development was the path following the former Canal Zone that stretches from Colón on the Atlantic coast to Panama City on the Pacific. In the mid-1980s, the region accounted for more than half the total population of the country and over two-thirds of all those classified as inhabitants of cities. It also included most nonagricultural economic activity: 76 percent of manufacturing, 85 percent of construction, 95 percent of transportation, and 84 percent of communications. Growth was not spread evenly throughout the region, and since the 1950s, Panama City and its environs had eclipsed Colón. Colón remained the only significant urban center on Panama's Atlantic coast, but by the early 1980s, substantial numbers of that city's business and professional community had emigrated in response to Panama City's expanding economy.

In terms of sheer numbers, most of the urban expansion was concentrated in slum tenements and, since the 1950s, in squatter settlements around the major cities. As was the case in most urban trends, Panama City led the way. In 1958 there were 11 identifiable slums or squatter settlements housing 18,000 people associated with the city; by the mid-1970s, there were some 34 slum communities and their population had mushroomed more than five-fold. Surveys indicated that 80 percent of slum and squatter settlement inhabitants were migrants to the city.

Many of the tenements took the form of two-story frame houses built as pre-World War I temporary housing for the canal labor force. They continued to be occupied, although in the early 1980s they were in an advanced state of decay. When one part of a building collapsed, slum dwellers continued to live in those sections of the building that remained standing. The structures were frequently condemned, which merely added to their attractiveness for impoverished city dwellers, because the rent therefore dropped to nothing. Squatter settlements offered their own inducements. If squatters were able to maintain their claims to land, the settlements tended to improve and gained amenities over time. Because they were essentially rent-free, they gave their inhabitants considerable advantages over costly and over-crowded, if more centrally located, tenements. A substantial portion of the squatters settled on government land, and there were numerous programs to permit them to purchase their housing sites. The Torrijos regime allocated funds for low-income housing projects, and there were efforts to upgrade the amenities available to the urban poor. By the 1980s, about 96 percent of the urban population had access to potable water and nearly 70 percent had electricity. Despite indications of some slowing in the rate of rural-urban migration in the 1980s, migrants represented a major strain on public services and the economy's ability to generate employment.

Although rural society was relatively homogeneous and simple in the social distinctions it made, urban Panama was not. It was ethnically and socially diverse and highly stratified. City dwellers took note of ethnic or racial heritage, family background, income (and source of income), religion, culture, education, and political influences as key characteristics in classifying individuals.

But, in the late 1980s, the boundaries among the elite, the middle class, and the lower class were neither especially well defined nor impervious. The ambitious and lucky city dweller could aspire to better significantly his or her social and economic status. Neither were the distinctions between rural and urban inhabitants absolute. City and countryside were linked in numerous ways; given the frequency with which migrants moved, this year's urban worker was last year's and (not uncommonly) next year's peasant. There was considerable social mobility, principally from the lower to the middle class and generally on an individual rather than a group basis. Wealth, occupation, education, and family affiliation were the main factors affecting such mobility.


Panama - The Elite


Urban society in the late 1980s included virtually all members of the elite. Centered mainly in the capital, this class was composed of old families of Spanish descent and a few, newer families of immigrants. All elite families were wealthy, but the assets of the immigrant families were more tightly linked with commerce and Panama's twentieth-century development as a transit zone. Older families were inclined to think of themselves an aristocracy based on birth and breeding. Newer families, lacking such illustrious antecedents, had less prestige and social status. Until the advent of Torrijos, whose power base was the National Guard, an oligarchy of older elite families virtually controlled the country's politics under the auspices of the Liberal Party.

The upper class was a small, close-knit group that had developed strong ties of association and kinship over the years. Prominent family names recurred frequently in the news of the nation: Arias, Arosemena, Alemán, Chiari, Goytía, and de la Guardia. People without a claim to such a family background could gain acceptance, at least for their children, by marriage into an elite family.

Since colonial times, education had been recognized as a mark of status; hence, almost all men of elite status received a university education. Most attended private schools either at home or abroad, and many studied a profession, with law and medicine the most favored. The practice of a profession was viewed not as a means of livelihood, but as a status symbol and an adjunct to a political career. The elite maintained a dual cultural allegiance, because families usually sent their sons to Western Europe or the United States to complete their education. Increasing numbers of women also attended college, but most families did not see such education as essential.

Politics was the quintessential career for a young man of elite background. The old, aristocratic families had long provided the republic's presidents, its cabinet ministers, and many members of the legislatures. Young women were increasingly finding employment in public administration and commerce in the 1980s.

Older elite families were closely interrelated and were careful to avoid racially mixed unions. Antillean blacks enjoyed little success in attaining elite status, although a wealthy, Spanishspeaking , Roman Catholic black could gain acceptance. There was an increasing degree of admixture with mestizo and more recent immigrant elements. Many such families entered the elite and intermarried with members of the older families. In a sense, commercial success had in large measure become a substitute for an illustrious family background. "Money whitens everyone" was a popular saying describing the phenomenon.


Panama - The Middle Class


The middle class was predominantly mestizo, but it included such diverse elements as the children and grandchildren of black Antilleans, the descendants of Chinese laborers on the railroad, Jews, more recent immigrants from Europe and the Middle East, and a few former elite families fallen on hard times. Like the elite, the middle class was largely urban, although many small cities and towns of the interior had their own middle-class families. The middle class encompassed small businessmen, professionals, managerial and technical personnel, and government administrators. Its membership was defined by those who, by economic assets or social status, were not identifiably elite but who were still markedly better off than the lower class. As a whole, the middle class benefited from the economic prosperity of the 1960s and early 1970s, as well as the general expansion in educational opportunities in the late twentieth century.

Members of the middle class who had held such status for any length of time were rarely content to remain fixed on the social scale. Emulating elite norms and attitudes, they exerted great effort to continue their climb up the social ladder. They were aware of the importance of education and occupation in determining status and the compensatory role these variables could play in the absence of family wealth or social background. Middle-class parents made great sacrifices to send their children to the best schools possible. Young men were encouraged to acquire a profession, and young women were steered toward office jobs in government or business. In contrast with the elite, the middle class viewed teaching as an appropriate occupation for a young woman.

Nationalist sentiment served to unify the diverse elements of the middle class in the decades following World War II. University students, who were predominantly middle class in family background, typified both the intense nationalism and the political activism of the middle class. Political observers noted a sharp class cleavage in the political consciousness of the Spanish-speaking natives and the more recent, unassimilated immigrant families. Middle-class immigrants tended to be preoccupied with commercial pursuits and largely conservative or passive in their politics.


Panama - The Lower Class


The lower class constituted the bulk of the country's urban population. As a group, it was stratified by employment and race. In terms of livelihood it was made up of unskilled or semiskilled workers, including artisans, vendors, manual laborers, and servants. The basic cleavages were between those who were wage earners and the self-employed, and those employed in the former Canal Zone, who constituted a "labor elite" earning twice the average of the metropolitan region as a whole.

Self-employment offered a precarious existence to most who pursued it, but served as an alternative for those unable to find other work when the economy contracted in the late 1970s and 1980s. Unemployment ran in excess of 10 percent in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and much of it was concentrated in the metropolitan region, which accounted for approximately four-fifths of the country's jobless. In poorer neighborhoods, the rate ran closer to 25 percent, and among low-income families, roughly 40 percent were unemployed.

Because the majority of rural-urban migrants to the metropolitan region were women, women outnumbered men in many larger urban areas. Many came in search of work as domestics. Young, single mothers constituted a significant proportion of the urban population; in Colón, for example, they represented one-third of all families. Women suffered higher unemployment rates than did men, and their earnings, when they were employed, averaged less than half those of males.

Ethnically, the lower class had three principal components: mestizo migrants from the countryside, children and grandchildren of Antillean blacks, and Hispanicized blacks--descendants of former slaves. The split between Antillean blacks and the rest of the populace was particularly marked. Although there was some social mixing and intermarriage, religious and cultural differences isolated the Antilleans. They were gradually becoming more Hispanicized, but the first generation usually remained oriented toward its Caribbean origins, and the second and third generations were under North American influence through exposure to United States citizens in the former Canal Zone where most were employed. Although some Antillean blacks were middle class, most remained in the lower class.

Increasing numbers of urban lower-class parents were sending their children to school. A secondary-school diploma, in particular, served as a permit to compete for white-collar jobs and elevation to middle-class status. This kind of mobility was on the rise throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Mestizos were better able to take advantage of these opportunities than most, but Antilleans who were educated and conformed to Hispanic cultural norms enjoyed considerable mobility as well. The National Guard, and later the FDP, have been an avenue of advancement for both Hispanic and Antillean blacks. A substantial portion of the enlisted personnel have come from the ranks of the black urban poor and, increasingly, the rural mestizo population. Enlisted personnel could hope to advance to the officer corps. Under the Torrijos regime, many troop commanders were promoted from the ranks.




The Constitution prescribes that there shall be no prejudice with respect to religious freedom, and the practice of all forms of worship is authorized. However, the Constitution recognizes that the Roman Catholic faith is the country's predominant religion and contains a provision that it be taught in the public schools. Such instruction or other religious activity is not, however, compulsory .

The Constitution does not specifically provide for the separation of church and state, but it implies the independent functioning of each. Members of the clergy may not hold civil or military public office, except such posts as may be concerned with social welfare or public instruction. The Constitution stipulates that senior officials of the church hierarchy in Panama must be native-born citizens.

The majority of Panamanians in the late 1980s were at least nominal Roman Catholics. The Antillean black community, however, was largely Protestant. Indians followed their own indigenous belief systems, although both Protestant and Catholic missionaries were active among the various tribes. Roman Catholicism permeated the social environment culturally as well as religiously. The devout regarded church attendance and the observance of religious duties as regular features of everyday life, and even the most casual or nominal Roman Catholics adjusted the orientation of their daily lives to the prevailing norms of the religious calendar. Although some sacraments were observed more scrupulously than others, baptism was almost universal, and the last rites of the church were administered to many who during their lives had been indifferent to the precepts of the faith or its religious rituals.

In the mid-1980s, when nearly 90 percent of the population was Roman Catholic, there were fewer than 300 priests in the country. Virtually every town had its Roman Catholic church, but many did not have a priest in residence. Many rural inhabitants in the more remote areas received only an occasional visit from a busy priest who traveled among a number of isolated villages.

Religious attitudes, customs, and beliefs differed somewhat between urban and rural areas, although many members of the urban working class, often recent migrants from rural regions, presumably retained their folk beliefs. According to one anthropologist, the belief system of the campesinos centered on God, the Devil, the saints, and the Virgin. Christ was viewed as more or less the chief saint, but as peripheral to the lives of men. The Virgin Mary served as an inspiration and model to women, but there was no comparable model for men.

Although the campesinos believed that each individual "is born with a destiny set by God," they also believed that the destiny could be altered if the individual succumbed to the constant blandishments and enticements of the Devil. The rural dwellers possessed a clear sense of reward and punishment that centered on All Souls' Day. On that day all who died during the previous year are summoned to judgment before God and the Devil. The life record of each person is recited by Saint Peter, and the good and bad deeds are weighed out on a Roman balance scale, thus determining the person's afterlife.

Throughout the society, birth and death were marked by religious rites observed by all but a very few. One of the first social functions in which newly born members of the family participated was the sacrament of baptism, which symbolized their entry into society and brought them into the church community. In the cities, church facilities were readily available, but in rural areas families often had to travel some distance to the nearest parish center for the ceremony. The trip was considered of great importance and was willingly undertaken. In fact, baptism was generally considered the most significant religious rite.

If the family lived near a church that had a priest in regular attendance, children received an early exposure to the formal teachings of the church and were usually taken to mass regularly by their mothers. As they grew older, they took an increasing part in church liturgy and by the age of ten were usually full participants in such activities as catechism classes, communion, and confession. As they approached manhood, boys tended to drift away from the church and from conscientious observation of church ritual. Few young men attended services regularly, and even fewer took an active part in the religious life of the community, although they continued to consider themselves Roman Catholics.

Girls, on the other hand, were encouraged to continue their religious devotions and observe the moral tenets of their faith. Women were more involved in the church than men, and the community and clerics accepted this as a basic axiom. There was social pressure on women to become involved in church affairs, and most women, particularly in urban areas, responded. As a rule, they attended mass regularly and took an active part in church and church-sponsored activities. Religious gatherings and observances were among the principal forms of diversion for women outside the home, and to a great extent these activities were social as much as devotional.




Public education began in Panama soon after independence from Colombia in 1903. The first efforts were guided by an extremely paternalistic view of the goals of education, as evidenced in comments made in a 1913 meeting of the First Panamanian Educational Assembly, "The cultural heritage given to the child should be determined by the social position he will or should occupy. For this reason education should be different in accordance with the social class to which the student should be related." This elitist focus changed rapidly under United States influence.

By the 1920s, Panamanian education subscribed to a progressive educational system, explicitly designed to assist the able and ambitious individual in search of upward social mobility. Successive national governments gave a high priority to the development of a system of (at least) universal primary education; in the late 1930s, as much as one-fourth of the national budget went to education. Between 1920 and 1934, primary-school enrollment doubled. Adult illiteracy, more than 70 percent in 1923, dropped to roughly half the adult population in scarcely more than a decade.

By the early 1950s, adult illiteracy had dropped to 28 percent, but the rate of gain had also declined and further improvements were slow in coming. The 1950s saw essentially no improvement; adult illiteracy was 27 percent in 1960. There were notable gains in the 1960s, however, and the rate of adult illiteracy dropped 8 percentage points by 1970. According to 1980 estimates, only 13 percent of Panamanians over 10 years of age were illiterate. Men and women were approximately equally represented among the literate. The most notable disparity was between urban and rural Panama; 94 percent of city-dwelling adults were literate, but fewer than two-thirds of those in the countryside were--a figure that also represented continued high illiteracy rates among the country's Indian population.

From the 1950s through the early 1980s, educational enrollments expanded faster than the rate of population growth as a whole and, for most of that period, faster than the school-aged population. The steepest increases came in secondary and higher educational enrollments, which increased ten and more than thirty times respectively. By the mid-1980s, primaryschool enrollment rates were roughly 113 percent of the primaryschool -aged population. Male and female enrollments were relatively equal overall, although there were significant regional variations.

Enrollments at upper levels of schooling had increased strikingly both in relative and absolute terms since 1960. Between 1960 and the mid-1980s, secondary-school enrollments expanded some four-and-a-half times and higher education, nearly twelve-fold. In 1965 fewer than one-third of children of secondary school age were in school, and only 7 percent of people aged 20 to 24 years. In the mid-1980s, almost two-thirds of secondary-school-aged children were enrolled, and about 20 percent of individuals aged 20 to 24 years were in institutions of higher education.

School attendance was compulsory for children from ages six through fifteen years, or until the completion of primary school. A six-year primary cycle was followed by two types of secondaryschool programs: an academic-oriented program and a vocational-type program. The academic program, which represented nearly threequarters of all secondary-school enrollment, involved two threeyear cycles. The lower cycle was of a general or exploratory nature, with a standard curriculum that included Spanish, social studies, religion, art, and music. The upper cycle consisted of two academic courses of study: in arts and sciences, leading to entrance to the university, or a less rigorous course of study, representing the end of a student's formal education (fewer than 4 percent of students pursued this course of studies in the mid1980s ).

In addition to the academic program, there was a vocationaltype secondary-school program that offered professional or technical courses aimed specifically at giving students the technical skills needed for employment following graduation. In the mid-1980s, roughly one-quarter of all secondary students pursued this type of course. Like the more academic-oriented secondaryschool program, the vocational-type program was divided into two cycles. Students could choose their studies from a variety of specializations, including agriculture, art, commerce, and industrial trades.

Admission to the university normally required the bachillerato (graduation certificate or baccalaureate), awarded on completion of the upper cycle of the academic course of studies, although the University of Panama had some latitude in determining admissions standards. The bachillerato was generally considered an essential component of middle-class status. Public secondary schools that offered the baccalaureate degree also offered the lower cycle. They were generally located in provincial capital cities. The oldest, largest, and most highly regarded of these was the National Institute in Panama City. The University of Panama grew out of it, and the school had produced so many public figures that it was known as the Nest of Eagles (Nido de Aguilas). It tended to draw its student body from upwardly mobile rather than long-established elements of the elite. Its students were well known for their political activism.

Higher education on the isthmus dates from the founding of a Jesuit university in 1749; that institution closed with the order's expulsion from the New World in 1767. Another college, the Colegio del Istmo, was started early in the nineteenth century, but the school did not prosper, and Panamanians who wished to pursue a higher education were required to go abroad or to Colombia until 1935, when the University of Panama was founded. In the mid-1980s, most postsecondary schooling took place within the university. Other institutions, such as the School of Nursing and the Superior Center for Bilingual Secretaries, accounted for less than 3 percent of enrollment at this educational level.

Nearly three-quarters of all university students attended the University of Panama in the 1980s. The university had, as well, a number of regional centers and extensions representing a small portion of the school's enrollment and faculty. The University of Santa María la Antigua, a private Roman Catholic institution established in 1965, enrolled another 5,000 to 6,000 students in the 1980s. A third university, the Technical University, was founded in 1981. It accounted for approximately 7,000 students. A substantial portion of the well-to-do continued to study abroad.

Most education was publicly funded and organized. In addition to the University of Santa María la Antigua, there were some private primary and secondary schools. Typically located in cities and considered very prestigious, they accounted for 5 to 7 percent of primary-school enrollment and approximately 25 percent of secondary-school students in the mid-1980s.

Education continued to claim a large share of government budgets. It represented 15 to 20 percent of the national government's expenditures in the early to mid-1980s. Most funding went to primary schooling, although both secondary and higher education received proportionately higher funding per student. Primary schools received roughly one-third of government education spending, secondary and higher education approximately 20 percent each. Budgets from 1979 through 1983 allocated on average B220 per primary school student, B274 per secondary school student, and B922 per university student.

The growth in enrollment was accompanied by a concomitant (if not always adequate) expansion in school facilities and increase in teaching staff. Teacher education was a high priority in the 1970s and 1980s, a reflection of the generally poor training teachers had received in the past. Schools increased at every level during the early 1980s; secondary schools made the most notable gains, more than doubling. Pupil-teacher ratios for all levels were in the range of nineteen to twenty-six pupils per teacher in the mid-1980s.




The Ministry of Health bore primary responsibility for public health programs in the late 1980s. At the district and regional levels, medical directors were responsible for maintaining healthcare services at health-care centers and hospitals and monitoring outreach programs for the communities surrounding these facilities. The Social Security Institute also maintained a medical fund for its members and ran a number of health-care facilities, which members could use for free and others for a nominal fee. In practice there was a history of conflict between Social Security Institute and Ministry of Health personnel at the district and regional levels. Since 1973 the Social Security Institute and the Ministry of Health had attempted--with limited success--to coordinate what were in essence two public health-care systems, in an effort to eliminate redundancy.

Despite the bureaucratic conflicts, a number of health indicators showed significant improvement. Life expectancy at birth in 1985 was seventy-one years--an increase of nearly ten years since 1965. Infant mortality rates in 1984 were less than one-third their 1960 levels, and the childhood death rate stood at less than 20 percent of the 1960 level. The number of physicians per capita had nearly tripled.

The Department of Environmental Health was charged with administering rural health programs and maintaining a safe water supply for communities of fewer than 500 inhabitants--roughly onethird of the total population. The National Water and Sewage Institute and the Ministry of Public Works shared responsibility for urban water supplies.

By 1980 approximately 85 percent of the population had access to potable water and 89 percent to sanitation facilities. In rural Panama in the early 1980s, roughly 70 percent of the population had potable water and approximately 80 percent had sanitation facilities. The quality of water and sewage disposal varied considerably, however. Water transmission was less than reliable on the fringes of urban centers. In rural areas, much depended on the community's dedication to maintaining sanitation facilities and an operating water system. Many water treatment facilities were poorly maintained and overloaded, because of the intense urban growth the country had experienced since the end of World War II. In rural Panama, latrines and septic tanks tended to be over-used and undermaintained . The system as a whole stood in need of substantial renovation and repair in the late 1980s.

Public health, especially for rural Panamanians, was a high priority. Under the slogan "Health for All by the Year 2000," in the early 1970s the government embarked on an ambitious program to improve the delivery of health services and sanitation in rural areas. The program aimed at changing the emphasis from curative, hospital-based medical care to community-based preventive medicine. The 1970s and early 1980s saw substantial improvements in a wide variety of areas. Village health committees attempted to communicate the perceived needs of the villagers to health-care officials. The program enjoyed its most notable successes in the early 1970s with the construction of water delivery systems and latrines in a number of previously unserved rural areas. Village health committees also organized community health-education courses, immunization campaigns, and medical team visits to isolated villages. They were assisted by associations or federations of these village health committees at the district or regional level. These federations were able to lend money to villages for the construction of sanitation facilities, assist them in contacting Ministry of Health personnel for specific projects, and help with the financing for medical visits to villages.

Village health committees were most successful in regions where land and income were relatively equitably distributed. The regional medical director was pivotal; where he or she assigned a high priority to preventive health care, the village communities continued to receive adequate support. However, many committees were inoperative by the mid-1980s. In general, rural health-care funding had been adversely affected by government cutbacks. Facilities tended to be heavily used and poorly maintained.

In the early 1980s, there continued to be marked disparities in health care between urban and rural regions. Medical facilities, including nearly all laboratory and special-care facilities, were concentrated in the capital city. In 1983 roughly 87 percent of the hospital beds were in publicly owned and operated institutions, mostly located in Panama City; one-quarter of all hospitals were in the capital. Medical facilities and personnel were concentrated beyond what might reasonably be expected, even given the capital city's share of total population. Panama City had roughly 2.5 times the national average of hospital beds and doctors per capita and nearly 3 times the number of nurses per capita. The effect of this distribution was seen in continued regional disparities in health indicators. Rural Panama registered disproportionately high infant and maternal mortality rates. Rural babies were roughly 20 percent more likely to die than their urban counterparts; childbearing was 5 times more likely to be fatal in rural Panama than in cities. In the early 1980s, the infant-mortality rate of Panamá Province was one-third that of Bocas del Toro and one-fourth that of Darién.

Panama's social security system covered most permanent employees. Its principal disbursements were for retirement and health care. Permanent employees paid taxes to the Social Security Institute; the self-employed contributed on the basis of income as reported on income-tax returns. Agricultural workers were generally exempted. Changes in 1975 lowered the age at which workers could retire and altered the basis on which benefits were calculated. The general effect of the changes was to encourage the retirement of those best paid and best covered. It did little to benefit the most disadvantaged workers.


CITATION: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

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