Panama

Panama, officially Republic of Panama (Spanish: República de Panamá ðe panaˈma]), is the southernmost country of Central America. Situated on the isthmus connecting North and South America, it is bordered by Costa Rica to the west, Colombia to the southeast, the Caribbean to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south. The capital is Panama City.

  • GEOGRAPHICAL DATA
  • DEMOGRAPHICS
  • POLITICS
  • ECONOMY
  • CULTURE

Panama is located in Central America, bordering both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, between Colombia and Costa Rica. It mostly lies between latitudes 7° and 10°N, and longitudes 77° and 83°W (a small area lies west of 83°). Some people consider the territory east of the Panama Canal as part of South America although this is rare. Its location on the Isthmus of Panama is strategic. By 2000, Panama controlled the Panama Canal which connects the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea to the North of the Pacific Ocean. Panama, at 75,515 km2, is ranked 118th worldwide on the basis of land size. For comparison, Panama is slightly smaller than the U.S. state of South Carolina or slightly larger than the Canadian province of New Brunswick.

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 Panama 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, which rises to 3,475 metres (11,401 ft). A nearly impenetrable jungle forms the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia where Colombian guerrilla and drug dealers are operating with hostage-taking. This and forest protection movements create a break in the Pan-American Highway, which otherwise forms a complete road from Alaska to Patagonia.

Panama’s wildlife holds the most diversity of all the countries in Central America. It is home to many South American species as well as North American wildlife.

Panama had a population of 3,405,813 in May 2010. The CIA World Factbook gives the following statististics for the population: “mestizo (mixed Amerindian and white) 70%, Amerindian and mixed (West Indian) 14%, white 10%, Amerindian 6%”. The Amerindian population includes seven indigenous peoples: Ngäbe, Kuna (Guna), Emberá, Buglé, Wounaan, Naso Tjerdi (Teribe), and Bri Bri.

More than half the population lives in the Panama City–Colón metropolitan corridor, which spans several cities. Panama’s urban population surpasses the 70%, making the country’s population the most urbanized in Central America. The 2010 census in Panama classified approximately 12.3% of the nation’s population as indigenous. The Amerindian population figure stood at 417,500 individuals in 2010.

The culture, customs, and language of the Panamanians are predominantly Caribbean and Spanish. Spanish is the official and dominant language. About 93% of the population speak Spanish as their first language, though many citizens speak both English and Spanish or native languages, such as Ngäbere. Some new statistics show that as second language, English is spoken by 8%, French by 4% and Arabic by 1%. The private educational system offers German, Portuguese and Italian.

Panama, partly owing to its historical reliance on commerce, is an ethnically diverse society. It has considerable populations 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. There followed several waves of immigrants whose descendants number around 50,000. Starting in the 1970s, a further 80,000 have immigrated from other parts of China as well.

Afro-Panamanians played a significant role in the creation of the republic. The descendants of the Africans who arrived during the colonial era are intermixed in the general population or live in small Afro-Panamanian communities along the Atlantic Coast and in villages within the Darién jungle. Most of the people in Darien are fishermen or small-scale farmers growing crops such as bananas, rice and coffee as well as raising livestock. Other Afro-Panamanians descend from later migrants from the Caribbean who came to work on railroad-construction projects, commercial agricultural enterprises, and (especially) the canal. Important Afro-Caribbean community areas include towns and cities such as Colón, Cristobal and Balboa, in the former Canal Zone, as well as the Río Abajo area of Panama City. Another region with a large Afro-Caribbean population is the province of Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean coast just south of Costa Rica.

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. Three-quarters of the 50,000 workers who built the canal were Afro Caribbean migrants from the British West Indies. Thousands of Afro-Caribbean workers were recruited from Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad.

Panama is the smallest Spanish-speaking Latin American country in terms of population.

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.

For all people national elections are universal and mandatory for all citizens 18 years and older. National elections for the executive and legislative branches take place every five years. Members of the judicial branch (justices) 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; out of the four last presidents only one, the incumbent president, was elected with over 50% of the popular vote.

Since the U.S. invasion and the end of the 21-year military dictatorship, Panama has successfully completed four 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. Former President Martin Torrijos is the son of Maximum Leader of the Panamanian Revolution Omar Torrijos. He succeeded Mireya Moscoso, the widow of Arnulfo Arias. Panama’s most recent national elections occurred on May 3, 2009 with Ricardo Martinelli being elected. He was sworn for a five-year term in Panama City on July 1, 2009.

According to the CIA World Factbook, as of 2011 Panama had an unemployment rate of 2.7%. A food surplus was registered in August 2008. On the Human Development Index Panama was ranked at number 60 (2008). In recent years, Panama’s economy has experienced an economic boom, with growth in real gross domestic product (GDP) averaging over 10.4% from 2006–2008. The Panamanian economy has been among the fastest growing and best managed in Latin America. Latin Business Chronicle has predicted that Panama will be the fastest growing economy in Latin America in the five-year period 2010–14, matching Brazil’s 10% rate.

Like most countries in the region, Panama is feeling the impact of the global financial crisis, which threatens to undermine the social gains made in the past few years.

The expansion project of the Panama Canal, combined with the conclusion of a free trade agreement with the United States, is expected to boost and extend economic expansion for some time.

Despite Panama’s status as an upper-middle income nation – as measured by per capita GDP – it remains a country of stark contrasts. Perpetuated by dramatic educational disparities, over 24% of Panama’s population lived in national poverty in 2013 and currently according to latest reports by the World Bank 6.6% of the country’s population lives in extreme poverty.

The culture of Panama derived from European music, art and traditions that were brought over by the Spanish to Panama. Hegemonic forces have created hybrid forms of this by blending African and Native American culture with European culture. For example, the tamborito is a Spanish dance that was blended with African rhythms, themes and dance moves. Dance is a symbol of the diverse cultures that have coupled in Panama. The local folklore can be experienced through a multitude of festivals, dances and traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation. Local cities host live reggae en español, reggaeton, kompa, jazz, blues, salsa, reggae, and rock music performances.

Outside of Panama City, regional festivals take place throughout the year featuring local musicians and dancers. Another example of Panama’s blended culture is reflected in the traditional products, such as woodcarvings, ceremonial masks and pottery, as well as in its architecture, cuisine and festivals. In earlier times, baskets were woven for utilitarian uses, but now many villages rely almost exclusively on the baskets they produce for tourists.

An example of undisturbed, unique culture in Panama is that of the Guna who are known for molas. Mola is the Guna word for blouse, but the term mola has come to mean the elaborate embroidered panels that make up the front and back of a Guna woman’s blouse. Molas are works of art created by the women of the Kuna tribe. They are several layers of cloth, varying in color, that are loosely stitched together, made using an appliqué process referred to as “reverse appliqué”.

The Christmas parade, known as El desfile de Navidad, is celebrated in the capital, Panama City. This holiday is celebrated on December 25. The floats in the parade are decorated with the Panamanian colors, and the women dress in dresses called Pollera while the men dress in the traditional Montuno. In addition, the marching band in the parade, consisting of drummers, keeps the crowds entertained. In the city, a big Christmas tree is lit with Christmas lights, and everybody surrounds the tree and sings Christmas carols.

The traditional Panamanian dish for Christmas usually includes chicken tamales, arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), puerca asada, pernil, pavo (turkey), and relleno (stuffing). Bowls of fruits and fruitcake are set out on the tables along with the dishes. Along with these foods and dessert, a traditional drink is served, called Ron Ponche (eggnog), consisting of two cans of condensed milk, three cans of evaporated milk, six eggs, and a half a bottle of rum and nutmeg for some extra flavor.

The traditional Panamanian women’s clothing, the pollera, originated in Spain in the 16th century. Later on, the pollera was used as a typical dress in Panama in the early 1800s. The pollera was worn by women servants or maids: “it was especially the dress of the wet nurses who nursed the children of the family” (De Zarate 5). As years went on, upper class women adopted the dress.

The original pollera consists of a ruffled blouse that is worn off the shoulders. The skirt is on the waistline with gold buttons. The skirt also has ruffle, so that when she lifts it up, it looks like a peacock’s tail or a mantilla fan. The designs on the skirt and blouse are usually flowers or birds. Two large matching mota (pom poms) are on the front and back, four ribbons are hanging from the back and the front on the waist line, caberstrillos (five chains of gold) are hanging from the neck to the waist, a gold cross or medallion on a black ribbon is worn as a choker, and a silk purse is worn the waistline. Zaricillos (earrings) are usually gold or coral, and to complete the outfit, the female wears slippers which match the color of her pollera. Her hair is usually worn in a bun, held with three large gold combs that have some pearls, and is worn like a crown. The best pollera can usually cost up to ten thousand dollars, and may take a year to complete. The men also wear traditional clothing. Their outfits consist of white cotton shirts, trousers and woven straw hat. This traditional clothing can be worn in parades, where the females and males do a traditional dance. The females do a gentle sway and twirl their skirts, while the men hold their hats in their hands and dance behind the females.

A pollera is made with a “cambric” or “fine linen” (Baker 177). The color of the pollera is always white, and it is usually about thirteen yards of material. Today, there are different types of polleras; the pollera de gala consists of a short sleeved ruffle skirt blouse, two full length skirts and a petticoat. The girls wear tembleques in their hair – a gold and tortoiseshell comb with pearls in it. Gold coins and jewelry are added to the outfit. The pollera montuna is a daily dress, with a blouse, a skirt with a solid color, a single gold chain, and pendant earrings. The hair piece is a natural flower in the hair. This pollera is slightly different from the rest, because instead of an off-the-shoulder blouse, the females wear a fitted white jacket, shoulder pleats, and a flared hem.

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