Panama Facts
Area:    78,200 sq. km.
Capital:    Panama
Total Population:    2,736,000 (source: various, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The Chinese in Panama could face danger should the government return to its protectionist past (ATRISK1 = 1). Panamanian Chinese resistance to assimilation has become more significant as the past possibility to emigrate to the United States attracted many Chinese to Panama. As that option was closed off, the position of tens of thousands of Chinese has become precarious, dependent on both international negotiations and domestic politics. The United States has tried to get Panama to keep the Chinese in Panama while the PRC probably pressured Panama to return them for punishment. However, there is evidence that the PRC has also pressured the Panama government to protect the rights of resident Chinese. Should they be allowed to stay, there may be a backlash against all Chinese in Panama; if they are forced to leave, the Chinese community may become frustrated with their treatment and become more active in Panamanian politics. The dearth of news reports on Panamanian Chinese in recent years suggests that this point has not yet been reached.

Analytic Summary

Most Chinese in Panama are concentrated in urban centers and work in commerce (GROUPCON = 1) – 1,200 of the 2,700 Chinese in Panama in 1950 lived in Panama City alone. While they have made significant attempts to "get along with" other Panamanians, they demonstrate no intention to assimilate (ETHDIFXX = 10, CUSTOM = 1).

Chinese immigration to Latin America goes back at least as far as the 17th century, though the large-scale migration known as the "coolie trade" began in the 19th century. Thousands of Chinese were forced or enticed to travel to the Americas as contract laborers as slavery was being outlawed. Panama's original Chinese came as laborers on the trans-Panama railroad in 1850; they numbered only 1,000 and most died of disease or emigrated to Jamaica. In the 1880s, a few hundred more were brought to Panama for construction on the French canal. Many of these laborers remained in Panama after their "contracts" expired and others immigrated later.

After Panamanian independence in 1903, a law prohibiting Chinese immigration was passed. However, the core of Chinese already in Panama found loopholes, continuing immigration despite further government efforts. This process has continued through most of the 20th century. Chinese control of the 1940s Panamanian grocery trade led to the rise in anti-Chinese sentiment and a backlash against them, led by the nationalist president Arnulfo Arias. Anti-Chinese sentiment came to a head in 1941 when approximately 1,000 Chinese were forced to leave Panama and Chinese immigration was entirely cut off.

The Chinese in Panama have been organized in "Overseas Chinese" associations since at least the mid-1980s (COHESX9 = 4). While these associations complain about discriminatory laws and general social discrimination, most seem more concerned with maintaining close ties with the government and improving the image of the Chinese in the eyes of other Panamanians (POLSTAT = 7). They have not engaged in protest or rebellion in recent years (PROT00-03 = 0, REB00-03 = 0). They have frequently raised money for Panamanian charities and donated the money in the name of the Panamanian president and/or his wife. Furthermore, second and third generation Chinese are generally more accepted in society, while newly arrived immigrants are not. The established Chinese generally do not want to be associated with the recent arrivals from China.

Chinese immigrants are forbidden from owning retail businesses, while

Chinese-Panamanian citizens are free to do so. Since the law forbids any non-citizen from owning retail businesses, the Panamanian government has justified it in terms of the need to keep North American foreign retail chains from dominating Panamanian markets. However, given the history of the Chinese in the retail business and prevalent anti-Chinese sentiments this may be a way to allow for a social form of discrimination (ECDIS03 = 3, POLDIS03 = 3).


Area Studies Handbook for Panama, 1991

Central News Agency. Republic of China.

Chang, Ching Chieh. 1956. The Chinese in Latin America: A Preliminary Geographical Survey with Special Reference to Cuba and Jamaica. Doctoral Thesis at the University of Maryland.

City-Net Internet site (

Inter Press Service.

Lexis-Nexis: All News Files 1995-2003.

Rohter, Larry. "Trafficking in People: Was it One More Racket?" (Panama

Journal) New York Times April 10, 1990.

U. S. Department of State. "Human Rights Country Reports for 1993."

Washington, DC.

____. Background Notes 1994

U. S. Department of State. "Human Rights Country Reports for 2001."

Washington, DC.

U. S. Department of State. "Human Rights Country Reports for 2002."

Washington, DC.

The Vancouver Sun (British Columbia), January 25, 2001, The Borderless Nation: The 80 Million Chinese Who Live Outside China Form A Group With Staggering Economic Clout.

Xinhua General Overseas News Service.


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