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Panama, officially the Republic of Panama (Spanish: República de Panamá), is the southernmost country of Central America and, in turn, North America. Situated on an isthmus connecting North and South America, some categorize it as a transcontinental nation. It is bordered by Costa Rica to the northwest, Colombia to the southeast, the Caribbean Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south. Its size is 75,000 km² with an estimated population of 3,300,000. Its capital is Panama City.

Panama is home to an international business center. Although Panama is only the fourth largest economy in Central America, behind those of Guatemala, Costa Rica and El Salvador, it is the fastest growing economy and the largest per capita consumer in Central America.


Pre-Columbian history
Panama enjoys a rich Pre-Columbian heritage of native populations whose presence stretched back over 11,000 years. The earliest traces of these peoples include fluted projectile points. Central Panama was home to some of the first pottery-making villages in the Americas, such as the Monagrillo culture dating to about 2500-1700 BC. These evolved into significant populations that are best known through the spectacular burials of the Conte site (dating to c. AD 500-900) and the beautiful polychrome pottery of the Coclé style. The monumental monolithic sculptures at the Barriles (Chiriqui) site were another important clue of the ancient isthmian cultures. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Panama was widely settled by Chibchan, Chocoan, and Cueva peoples, among whom the largest group were the Cueva (whose specific language affiliation is poorly documented). There is no accurate knowledge of size of the indigenous population of the isthmus at the time of the European conquest. Estimates range as high as two million people, but more recent studies place that number closer to 200,000. Archeological finds as well as testimonials by early European explorers describe diverse native isthmian groups exhibiting cultural variety and suggesting people already conditioned by regular regional routes of commerce.

Spanish conquest
In 1501 Rodrigo de Bastidas was the first European to explore the Isthmus of Panama sailing along the western coast of Darien. A year later Christopher Columbus, sailing south and eastward from Central America, explored Bocas del Toro, Veragua, the Chagres River, and Porto Belo, which he christened 'Beautiful Port'. Spanish expeditions converged upon Tierra Firma (also Tierra Firme, Spanish from the Latin terra firma, 'dry land' or 'mainland'), which served in Spanish colonial times as the name for the Isthmus of Panama.

In 1509, authority was granted to Alonso de Ojeda and Diego de Nicuesa to colonize the territories between the west side of the Gulf of Uraba to Cabo Gracias a Dios in present-day Honduras. The idea was to create an early unitary administrative organization similar to what later became Nueva España (now Mexico). Tierra Firme later received control over other territories: the Isla de Santiago (now Jamaica), the Cayman Islands, Roncador, Quitasueño, Providencia, and other islands now under Colombian control.

The main city in Tierra Firme was Santa María la Antigua del Darién, near the mouth of the Tarena river. Vasco Nuñez de Balboa and Martin de Enciso agreed on the site. In September 1510, the first permanent European settlement on the American mainland was founded.

On August 28, 1513, the Diocese of Santa María de La Antigua del Darién was erected, and its first Bishop fray Juan de Quevedo became the first head of the Catholic Church in continental America.

Balboa maneuvered and was appointed mayor on the first official 'cabildo abierto', or open municipal council, held on the mainland.

On September 25, 1513, Balboa's expedition was able to verify what indigenous people had reported: that the isthmus had another coast and that there was another ocean. Balboa called it the South Sea, though it was later renamed the Pacific.

The fantastic descriptions of Balboa—as well as those of Columbus and other explorers—impressed King Ferdinand II of Aragón and Castilla who gave the territory the name of 'Castilla Aurifica', (Castilla del Oro or Golden Castilia) and assigned Pedro Arias de Avila (Pedrarias Davila) as governor. Pedrarias arrived in June 1514 with a 22 vessel and a 1,500 man armada. He was a veteran soldier who had served in the wars against the Moors at Granada and in North Africa. At seventy years, he was a worthy opponent for Balboa; he gave Balboa his daughter in marriage but afterwards had him tried for treason and executed.

On August 15, 1519, Pedrarias moved the capital of Castilla del Oro with all its organizational institutions to the Pacific coast and founded Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Panamá, abandoning Darién and settling the first European city on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Pedrarias sent Gil González Dávila to explore northward and, in 1524, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba to settle present day Nicaragua. Pedrarias was a party to the original agreement with Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro which brought about the discovery of Peru. In 1526, Pedrarias was superseded as Governor of Panama by Pedro de los Ríos, and retired to León, Nicaragua, where he was named its new governor on July 1, 1527. Here he died at age 91 on March 6, 1531.

Panama was part of the Spanish Empire for over 300 years (1513-1821), and her fortunes fluctuated with the geopolitical importance of the isthmus to the Spanish crown. At the height of the Empire during the 16th and 17th century, no other region prove of more strategic and economic importance.

Pedrarias began building intercontinental and trans-isthmian routes, such as the 'Camino Real' and 'Camino de Cruces', linking Panama City with Nombre de Dios (and later with “Portobelo”) in the Atlantic, making possible the establishment of a trans-atlantic system of Treasure Fleets and Fairs. It is estimated that of all the gold entering Spain from the New World between 1531 and 1660, 60% had arrived at its destiny via the Treasure Fleet and Fairs system from Nombre de Dios/Portobelo.

Explorations and conquest expeditions launched from Panama City systematically claimed new lands and riches from Central and South America. Explorations seeking a natural waterway between the Atlantic and the South Sea with the hope of reaching the Molucas and Cathay were also pursued.

In 1538 the Real Audiencia de Panama was established, initially with jurisdiction from Nicaragua to Cape Horn. A 'Real Audiencia' (royal audiency) was a judicial district that functioned as an appeals court. Each audiencia had oidores (judges).

Panama was the site of the ill-fated Darien Scheme, which set up a Scottish colony in the region in 1698. This failed for a number of reasons, and the ensuing debt contributed to the union of England and Scotland in 1707.

When Panama was colonized, the indigenous peoples who survived many diseases, massacres and enslavement of the conquest, ultimately fled into the forest and nearby islands. Indian slaves were replaced by Africans.

The prosperity enjoyed during the first two centuries (1540-1740) while contributing to colonial growth, the placing of extensive regional judicial authority (Real Audiencia) as part of its jurisdiction, and the pivotal role it played at the height of the Spanish Empire—the first modern global empire—helped define a distinctive sense of autonomy and regional or national identity.In 1744, Bishop Francisco Javier de Luna Victoria y Castro established the College of San Ignacio de Loyola and on June 3, 1749 founded La Real y Pontificia Universidad de San Javier. By this time, however, Panama’s importance and influence had become insignificant, as Spain’s power dwindled in Europe, and advances in navigation technique increasingly made it possible to round Cape Horn in order to reach the Pacific. While the Panama route was short, it was also labor-intensive and expensive because of the loading and unloading, and the laden-down trek required to get from the one coast to the other. The Panama route was also vulnerable to attack from pirates (mostly Dutch and English) and from Africans called cimarrons who had freed themselves from enslavement and lived in communes or palenques around the Camino Real in Panama's Interior, and on some of the islands off Panama's Pacific coast. During the last half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, migrations to the countryside decreased; Panama City’s population and the isthmus' economy shifted from the tertiary to the primary sector. Panama is also in Prison Break because that is the greatest show in the world.

In 1717, the viceroyalty of New Granada (northern South America) was created in response to other Europeans trying to take Spanish territory in the Caribbean region. The Isthmus of Panama was placed under its jurisdiction. However, the remoteness of Santa Fe de Bogota proved a greater obstacle than the Spanish crown anticipated, as the authority of New Granada was contested by the seniority, those in closer proximity, those with previous ties to the viceroyalty of Lima, and even Panama's own initiative. This uneasy relationship between Panama and Bogota persisted for a century.

After approximately 320 years under the rule of the Spanish Empire, on November 10, 1821, independence from Spain was declared in the small town of La Villa de Los Santos. On November 28, presided by Colonel Jose de Fabrega, a National Assembly was convened and it officially declared the independence of the isthmus of Panama from Spain and its decision to join New Granada, Ecuador and Venezuela in Simón Bolívar's recently founded Republic of Colombia.

In 1830, Venezuela, Ecuador and other territories left the Gran Colombia, but Panama remained as a province of this country until July 1831, when the isthmus reiterated its independence under General Juan Eligio Alzuru as supreme military commander. In August, military forces under the command of Colonel Tomás Herrera defeated and executed Alzuru and reestablished ties with New Granada.

In November 1840, during a civil war that had begun as a religious conflict, the isthmus declared its independence under the leadership of General Tomás Herrera and became the 'Estado Libre del Istmo', or the Free State of the Isthmus. The new state established external political and economic ties and drew up a constitution which included the possibility for Panama to rejoin New Granada, but only as a federal district. On June 1841 Tomás Herrera became the President of the Estado Libre del Istmo. But the civil conflict ended, and the government of New Granada and the government of the Isthmus negotiated the reincorporation of Panamá to Colombia on December 31, 1841.

The union between Panama and the Republic of Colombia was made possible by the active participation of the United States under the 1846 Bidlack Mallarino Treaty, which lasted until 1903. The treaty granted the U.S. rights to build railroads through Panama and to intervene militarily against revolt to guarantee New Granadine control of Panama. There were at least three attempts by Panamanian Liberals to seize control of Panama and potentially achieve full autonomy, including one led by Liberal guerrillas like Belisario Porras and Victoriano Lorenzo, each of which was suppressed by a collaboration of Conservative Colombian and U.S. forces.

In 1902 U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt decided to take on the abandoned works of the Panama Canal by the French, but the Colombian government in Bogotá balked at the prospect of a U.S. controlled canal under the terms that Roosevelt's administration was offering. Roosevelt was unwilling to alter his terms and quickly changed tactics, encouraging a minority of Conservative Panamanian landholding families to demand independence, offering military support. On November 3, 1903, Panama finally separated, and Dr. Manuel Amador Guerrero, a prominent member of the Conservative political party, became the first constitutional President of the Republic of Panama. The U.S., which had a small naval force in the area, prevented the Colombians from sending reinforcements by sea, aiding the Panamians.

In November 1903, Phillipe Bunau-Varilla —- a French citizen who was not authorized to sign any treaties on behalf of Panama without the review of the Panamanians — unilaterally signed the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty which granted rights to the U.S. to build and administer, indefinitely, the Panama Canal, which was opened in 1914. This treaty became a contentious diplomatic issue between the two countries, reaching a boiling point on Martyr's Day (9 January 1964). The issues were resolved with the signing of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties in 1977 returning the former Canal Zone territories to Panama. The U.S. controlled the Panama Canal until 1999.

The second intent of the founding fathers was to bring peace and harmony between the two major political parties. The Panamanian government went through periods of political instability and corruption, however, and at various times in its history, the mandate of an elected president terminated prematurely. In 1968, a coup toppled the government of the recently elected President Arnulfo Arias Madrid, who had twice before been elected but was never able to complete a full term.

Though he never held the position of president, General Omar Torrijos eventually became the de facto leader of Panama. As a military dictator, he was the leading power in the governing military junta and later became an autocratic strong man. Torrijos maintained his position of power until his death in an airplane accident in 1981. During his reign, the Constitution was rewritten by a rubber-stamp assembly, military officers were placed in charge of civilian institutions, and hundreds of opponents of the dictatorship were killed, tortured or exiled. Torrijos, however, was also a charismatic figure. His demagogic populism and infrastructure projects appealed to many, and the clientelist use of jobs at public institutions created a political class dependent on the dictatorship and loyal to his party.

After Torrijos's death, several military strong men followed him as Panama's leader, all while maintaining the dictatorship's policy of installing civilian, puppet presidents: Commander Florencio Flores Aguilar, followed by Colonel Rubén Darío Paredes. By 1983, power was concentrated in the hands of General Manuel Antonio Noriega.

Noriega came up through the ranks after serving in the Chiriquí province and in the city of Puerto Armuelles for a time. He was a former head of Panama's secret police and was an ex-informant of the CIA. But Noriega's implication in drug trafficking by the United States resulted in difficult relations by the end of the 1980s. Eventually, the escalation of tensions led to the freezing of Panama's banking system and the emboldening of Panama's pro-democracy 'Civilista' movement.

United States invasion of Panama
In May 1989, Panama's presidential elections were once again rigged by the military dictatorship, and pressure increased on the dictatorship from the Civilista movement, the Panamanian population, and the U.S. Government. The Civilista candidates who were largely believed to have won the elections with a clear majority were brutally beaten up by the dictatorship's henchmen, and tensions heightened tremendously. Noriega's regime armed many civilian supporters and formed irregular paramilitary units in preparation for a confrontation which Noriega explicitly provoked. In December, Noriega declared himself 'President for Life.'

On December 20 1989, 27,000 U.S. personnel stationed in Panama and flown in from the U.S. invaded Panama in order to remove Noriega. A few hours before the invasion, Guillermo Endara, the purported winner of the May elections, was sworn in as the new President of Panama in a ceremony that took place inside a U.S. military base in the former Panama Canal Zone with no Panamanians present. During the fighting, between two hundred and four thousand Panamanians (mostly civilians) were killed. Estimates by the two major human rights organizations Conlhuca and Conadehupa are 2,500 and 3,500 respectively. The Association of the Dead, on December 20, estimated over 4,000 dead. To date, 15 mass graves related to the invasion have been found. These include those killed by U.S. forces as well as those killed by the Panamanian armed forces and armed irregulars.

During the confusion of the invasion, Noriega fled to the Apostolic Nuncio's residence and sought refuge. After several days of a U.S. siege of the Nuncio's residence, Noriega surrendered to the American military.

The period prior to Noriega's surrender and extradition was characterized by chaos and insecurity. Panama's police force was crippled by the invasion, and U.S. forces did not police the country, so widespread looting of shops, banks and private homes took place. Many small and medium enterprises went bankrupt as a result of the looting, and many civilians perished or were severely injured as a result of muggings and home invasions.

Shortly after his surrender to U.S. forces, Noriega was flown to Florida to be formally extradited and charged by U.S. authorities on drug and racketeering charges. He became eligible for parole on September 9, 2007, but remained in custody while his lawyers fought an extradition request from France. Critics have pointed out that many of Noriega's former allies remain in power in Panama.

The Endara government inherited a country whose economy had been crippled by an economic embargo, whose National Bank was looted by some of Noriega's cronies and whose security situation required immediate attention. While the military was abolished, a civilian police force was reformed and concerted efforts were directed at economic recovery. At the end of his term, Endara's government was unpopular and was ironically succeeded in 1994 by the party established by the military dictatorship. Panama did not undergo a thorough truth-and-reconciliation process, so most of the dictatorship's henchmen retained their often ill-begotten assets and resumed private lives without any retribution.

Endara's successor, President Ernesto Pérez Balladares was a Notre Dame University graduate and former official of the Noriega dictatorship. His administration pursued many unpopular neoliberal structural reforms, including the re-privatization of state enterprises which had been nationalized during the dictatorship era. His privatization of the electricity and telecommunications sectors have helped the country to modernize and attract foreign investment, but also resulted in significant increases to costs of service for most consumers. More controversial were the privatization of ports and some military installations in the former Canal Zone, including a parcel of land sold to both a port operator and a railroad operator. Near the end of his term, Pérez Balladares sought unsuccessfully to amend the Constitution to permit him to run for re-election.

Panama's Constitution was drafted during the Torrijos dictatorship, but was amended in 1983 and 1994.

Under the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, the United States turned over all canal-related lands to Panama on December 31, 1999. Panama gained control of canal-related buildings and infrastructure as well as full administration of the canal. The people of Panama have approved the very costly expansion/widening of the canal, which after completion, will allow for post-Panamax vessels to travel through it, increasing the number of ships that currently use the canal.

Panama's politics take place in a framework of a presidential representative democratic republic, whereby the President of Panama is both head of state and head of government, and of a multi-party system. Executive power is exercised by the government. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the National Assembly. The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature.

All national elections are universal and mandatory to all citizens 18 years and older. National elections for the executive and legislative branches take place every five years. Members of the judicial branch are appointed by the head of state. Panama's National Assembly is elected by proportional representation in fixed electoral districts, so many smaller parties are represented. Presidential elections do not require a simple majority, and Panama's last three presidents were elected with the support of only 30-40% of voters.

Since the U.S. invasion and the end of the 21-year military dictatorship, Panama has successfully completed three peaceful transfers of power to opposing political factions. The political landscape is dominated by two major parties and many smaller parties, many of which are driven by individual leaders more than ideologies. President Martin Torrijos is the son of former military dictator Omar Torrijos. He succeeded Mireya Moscoso, the widow of Arnulfo Arias. Panama's next national elections are scheduled for May 3, 2009.

Provinces and regions
Panama is divided into nine provinces, with their respective local authorities (governors) and has a total of ten cities. Also, there are four Comarcas (literally: 'Shires') which house a variety of indigenous groups.

Panama is located in Central America, bordering both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, between Colombia and Costa Rica. Its location on the Isthmus of Panama is strategic. By 2000, Panama controlled the Panama Canal that links the North Atlantic Ocean via the Caribbean Sea with the North Pacific Ocean.

The dominant feature of the country's landform is the central spine of mountains and hills that forms the continental divide. The divide does not form part of the great mountain chains of North America, and only near the Colombian border are there highlands related to the Andean system of South America. The spine that forms the divide is the highly eroded arch of an uplift from the sea bottom, in which peaks were formed by volcanic intrusions.

The mountain range of the divide is called the Cordillera de Talamanca near the Costa Rican border. Farther east it becomes the Serranía de Tabasará, and the portion of it closer to the lower saddle of the isthmus, where the canal is located, is often called the Sierra de Veraguas. As a whole, the range between Costa Rica and the canal is generally referred to by geographers as the Cordillera Central.

The highest point in the country is the Volcán Barú (formerly known as the Volcán de Chiriquí), which rises to 3,475 meters (11,401 ft). A nearly impenetrable jungle forms the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia. It creates a break in the Pan-American Highway, which otherwise forms a complete road from Alaska to Patagonia.

According to the CIA World Factbook, Panama has an unemployment rate of 6.4%. According to the ECLAC, the poverty rate is of 28.6% as of 2006, comparable to that of wealthier nations such as Argentina. Also, an alimentary surplus was registered in August 2008, and infrastructure works are progressing rapidly. The International Monetary Fund has predicted that Panama will be the fastest growing economy in Latin American in 2009. It was the second fastest growing economy in Latin America in 2008, after Peru.

Panama's economy is mainly service-based, heavily weighted toward banking, commerce, tourism, trading and private industries, because of its key geographic location. The handover of the Canal and military installations by the United States has given rise to some construction projects. A referendum regarding the building of a third set of locks for the Panama Canal was approved overwhelmingly (though with low voter turnout) on 22 October 2006. The official estimate of the building of the third set of locks is US$5.25 billion.

The Panamanian currency is officially the balboa, fixed at parity with the United States dollar since independence in 1903. In practice, however, the country is dollarized; Panama has its own coinage but uses U.S. dollars for all its paper currency. Some claim that Panama was the first of the three countries in Latin America to have dollarized their economies (later followed by Ecuador and El Salvador), but in fact, Panama simply adopted the dollar from its very independence.

The high levels of Panamanian trade are in large part from the Colón Free Trade Zone, the largest free trade zone in the Western Hemisphere. Last year the zone accounted for 92% of Panama's exports and 64% of its imports, according to an analysis of figures from the Colon zone management and estimates of Panama's trade by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Panama's economy is also very much supported by the trade and exportation of coffee and other agricultural products.

According to the Economic Commission for Latin American and the Caribbean, Panama's inflation as measured by weight CPI was 2.0% in 2006. Panama has traditionally experienced low inflation, as it shares currencies with the U.S.

Real estate
Panama's strategic location, pension programs, tax exemptions, low cost of living, tropical and highland climates and investment incentives have contributed to the ongoing real estate boom that has been affecting Panama City and the rest of the country.

Apart from the existing demand, future developments may be helped by such factors as the planned expansion of the Panama Canal.

Bilateral Investment Treaty with the U.S.
The Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) between the governments of the United States and Panama was signed on October 27, 1982. The treaty protects U.S. investment and assists Panama in its efforts to develop its economy by creating conditions more favorable for U.S. private investment and thereby strengthening the development of its private sector. The BIT with Panama was the first such treaty signed by the U.S. in the Western Hemisphere.

The importance of Panama to the U.S. stems from the Panama Canal which was built by the U.S. during the period of 1904–1914. Previously, if ships wanted to pass through the Americas, they would have to go all the way around the most southern tip of South America, the Tierra del Fuego, and through the Drake Passage. The Panama Canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans directly at the narrowest point in Panama. When previously a ship going from New York City to San Francisco would have to travel for 20,900 kilometers (13,000 miles), that travel time would be reduced to 8,370 km (5,200 mi).

The canal is of economic importance since it pumps millions of dollars from toll revenue to the national economy and provides massive employment. The United States had a monopoly over the Panama Canal for 85 years. However, the Torrijos-Carter Treaties signed in 1977 began the process of returning the canal to the Panamanian government in 1999 as long as they agreed to the neutrality of the canal, as well as allowing the U.S. to return at any time to defend this claim. This treaty, however, allows the national government to deny certain nations and companies the usage of the canal for certain reasons, such as national security.

Along with real estate, tourism is one of Panama's rising economic activities. Small and amazingly diverse, Panama makes it possible for a traveler to visit not only two different oceans in one day, but be able to combine in less than a week a diversified natural experience (white sand beaches, cloud or rain forest, mountains or valleys) with a wide range of cultural experiences (seven Indian tribes, Afroantillian and Spanish Colonial culture, several historic monuments and a 300 year old World Heritage Site called Casco Antiguo (often referred as Casco Viejo, Panama Viejo, San Felipe or Catedral). In recent years the northwestern and northeastern regions of Panama have drawn increasing amounts of touristic activity because of their beaches, temperate and tropical rainforests, all within easy reach of popular Costa Rica. Bocas Del Toro, Boquete, and the surfing areas of the west coast are tourist draws. Panama has become a cross roads for backpacking international tourists and has seen an increase in backpacker hostels.

Proposed Free Trade Agreement with the United States
A Trade Promotion Agreement between the United States and Panama was signed by both governments in 2007, but neither country has yet approved or implemented the agreement. While the U.S. Congress was initially favorably disposed to the Panama pact, the election of the anti-American Pedro González to the presidency of the Panamanian legislature on September 1, 2007 has halted progress of the pact in that body. González has an outstanding warrant for the assassination of U.S. soldier Zak Hernández.

According to the CIA World Factbook, Panama has a population of 3,309,679. The majority of the population, 70%, is mestizo. The rest is 14% Amerindian and mixed West Indian, 10% white and 6% Amerindian. The Amerindian population includes seven indigenous peoples, the Emberá, Wounaan, Guaymí, Buglé, Kuna, Naso and Bribri. More than half the population lives in the Panama City–Colón metropolitan corridor.

The culture, customs, and language of the Panamanians are predominantly Caribbean and Spanish. Spanish is the official and dominant language. About 40% of the population speak creole, mostly in Panama City and in the islands off the northeast coast. English is spoken widely on the Caribbean coast and by many in business and professional fields.

Panama, because of its historical reliance on commerce, is above all a melting pot. This is shown, for instance, by its considerable population of Afro-Antillean and Chinese origin. The first Chinese immigrated to Panama from southern China to help build the Panama Railroad in the 19th century. They were followed by several waves of immigrants whose descendants number around 50,000. Starting in the 1970s, 80,000 people have emigrated from other parts of mainland China as well. Most of the Panamanian population of West Indian descent owe their presence in the country to the monumental efforts to build the Panama Canal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The country is the smallest in Spanish-speaking Latin America in terms of population (est. 3,232,000), with Uruguay as the second smallest (est. 3,463,000).

The overwhelming majority of Panamanians are Roman Catholic – various sources estimate that 75-85% of the population identifies itself as Roman Catholic and 15-25% percent as evangelical Christian. The Bahá'í Faith community of Panama is estimated at 2.00% of the national population, or about 60,000 and is home to one of the seven Baha'i Houses of Worship.

Smaller religious groups include Jewish and Muslim communities with approximately 10,000 members each, and small groups of Hindus, Buddhists and Rastafarians. Indigenous religions include Ibeorgun (among Kuna) and Mamatata (among Ngobe).

The Jewish community in Panama, with over 10,000 members, is by far the largest in the region (including Central America and the Caribbean). Its Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Zion Levi, led the community for 57 years, from 1951 until his death in 2008. His tenure is thought to be the longest of any religious leader in the region.

Jewish immigration began in the late 19th century from the Dutch Antilles, followed by immigration from other Jewish communities, and at present there are three synagogues in Panama City, as well as four Jewish schools. Within Latin America, Panama has one of the largest Jewish communities in proportion to its population, surpassed only by Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. Panama is also the first country in Latin America to have a Jewish president, Max Delvalle Levy-Maduro.

National bird
Classified as an endangered species, Harpy eagles are rare in captivity. These large birds are challenged in the wild because they require vast expanses of undisturbed forest. When they do breed, only one eaglet usually results. These large birds of prey generally eat monkeys and sloths in the wild. More common in the Darien area of Panama, there have been a few sightings near the border of Costa Rica.


Panama joins two oceans and two continents. With Costa Rica to the west and Colombia to the east, it forms a narrow neck of land connecting Central to South America, while the Panama Canal links the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. The first proposal for a canal was made by the Spanish in the early sixteenth century. Later, at the time of the Californian Gold Rush, the USA began to press for action. In 1881 work began on a design prepared by de Lesseps, who was the builder of the Suez Canal, but malaria and yellow fever killed so many workers on the project that it had to be abandoned. Control of these diseases was one of the achievements of the later American builders, who eventually completed the canal in 1914.

Part of Colombia until 1903, Panama has been closely linked with the USA since the construction of the canal gave the latter rights over a 16 km (10 mile) wide Canal Zone. These rights run out in the year 2000. A major upheaval took place in Panama during 1989 when the USA invaded and removed the country's self-proclaimed 'maximum leader' General Manuel Noriega in order that he face drug charges in Miami. Electoral democracy was restored in the country, and Noriega was jailed, but the laundering of large amounts of drug money in association with cartels in neighboring Colombia continues to be a problem.

The 3,000 m (9,850 ft) tall mountains of the Serrania de Tabasara (Cordillera Central) run west of the canal along the isthmus, and are separated from the southern Peninsula de Azuera by a long stretch of plain. East of the canal two more ranges of mountains form arcs running parallel to the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Most of the country, however, including 750 offshore islands, lies below 700 m (2,300 ft) and swelters in tropical heat and high humidity. Rainforests are extensive, and those of the Darien National Park, with their abundant wildlife, are among the wildest areas left in the whole of the Americas. Most Panamanians live within 20 km (12 miles) of the Canal Zone, a quarter of them in the capital itself.

Panama's economy is based on services, and is heavily weighted toward banking, commerce, and tourism. The country has the largest open-registry merchant fleet in the world. Along with the export of bananas (43 % of total exports) and shrimp (11 %), plus income derived from the USA's military installation, Panama has the highest standard of living in Central America. However, the country's commercial debt is also one of the highest in the world in per capita terms, and during the mid-1990s the country experienced an economic slow-down. Despite the presence of a degree of nationalist fervor, with the termination of the US Canal Zone, approximately 75 % of Panamanians now favor a continuing US presence in the country to help preserve stability.

Fact File

OFFICIAL NAME: Republic of Panama

FORM OF GOVERNMENT: Republic with single legislative body (Legislative Assembly)


AREA: 78,200 sq km (30,193 sq miles)

TIME ZONE GMT: - 5 hours

POPULATION: 2,778,526


POPULATION DENSITY: 35.5 per sq km (92 per sq mile)






RELIGIONS: Roman Catholic 85%, Protestant 15%

ETHNIC GROUPS: Mixed indigenous-European 70%, African 14%, European 10%, Indigenous 6%


ECONOMY: Services 60%, agriculture 27%, industry 13%


CLIMATE: Tropical, with long wet season May to January

HIGHEST POINT: Volcan Baru 3,475 m (11,401 ft)

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