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People, Social Issues

day laborers, mestizo, substantial property, mulatto, European descent

Panama’s society became complex in the 20th century, due to the influx of foreigners, the global reach of its commerce and services, and its strategic political importance. The oldest elite families, descended from colonial times, control wealth, power, and prestige to a far greater degree than those in most Latin American countries. These people, mostly light-skinned and of European descent, are called the rabiblancos (Spanish for “white-tails”). Most presidents, cabinet officials, and governors have come from this class. Since the 19th century, foreigners, especially educated immigrants, have become part of this class through marriage or business partnerships. The upper-class population is small and concentrated in several cities, so members all know each other and keep abreast of one another’s activities. Membership in the exclusive Union Club is roughly the same as this elite class.

About a quarter of Panama’s society enjoys a middle-class standard of living, which includes owning a home or apartment, one or two automobiles, and modern appliances. These people usually live in Panama City, are mostly of European descent, and work for the government, the canal, or major foreign corporations. Middle-class families send their children for university training, usually in Panama. Some middle-class families operate rural businesses and are well off, although they lack access to urban amenities. They produce food and raw materials for urban markets and for export.

Wealth is highly concentrated in the hands of the elite, so the majority of working-class people have very little property and income. Some families managed to acquire land or homes and are fairly comfortable. But millions of Panamanians live in severe poverty, working as day laborers, domestics, and menial employees. The government has subsidized construction of thousands of modest homes on the outskirts of the leading cities. The working classes tend to come from mixed racial background, either mestizo or mulatto.

Panama has low rates of violent crime, yet families with substantial property take great pains to protect it, often hiring private security. Businesses also employ thousands of guards, especially since the army was dismantled in 1989.

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