Combined second and third periodic reports dated 17 January 1997
Panama is located in the southernmost part of Central America, bordering Costa Rica in the north and Colombia in the south. The country's 2.69 million population is seventy percent mestizo (of mixed indigenous and European ancestry), fourteen percent West Indian, ten percent criollo, or Caucasian, and six percent indigenous (main indigenous groups are: Ngobe-Buglé or Guaymí, Kuna, Emberá, Wounaan). Spanish is the official language but English and several indigenous languages are also spoken. The country is eighty six percent Catholic and eight percent Protestant.
Despite its geographic location, in the past Panama was a part of Central American organizations, such as the Central American Common Market. The 1990s brought a greater integration into the region, and in 1992 the country joined the System of Central American Integration (SICA)1 and became a member of the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN).
Panama more than other countries in Central America has been dominated by the United States in an "informal colonialism."2 Despite the high incidence of poverty, the socio-economic indicators, such as access to health, education and utilities, are higher in Panama than in other Central American nations with the exception of Belize and Costa Rica. 3 One of the most important issues is the upcoming (May 1999) presidential election and the scheduled handover of the Panama Canal and of US military and other facilities to Panama on 31 December 1999.
Government and Politics
Ernesto "El Toro" (the Bull) Pérez Balladares, an economist and businessman of the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD), the party of the former dictator Manuel Noriega, won the first post-1989 US invasion (for a more detailed discussion of the 1989 invasion see section "December 1989 US Invasion" below) presidential elections in 1994 by attracting public support with his campaign slogan "people to the power."4 Pérez Balladares, who promised to end government corruption and to fight poverty and pledged to negotiate US military presence in the Panama Canal Zone, was a welcome change to the Panamanians disillusioned with the former US-installed Guillermo Endara government. Despite low voter turnout (33 percent), these first open, nonviolent and contested elections in recent history (with seven candidates for the presidency including legendary salsa star Rubén Blades, founder of the Papa Egoró Movement) that did not include military interference, were a landmark contest for Panama.
The 1994 elections improved Panama's self-image and self-esteem following the 1989 US invasion and the General Manuel Noriega years. It also improved Panama's image at the international level. In the first post-election months Pérez Balladares improved relations with the US, continued the economic program of his predecessor, Guillermo Endara, and in general received favorable marks in the polls.5 As his term is due to expire in May 1999, he has expressed an intention to seek re-election in order "not to lose momentum" following the transfer of the Panama Canal. Under the terms of the Constitution he is barred from running for reelection, but he has been trying to rally support for a constitutional change that would make reelection possible. In April 1998, a powerful coalition of the ruling parties consisting of PRD, National Liberal Party (PLN), Solidarity and the Democratic Change backed the president. At the same time, opinion polls indicate that public support for him is low. According to polls conducted at the end of 1997, sixty percent of the country's population oppose his plans to run again.6
Press freedom in Panama is currently threatened as the legislature debates a new administrative bill that was sent to Congress in April 1998. The measure provides for high fines (US $1,000 to 5,000) and up to two-month jail sentences for both domestic and international journalists who are considered to "incite the closure of public ways." 7 This means that a reporter who publicizes evidence of corruption or malfeasance that affects global ship lines or the international trade community could be jailed. According to Juan Alberto-Arias, a director of the main daily La Prensa, the proposed administrative change poses risks for the press and the attempt to pass the bill indicates that the country is "moving towards civilian dictatorship."8
Panama has experienced relatively high rates of economic growth in the 1990s. The economy has been fueled by the booming construction industry, expansion of the financial sector and growing import-export activity in the Colón Free Zone. The country is expected to have a four-percent GDP growth in 1998, which is slightly lower than last year (4.4 percent) because of the impact of East Asian crisis and drought caused by El Niño. The country historically has had low rates of inflation because of its use of US currency, and it is estimated to remain at 1.5 percent in 1998.9
Even though Panama has the highest per capita income in the region, it has the second worst rating in income distribution in the hemisphere after Brazil. Since 1995, Panama's government has been pressing for the implementation of the next phase of structural adjustment reforms.
Due to Panama's geographic location, the economy historically has relied on commerce and services related to the operation of the canal and transit operations between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The country has relied on imported food and manufactured goods. Panama has never developed a strong industrial sector of its own. Mining and manufacturing represent only eight percent of the gross national product and employ ten percent of the work force. The mining industry has been at the center of controversy in the last two decades as the government-sponsored mining companies expanded to territories claimed by indigenous groups.10 Agriculture and cattle ranching employs twenty six percent of the work force, but its role in the economy has been diminishing. Local food production and support for farmers are being de-emphasized under structural adjustment.11 Bananas are the country's important export and constitute forty percent of all export and the industry is dominated by the Chiriquí Land Company owned by United Brands. Other important agro-exports include seafood, sugar, beef and coffee.
"We shall have a treaty...vastly advantageous to the United States, and, we must confess, not so advantageous to Panama. You and I know too well how many points there are in this treaty to which a Panamanian patriot could object."
--John Hay, Roosevelt's Secretary of State12
The Panama Canal was opened in 1914, based on the 1903 Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty between the United States and Panama which authorized the US to "build, maintain, and protect a canal and canal zone."13 It has been one of the most important waterways in global commerce and an important source of country's income. Approximately six percent of Panama's national product comes from its operations and this amount has been increasing steadily. Income from port services in Panama City and Colón account for overall economic benefit to Panama. The Panama Canal Commission that administers the operations employs approximately 800 US citizens and about 6,500 Panamanians.14
Operation of the Panama Canal is due to be transferred to the Panamanian government on 31 December 1999. The large base Fort Amador already was handed over to Panama, in October 1996. But Panama and US have also been negotiating a setting up of a "Multinational Counter-Narcotics Center" to provide antidrug training to officials from the Americas on the Howard Air Force Base. It is estimated that setting up such a drug-fighting program, would mean that 2,500 US soldiers would remain in the zone beyond 2000.15 While some public opinion polls show support for continued US military presence, to many this means a continued US domination. Prominent Panamanian political analyst, Miguel Antonio Bernal, stated that "what the Panamanian government thinks makes good economic sense and what the US thinks serves its geopolitical interests, does not fit our vision of an independent Panama."16
While the 1997 constitutional amendment was supposed to keep the area independent of politics, it gave the president the authority to hire and fire in the zone. According to press reports, there are already questionable practices that should be examined. For instance, the post-1999 Panama Canal Authority (ACP) is being comprised of friends of president Pérez Balladares.17 The major canal users, including the US, also have criticized the appointment of Jorge Ritter as Minister for Canal Affairs and chair of the ACP. Ritter was former foreign minister under Noriega and has been accused of links with drug traffickers.18
Despite statements made by Pérez Balladares that the canal "never will be sold, taxed, or privatized," the political opposition and the canal workers union fear that the government has privatization plans. That may mean loss of job security and layoffs of many workers.19
Colón Free Zone
The Colón Free Zone (CFZ) was established in 1948 and it is the second largest free zone in the world after Hong Kong. About 1600 companies operate in the Zone20 (mainly from Japan, Taiwan, the US and Hong Kong) that employ more than 5,000 people in warehousing, regional distribution, manufacturing and wholesale trade.21 Currently, CFZ generates close to ninety percent of Panama's total export revenue.22 Ironically, the nearby city of Colón has an unemployment rate triple the national average. As a former general manager of the free trade zone, stated: "The free zone is an island of wealth surrounded by a sea of poverty."23
Although the financial sector suffered during the 1986-89 currency crisis, the banking center in Panama is an important part of the country's economy and provides employment for more than 7,000 Panamanians. The 1970 banking law, including non-taxation of bank deposits and exemption of profits from local income tax, stimulated the growth of an international offshore financial center in Panama which has formed along the Calle 50 in Panama City. In March 1998, the government published a new banking law establishing firmer supervision (the office of banking superintendency) of the sector and introducing other changes designed to attract business.24
Panama's previously isolated and repressed labor movement received official support during the populist military regime of General Omar Torrijos (1968-1981).25 During that time, the government created the Ministry of Labor and consulted the unions about its labor policies.26 Since the 1980s, however, the labor movement declined and became fragmented, partly as a result of the debt crisis and the strengthened influence of international lending over Panama's economic policy. Government's obligations to implement austerity policies and to privatize state-run companies and give priority to foreign investments have affected the labor movement.
The union movement in the 1990s suffered a serious setback when the Supreme Court of Justice declared several key pro-labor articles of the Labor Code unconstitutional.27 Although the 1995 labor code reform package increased workers' ability to establish unions by simplifying the registration process and reducing the minimum size from 50 to 40, it also introduced new labor market "flexibility measures" in line with requirements of the structural adjustment policy. These measures made it easier to fire workers, reduced severance pay, lowered the minimum wage and allowed pay reductions in periods of "national or international economic crisis."28
In January 1996, the Parliament passed two bills allowing for special provisions in the export processing zones (EPZs). The laws exempted employers in EPZs from signing collective agreements and allowed firing of workers who started "illegal" strikes (that is, without having fulfilled a lengthy pre-strike procedures). The new law established special rules for striking which, if implemented, would make them virtually impossible. It gave employers a three-year exemption from hiring workers on fixed-term contracts. Even though these laws were changed in February 1996 after a protest from the labor unions, an exemption on hiring temporary workers and the right to fire for instigating a strike under certain conditions remain. The anti-labor provisions have been used, for instance, in the arrest of seventeen union members in the Colón Free Trade Zone in September 1996. They were arrested when workers attempted to talk to management about their unpaid wages and social security contributions.29
The US has a long history of intervention in Panamanian internal affairs. Between 1856 and 1903, the US intervened in Panama ten times and pushed for country's split from Colombia in 1903. This practice became sanctioned by the signing of the first canal treaty, the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty, in 1903. The treaty gave the US, for all practical purposes, the right to act as if it were the sovereign of the Panama Canal territory, and to intervene militarily to "maintain public order if necessary."30 In 1936, the treaty was revised and the US right to intervene in the country's internal affairs was eliminated. It also gave the Panamanians an increased access to the Canal Zone. The 1977 Torrijos-Carter Treaty eliminated the Canal Zone and mandated the transfer of the canal and the fourteen US bases to Panama by the year 2000.31 Despite these pledges, since the 1980s, the US has intervened militarily more than twenty times, ostensibly to protect its interests, but essentially to repress political dissent and to change the government.
US policy toward Panama has changed according to its interests in the region. In the 1980s, the US supported general Manuel Noriega because it feared that opposition to him would destabilize the situation in Panama and threaten US use of the military bases when US's attention was focused on other countries in Central America, principally Nicaragua and El Salvador. Thus, following the 1984 Panamanian presidential election, despite abundant evidence that that the election was fraudulent, the US government announced that the country had successfully transitioned to democratic rule. On the other hand, the US did not react to the killing of dissident and "freedom fighter" Dr. Hugo Spadafora by right-wing military squads.
Although nationalism and anti-US sentiments have been present in Panamanian society since independence, there also persists, especially among the middle and upper classes, a degree of identification with US cultural values, language and consumer products.32 Clearly, the close relationship with the US also has some advantages for Panama. The US is the country's largest trading partner, supplies Panama with more than one-third of its imports, and purchases more than one-third of its exports. Withdrawal of the US from its bases in the canal area would mean a drastic loss of jobs and sales income.33
December 1989 US Invasion
About 27,000 US airborne and ground troops attacked Panama's armed forces on 20 December 1989. The US invasion aimed at deposing Manuel Noriega, which the US government had failed to achieve by non-military means such as economic sanctions, support for the opposition and attempts to isolate Panama diplomatically. When Washington-encouraged coups by PDF officers in March 1988 and October 1989 failed, the US launched a full-scale military invasion, the so-called "Just Cause" under the pretext34 of "safeguarding the lives of Americans, defending democracy in Panama, combating drug trafficking, and protecting the integrity of the Panama Canal treaty."35
The invasion succeeded in ousting Noriega but resulted in the deaths of 50 Panamanian soldiers and 300 civilians and injuries to at least 3,000 more.36 The bombing and destruction including arson during the days following the invasion affected more than 20,000 people and seriously affected the economy. The poor Panama City district of El Chorrillo suffered the worst destruction; several blocks of apartments were completely destroyed and its inhabitants were forced to move far away from their residence.37 The attack also seriously affected country's government and politics infrastructure; it ended the twenty one-year military dominance in Panamanian politics. On another level, the blatant violation of the 1977 treaty of non-intervention into Panama's internal affairs, affected the US-Panama relationship and put into question country's sovereignty and the future of the canal. 38
In the aftermath of the invasion, the US military installed as president Guillermo Endara of the Authentic Panameñista Party (PPA), a part of the Democratic Civic Opposition Alliance (ADOC). He was sworn in on the US military base in Panama in December 1989.39 Soon after the election the ADOC coalition started falling apart soon after the election over political and personal differences, and Endara proved unable to maintain and build a wider base of support. Moreover, his government was plagued by reports of corruption and his law firm was accused by the US Drug Enforcement Administration of links with Cuban-American drug traffickers.40
Following the US invasion, Panama's military, the Panama Defense Forces (PDF), was dissolved, replaced by a new Public Force (FP), responsible for border control and prevention of drug-trafficking, and the National Police were established instead. Because the had military exercised either direct or indirect influence in the government in the course of the previous twenty-one years (1968-1989), its dissolution left a sudden vacuum in governance. While most Panamanians welcomed the demise of the military, because of its growing corruption and repression especially in the 1980s, it also left a gap of authority, and the country was faced with challenge of building a state free from US military and interference.41 Although the role of the military in Panama's history has been a matter of controversy, the question remains how Panama will be able to defend the canal once the US troops are gone. Some fear that this may mean a continued dependence on the US military presence in the region.42
The human rights situation in Panama attracted international attention when the human rights activist Dr. Hugo Spadafora was murdered in 1985. Many in Panama believed that General Noriega was responsible for ordering the killing (Spadafora had publicly accused the general of drug trafficking). The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS) accused the PDF of the crime and called for an investigation in 1989.43 In 1987, demonstrations protesting fraudulent elections and marking the anniversary of Spadafora's death were broken up by the PDF's riot squads. In 1993, a jury acquitted seven of the ten PDF soldiers accused of the murder because of a "lack of evidence," while Noriega and two other high-level officers were found guilty.
Some of the most critical human rights problems in Panama include extremely poor prison conditions, including health-threatening conditions and overcrowding and the use of excessive force by guards and the police. In recent years, rioting and gang fighting in prisons have resulted in a number of inmate deaths.44
In July 1997, Panama was the last Central American country to establish the office of human rights ombudsperson (defensor del pueblo). However, Panama's human rights activist and leaders opposition parties, such as Mireya Moscoso of the Arnulfista Party (PA), have criticized the government for making the office a political appointment. According to the law, the ombud must be elected by majority vote by the Legislative Assembly. Critics claim that the ombud should be independent and elected by grassroots and human rights organizations. According to one commentator, the ombud would be "the puppet of whatever party is in power."45
Since the 1950s, as a response to a housing deficit of about 200,000 units, poor urban Panamanians have been illegally occupying land. These urban land squatters, called precaristas, have formed one of the most active militant sectors of the popular movement.46 This group has increased its activities since the 1989 invasion. Nevertheless, their activities are controversial because there is some evidence that the ones who least need the land have been occupying it.
The indigenous groups in Panama are in the most difficult socioeconomic situation. They suffer the highest rates of poverty and have the most limited access to water, health care, education, and other basic social services. All of Panama's major indigenous groups have alarmingly high literacy rates. The Ngobe-Bugle and the Bogotas have the highest illiteracy rate, which stands at about fifty percent. The Teribes group has the lowest illiteracy rate, twenty six percent.47
Several mining companies that have tried to develop mining on indigenous comarcas (reserves) met with decisive protest from Panama's indigenous groups. The Cerro Colorado copper concession in Chiriqui province has been at the center of the controversy.48
PREVIOUS REVIEW BY CEDAW:
Panama's review by the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Fourth session (January 1985).
REVIEW OF PANAMA BY OTHER UN TREATY BODIES:
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (20 June 1995) (Report on the Technical Assistance Mission to Panama of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights). The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued Concluding Observations: Report on the Technical Assistance Mission: Panama on 20 June 1995. The mission took place from 16 to 22 April 1995. The mission focused on the implementation of the right to housing in Panama following the 1989 US invasion which resulted in the destruction of a large number of houses and the displacement of thousands of people especially in the capital, which had already suffered a serious housing problem. The mission found that the housing problem affected almost one-third of the population (200,000 to 250,000-unit shortage). The 1989-94 government was unable to address the problem in an effective manner and the problem was worsened by a policy of forcible expulsions. Despite attempts by the government to increase awareness of the problem, the government has not had a national physical planning scheme and a national housing plan which would enable it to formulate its objectives and programs more effectively.
Convention on the Rights of the Child (24 January 1997). The Committee on the Rights of the Child considered the initial report of Panama on 13 and 14 January 1997.
Suggestions and Recommendations:
International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (23 April 1997). The Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination considered the combined tenth, twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth periodic report of Panama on 18 March 1997.
Suggestions and Recommendations:
2 Walter La Feber, The Panama Canal: The Crisis in Historical Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 58. back
3 Tom Barry and John Lindsay-Poland with Marco Gandásegui and Peter Simonson, xiii. back
4 Ibid., 24. back
5 Ibid., 26-27. back
6 "President Eyes Re-election to 'Maintain Momentum'," Financial Times (London), 5 March 1998, Nexis, 12 March 1998. back
7 Kevin G. Hall, "Corruption Crackdown Lags as Trade Grows; Panama Bill Threatens Investigative Journalists," Journal of Commerce, 16 April 1998, on-line, Nexis, 27 April 1998. back
8 "Panama. A Bull in a China Shop," Economist, 4 April 1998, on-line, Nexis, 27 April 1998. back
9 "Central American Economy: Market Prospects," Economist Intelligence Unit ViewsWire, 21 April 1998, on-line, Nexis, 27 April 1998. back
10 Tom Barry and John Lindsay-Poland with Marco Gandásegui and Peter Simonson, 73. back
11 Ibid., 74-75. back
12 Quoted in: Panama: Sovereignty for a Land Divided (Washington, DC:Epica Task Force, 1976), 5. back
13 Panama: Sovereignty for a Land Divided (Washington, DC:Epica Task Force, 1976), 79. back
14 Tom Barry and John Lindsay-Poland with Marco Gandásegui and Peter Simonson, 65-66. back
15 Howard La Franchi, "Taking Drug War Too Far?" Christian Science Monitor, 9 April 1998, on-line, Nexis, 27 April 1998. back
16 Ibid. back
17 Kevin G. Hall, "Corruption Crackdown Lags as Trade Grows; Panama Bill Threatens Investigative Journalists," Journal of Commerce, 16 April 1998, on-line, Nexis, 27 April 1998. back
18 "Canal News in Brief," Eco-Central: Central American Economy, 26 March 1998, on-line, Nexis, 30 April 1998. back
19 Ibid. back
20 Jon Mitchell, "Skeptical of US Criticism, Traders See Colon Free Zone as global Hub; Area is Concentrating on Better Infrastructure," Journal of Commerce, 8 April 1998, on-line, Nexis, 27 April 1998. back
21 Tom Barry and John Lindsay-Poland with Marco Gandásegui and Peter Simonson, 67-68. back
22 "Central American Economy: Market Prospects," Economist Intelligence Unit ViewsWire, 21 April 1998, on-line, Nexis, 27 April 1998. back
23 Quoted in: Tom Barry and John Lindsay-Poland with Marco Gandásegui and Peter Simonson, Inside Panama (Albuquerquere, New Mexico: Interhemispheric Resource Center, 1995), 68. back
24 James Wilson, "Caution Over Panama's Banking Law," Financial Times (London), 25 March 1998, on-line, Nexis, 30 April 1998. back
25 Tom Barry and John Lindsay-Poland with Marco Gandásegui and Peter Simonson, 19-20. back
26 International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, 1997 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights, 60-61. back
27 Tom Barry and John Lindsay-Poland with Marco Gandásegui and Peter Simonson, 96. back
28 International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, 1997 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights, 60-61. back
29 Ibid. back
30 Tom Barry and John Lindsay-Poland with Marco Gandásegui and Peter Simonson, 5-6. back
31 Report of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the US Invasion of Panama, The US Invasion of Panama: The Truth Behind Operation "Just Cause" (Boston:South End Press, 1991), 5. back
32 Tom Barry and John Lindsay-Poland with Marco Gandásegui and Peter Simonson, xv. back
33 Ibid., 81. back
34 In the years preceding the invasion, the US government, among other things, demanded the renegotiation of the 1977 treaties in order to continue US military bases after 2000, which the Noriega government refused. back
35 Quoted in: Physicians for Human Rights, Operation "Just Cause": The Human Cost of Military Action in Panama (Boston:Physicians for Human Rights, October 1991), 9. back
36 Physicians for Human Rights, Operation "Just Cause": The Human Cost of Military Action in Panama (Boston:Physicians for Human Rights, October 1991), 4-5. back
37 United Nations, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Right, Concluding Observations: Report on the Technical Assistance Mission: Panama (E/C.12/1995/8), 20 June 1995, on-line, available from: http:/unhchr.ch, accessed on 15 April 1998. back
38 Tom Barry and John Lindsay-Poland with Marco Gandásegui and Peter Simonson, 7-8. back
39 Endara had won the May 1989 presidential election by a two-to-one margin but was denied victory by General Noriega. Some observers maintain that his victory was more of a protest vote against Noriega and not a vote of support for the elite ADOC. back
40 Tom Barry and John Lindsay-Poland with Marco Gandásegui and Peter Simonson, 22-23. back
41 Ibid., 31. back
42 Ibid., 42-43. back
43 Ibid., 45. back
44 U.S. Department of State, Panama Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1997 (Washington D.C.: Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 30 January, 1998) back
45 "Human Rights Ombudsman is Locked in Power Struggle with Attorney General," Eco-Central: Central American Economy, 12 March 1998, on-line, Nexis, 30 April 1998. back
46 Tom Barry and John Lindsay-Poland with Marco Gandásegui and Peter Simonson, 90. back
47 Contraloria General de la República de Panamá, Panamá en Cifras (November 1997), pp. 6-7. back
48 "Panama: Americas Review 1998," Janet Matthews Information Service, March 1998, on-line, Nexis, 30 April 1998. back
49 United Nations, General Assembly, Report of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (Fourth Session), Official Records: Fortieth Session Supplement No. 45 (A/40/45), New York, 1985, 20-26. back
50 United Nations, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Right, Concluding Observations: Report on the Technical Assistance Mission: Panama (E/C.12/1995/8), 20 June 1995, on-line, available from: http:/unhchr.ch, accessed on 15 April 1998. back
51 United Nations, Committee on the Rights of the Child, Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child: Panama (CRC/C/15/Add.68), 24 January 1997, on-line, available from: http:/unhchr.ch, accessed on 15 April 1998. back
52 United Nations, Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: Panama (CERD/C/304/Add. 32), 23 April 1997, on-line, available from: http:/unhchr.ch, accessed on 15 April 1998. back
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