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Panama has a population of 3,292,693 (2008 estimate), up from 2.4 million in 1990. The population is concentrated heavily along the Panama Canal and in the cities on either end of the passage. It is a highly diverse society, descended from native people and immigrants over thousands of years.

For several centuries after the arrival of the Spanish, the population size remained stable. The indigenous people declined steadily because of disease and dislocation, as a growing number of Europeans settled in the region, bringing with them African slaves. Beginning with construction of the Panama Railroad between 1850 and 1855, however, Panama’s population grew rapidly. The railroad and then the French and U.S. canal projects, from 1881 to 1914, attracted huge numbers of immigrants, mostly from the West Indies, seeking jobs and economic opportunities. Throughout the 20th century, immigrants arrived from all parts of the world, especially the Americas, Europe, and Asia. Today Panama’s cities, where most newcomers settle, are melting pots of many nationalities and ethnic groups.

Panama’s population is still growing, at a rate of 1.5 percent, with about 21 births and 6 deaths per 1,000 population (2008). In addition, Panamanians are concentrated more and more in cities, driven by desire for better jobs, education, government services, and urban amenities. The transit zone contains well over 1 million people, living in Panama City, Colon, and their burgeoning suburbs. In 2005 the urban population was estimated to be 58 percent of the total, and it is projected to rise to 60 percent by 2010. Overall, Panama has 43 inhabitants per sq km (112 per sq mi), but density is nearly three times higher in the transit zone and drops to fewer than 3 persons per sq km (8 per sq mi) in the province of Darien, the least populated region.

The largest cities are Panama City, with a population of 813,097 (2005 estimate), and its suburb of San Miguelito. The Panama City metropolitan area also includes the cities of Tocumen, Arraijan, and La Chorrera. Other major cities, with 2005 populations, are Colon (198,551) and David (138,241). Other regional cities include Santiago, Penonome, and Chitre.

Panama City has grown so rapidly that it has outstripped its urban services, especially transportation. New toll roads were begun in the mid-1990s to alleviate traffic problems, and the government began privatizing major utilities in the hope of attracting new investments. Colon, which has been in an economic depression since the 1960s, shows high rates of unemployment, crime, and social disorder. The other cities have not experienced major problems.

Language and Religion

Spanish, the official language of Panama, is spoken by all but a few Native Americans. About a quarter of the population also speaks English, the language of the West Indian minority and the international business community. Many other languages can be found in immigrant communities.

Seventy-seven percent of Panamanians are Catholic, although the proportion that practices is smaller. Protestant denominations account for 12 percent of the people. The constitution does not specifically separate church and state but guarantees freedom of worship. Religious faith and practice have not created conflict in Panama.


Education is compulsory for 6 years and is provided free by the government through the university level. The government spent 16.6 percent of its budget on education in 2000. Wealthier families usually send their children to the numerous private schools in the cities. In 2000, 400,400 elementary and 234,200 high school students were enrolled in the country. School attendance by elementary-age children is nearly universal. Panama has one of the highest literacy rates in the region, 93 percent.

In the early 1990s about 60,000 people attended the national University of Panama (founded in 1935), its associated Technological University, and the University of Santa Maria la Antigua (1965), a Roman Catholic institution. Many others enroll at the private colleges and trade schools that have sprung up in recent years.

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