The Society and Its Environment

Panama Table of Contents

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.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress