Panama Table of Contents

Industrial development has been uneven in Panama. Between 1965 and 1980, industry grew at an average annual rate of 5.9 percent; between 1980 and 1985, that rate was negative 2.2 percent. In 1985 industry accounted for nearly 18 percent of GDP. Within the industrial sector, manufacturing (based primarily on the processing of agricultural products) and mining contributed 9.1 percent to GDP, followed by construction (4.7 percent) and energy (3.4 percent).

Several factors contributed to the rapid expansion of industry between 1950 and 1970. A 1950 law granted liberal incentives and protection from imports to investors, including those in manufacturing. An agreement in 1955 phased out a number of manufacturing activities in the Canal Zone and opened a market for such Panamanian products as bakery goods, soft drinks, meats, and bottled milk. Foreign investment went into relatively large plants for oil refining, food processing, and utilities. The government invested in the infrastructure, especially in roads and the power supply. A building boom increased the demand for construction materials and furniture, further stimulating manufacturing. Management gained experience during the period, and labor productivity increased.

The stagnation in industrial growth during the 1970s resulted from external and internal causes that reduced private investment. Externally, the rise of oil prices, recession in the industrialized countries, and uncertainty relating to the future status of the canal clouded the investment climate. Domestically, a recession reduced construction activity and lowered the demand for manufactured goods. The government built cement and sugar mills to compete with privately owned mills; it also implemented an agrarian reform program, instituted a liberal labor code, and enforced rent control laws. These measures created apprehension on the part of investors, and although the government granted tax holidays, export incentives, and protection from imports, private investment declined. A key goal of the structural adjustment program of the mid-1980s was to increase private investment in industry and to make Panama's industry competitive internationally.


In 1984 the value added in manufacturing totaled US$344 million, distributed approximately as follows: food and agriculture, 42 percent; textiles and clothing, 11 percent; chemicals, 8 percent; machinery and transport equipment, 1 percent; and other manufacturing, 37 percent. Manufacturing was almost completely oriented toward the domestic market; manufactured goods accounted for a mere 2.5 percent of the value of exports of goods and nonfactor services. Production was concentrated in Panama City (over 60 percent of establishments), with smaller industrial centers at David (10 percent) and Colón (5 percent).

Industrial development has faced the serious constraints of the small size of the domestic market, lack of economies of scale, high labor and unit costs, and government policies of high protection against imports. The greatest growth in manufacturing occurred in response to import- substitution industrialization in the 1960s and 1970s. By the 1980s, however, the "easy phase" of importsubstitution industrialization was over; a second phase, that of industrial deepening, was more difficult to carry out in such a small economy. The economy's obvious limitations in manufacturing have been partially offset by an educated labor force, highly developed internal and external transport and communication links, extensive financial facilities, the country's centralized location, and relatively few restrictions to foreign investment. The Panama Canal treaties provided additional space for expanding the CFZ, an ideal location for light industry and assembly plants.

During the 1970s, the public sector took the lead in manufacturing by building a cement plant, sugar mills, and iron and steel works. The structural adjustment program of the mid-1980s sought to reduce the state's role in the economy and to make the private sector the engine of manufacturing growth. The industrial incentives legislation of March 1986 encouraged manufacturers to be export-oriented by removing tax exemptions for those firms that produced for the domestic market. The legislation also provided for maintaining tax exemptions on imported inputs, income, sales, and capital assets for those firms that produced exports. The legislation also lowered import barriers over a period of five years in an effort to increase the productivity and competitiveness of local manufacturing. In addition, new companies were given tariff reductions of up to 60 percent for the first 7 years, and 40 percent thereafter.

Since the early 1970s, industrial expansion and job creation have lagged behind the growth of the labor force. In the 1960s, an average of 2,400 jobs was created each year in manufacturing. The rigidities of the industrial incentives law in 1970 and the labor code in 1972 contributed to a decline in manufacturing employment; an average of only 530 new jobs were created each year in manufacturing during the 1970s. The changes introduced in the labor code in March 1986 sought to reverse the antiemployment bias in manufacturing. The slight reduction in the overall unemployment rate in 1986 may be partially attributed to the labor code revisions.

Despite government measures to stimulate manufacturing, Panama's becoming a major industrial center seemed unlikely. Under the CBI, some potential arose for the development of twin-plant operations, especially in association with firms in Puerto Rico, where labor costs were higher than in Panama. In general, however, Panama was unable to compete effectively with Mexico, given the latter country's low labor costs and proximity to the United States market. Also, the possibility existed that industries from East Asia, especially clothing manufacturers, might increasingly relocate to Panama, in an attempt to circumvent United States quotas. This possibility was limited by uncertainty over the United States response. The United States Department of Commerce had called for the reduction of United States imports from Panama, precisely in those products manufactured by Asian investors.


Despite the variety of mineral deposits and the potential of copper production, the contribution of mining to GDP was negligible, accounting for only US$2.5 million in 1985, down from a 1982 peak of US$4.1 million (both figures at 1970 market prices). The production was restricted to the extraction of limestone, clays, and sea salt. A state company, Cemento Bayano, produced limestone and clay, and operated a cement plant with an annual capacity of 330,000 tons.

In the 1970s, several copper deposits were discovered. The largest was Cerro Colorado, in Chiriquí, which if developed would be one of the largest copper mines in the world. Commercial development of the Cerro Colorado project was in the hands of the state-owned Corporación de Desarrollo Minero Cerro Colorado, which had a 51-percent stake in the operation, and of Río Tinto-Zinc, with 49 percent. In the 1970s, ore reserves at Cerro Colorado were estimated at nearly 1.4 billion tons (0.78 copper content). In the late 1970s, the cost of developing the mines was estimated at US$l.5 billion, nearly equal to total GDP at that time. Commercial exploitation was postponed because of low copper prices on the world market but could be undertaken if copper prices rose substantially.


Energy is generally considered a part of industry, to the extent that it is an intermediate input in the production process. In Panama, however, the largest shares of energy are sold to the consumer and to commerce. Therefore, a significant portion of energy used in Panama should be considered a part of the services sector; for the sake of this analysis, however, energy is placed under industry, following conventional practice.

Panama's energy production has increased substantially, from an average annual growth rate of 6.9 percent between 1965 and 1980 to 11.1 percent between 1980 and 1985. The expansion of hydroelectric generating capability has been responsible for most of the growth. Per capita energy consumption has increased, from 576 kilograms of oil equivalent in 1965 to 634 kilograms in 1985. This figure is higher than that of Nicaragua (259 kilograms) and Costa Rica (534 kilograms) but lower than that of Colombia (755 kilograms) and Mexico (1,290 kilograms).

Panama depended on petroleum for 80 percent of its domestic energy needs in the late 1980s. Petroleum exploration has been underway since 1920, but without success; as a result, the country is dependent on imported petroleum. Saudi Arabia and Venezuela were the primary suppliers until 1981, when Mexico replaced Saudi Arabia and joined Venezuela in the San José Agreement of 1980, under which the two countries supply oil to Caribbean Basin countries on concessionary terms. Panama nearly halved its imports of oil between 1977 (20.5 million barrels) and 1983 (11.8 million) in response to rising oil prices. Oil imports have declined as a share of the total value of imports, from 33 percent in 1977 to 19 percent in 1985; in the latter year, the value of oil imports was US$19.2 million.

The country's only oil refinery, near Colón, has a capacity of 100,000 barrels per day. Since 1976 it has been operating far below capacity, because greater use has been made of hydroelectricity. Refinery products supplied the domestic fuel for thermal power plants, most of the transportation system, and other minor uses. In 1977 about 64 percent of the imported crude was reexported after refining, mostly to ships' bunkers; by 1983 that figure had fallen to 35 percent. The government has approved the construction of a second refinery, also near Colón, with a capacity of 75,000 barrels per day.

Hydroelectricity accounted for 10 percent of energy consumption and was the country's main domestic energy resource in the late 1980s. Panama has been substituting hydroelectric power generation for petroleum-based thermal generation since the late 1970s. By 1980, some 30 sites had been identified on the country's numerous rivers, which, if developed, could generate 1,900 megawatts of power. The capacity for generating electricity was 300 megawatts in 1979; in 1984 it had increased to 980 megawatts, of which 650 megawatts was hydroelectric and 330 was thermal. The increase was due in large measure to the Edwin Fábrega Dam, on the Río Chiriquí, which began operation in 1984 with a generating capacity of 300 megawatts.

In 1985 the Institute of Hydraulic Resources and Electrification, responsible for power generation and distribution, initiated a five-year program to expand Panama's electrical generating capacity. At the time, there were 275,429 electricity consumers. A major goal of the program was to increase the distribution of electricity to an additional 12,000 people in rural areas.

Other energy sources, such as bagasse, charcoal, and wood, accounted for the remainder of energy demand. Firewood supplied half of the country's energy requirements as late as the 1950s but declined rapidly thereafter, partly because of the deforestation it engendered. Bagasse was used as fuel at sugar mills. Coal reserves were discovered in the Bocas del Toro region in the 1970s, near the border with Costa Rica. If commercially exploitable, the coal in the region could be used for generating electricity. In August 1985, the government announced plans to explore the reserves, with funding from the United States Agency for International Development and the United States Geological Survey.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress