The republic of Panama is in Middle America, bordering with both the Caribbean Sea and the North Pacific Ocean, between Colombia and Costa Rica. With US backing, Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903 and promptly signed a treaty with the US allowing for the construction of a canal and US sovereignty over a strip of land on either side of the structure (the Panama Canal Zone). The Panama Canal was built by the US Army Corps of Engineers between 1904 and 1914. On 7 September 1977, an agreement was signed for the complete transfer of the Canal from the US to Panama by the end of 1999.
Panama is a representative democracy with three branches of government: executive and legislative branches elected by direct vote for 5-year terms, and an independently appointed judiciary. The executive branch includes a president and two vice presidents. The legislative branch consists of a 72-member unicameral Legislative Assembly. The judicial branch is organized under a nine-member Supreme Court and includes all tribunals and municipal courts. An autonomous Electoral Tribunal supervises voter registration, the election process, and the activities of political parties. Everyone over the age of 18 is required to vote, although those who fail to do so are not penalized. Panama is a constitutional democracy with 9 administrative provinces. The president is the chief of state as well as the head of government.
Panama’s economy is based primarily on a well-developed services sector that accounts for three-fourths of GDP. Services include the Panama Canal, banking, the Colon Free Zone, insurance, container ports, flagship registry, and tourism. A slump in Colon Free Zone and agricultural exports, high oil prices, and the withdrawal of US military forces held back economic growth in 2000. The government plans public works programs, tax reforms, and new regional trade agreements in order to stimulate growth in 2001.
There are approximately 2.9 million people in Panama. The population is comprised of mestizo (mixed Amerindian and white) 70%, Amerindian and mixed (West Indian) 14%, white 10%, Amerindian 6%. While the official language is Spanish, many Panamanians speak English as well. Christianity is the dominant religion.