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Panama has well-rooted democratic traditions dating back to independence from Spain in 1821. Panama adopted constitutions in 1903, 1946, and 1972. These have been amended to fit changing times, and major revisions were made in 1983. All citizens 18 years of age and above are required to vote in elections.
Despite Panama’s democratic traditions, the military has been heavily involved in politics since the 1930s and controlled government from 1968 to 1989. Panama officially had no army after granting the United States defense powers in 1903, but it has maintained a military police force called the National Police (1903-1953), the National Guard (1953-1983), the Panama Defense Forces (1983-1989), and the Public Forces (1990- ). By the late 1940s, the commander of the police, Jose Antonio Remon, effectively selected and removed presidents, and in 1952 Remon himself became president. Only after he was assassinated in 1955 did the police pull back from active involvement in government.
In 1968, however, two colonels led a coup that overthrew the president and initiated a 22-year dictatorship. The dominant figures were Omar Torrijos Herrera (1969-1981) and Manuel Noriega (1984-1989). A U.S. invasion in 1989 removed Noriega, disbanded the military, and restored civilian government.
The president is the single most powerful figure in government, running the executive branch and wielding influence over the legislative and judicial branches and the many autonomous agencies of government. The president governs with the help of two elected vice presidents and an appointed cabinet. Presidents are elected by popular vote, serve five-year terms, and may not be reelected.
The Legislative Assembly is made up of 72 members elected for five years. The legislature writes and passes laws, ratifies presidential appointments, amends the constitution as necessary, and generally shares power with the president.
An autonomous judicial branch is headed by the nine-member Supreme Court of Justice. The president nominates and the legislature ratifies appointees to the court, who serve for ten-year terms. The Supreme Court oversees five superior courts, three courts of appeal, and all other tribunals, including municipal courts. An independent Electoral Tribunal supervises voter registration, the election process, and the activities of political parties.
Panama’s nine provinces are administered by governors appointed by the president. Local government is organized around 65 districts and 505 subdistricts. Voters in these jurisdictions choose mayors and councilors to administer local business. In the cities, mayors wield significant power, but in rural areas their influence is strictly limited by lack of funds. Most local government depends on securing help from provincial and national authorities.
Leaders of Native American groups, especially the Kuna and Ngobe-Bugle, negotiate directly with the national government. The Kuna enjoy special authority to conduct affairs in their own reservation, the Comarca of San Blas.
Most of Panama’s social services are administered by the Social Security system, founded in 1941. It provides retirement and disability pensions for most workers, lifelong health care, and payments for dependents. The hospital system works well, and Panama has relatively good health statistics: life expectancy of 75 years, 1 physician per 595 inhabitants, and infant mortality of 16 per 1,000 live births. A number of private charities also provide assistance to the poor.
The country’s defense is entrusted to the Public Force, a police organization that is subordinate to civilian government officials. This agency was created after the 1989 U.S. invasion to replace the Panama Defense Force, the military force that had repressed political opposition and violated human rights under the Noriega dictatorship. Personnel strength has been cut from 16,000 to about 13,000, and service is voluntary. The Public Force consists of four independent units: the national police, the national maritime service (coast guard), the national air service, and the institutional protective service (security for important officials). The Public Force absorbs 0.9 percent of Panama’s GDP.
Panama is a member of the United Nations (UN) and most major UN agencies, and it has served three terms as a member of the UN Security Council. It maintains membership in several international financial institutions, including the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Panama is a member of the Organization of American States, and was a founding member of the Latin American Economic System (known informally both as the Group of Eight and the Rio Group). Panama was suspended from the Rio Group in 1988, due to its internal political system under Noriega, but was readmitted in September 1994.
Panama often participates in Central American regional meetings and is a member of the Central American Parliament and the Central American Integration System (SICA). The government is also taking steps to join the Central American Development Bank.
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