From early periods Afro-Panamanians have played a significant role in the creation of the republic. The descendants of the Africans who arrived during the colonial era are intermixed in the general population or are found in small Afro-Panamanian communities along the Atlantic Coast and in villages within the Darién jungle. Most of the people in Darién are fishermen or small scale farmers growing crops such as bananas, rice and coffee as well as raising livestock.
Other Afro-Panamanians are the descendants of later migrants from the Caribbean who came to work on railroad construction projects, commercial agricultural enterprises and especially in the Canal.
Important Afro-Caribbean community areas include towns and cities such as Colón, Cristobal and Balboa, in the former Canal Zone, as well as the Rio Abajo area of Panama City. Another region with a large Afro-Caribbean population is the province of Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean coast just south of Costa Rica.
Though the Afro-Panamanian community was estimated at 313,289 (9.2 per cent) of the population in the 2010 Census, data collected by the Institution Nacional de Estadística y Censo (INEC) in 2015 produced a significantly higher estimate of 586,221 (14.9 per cent of the total population) – a rise attributed to increased self-identification among Afro-Panamanians and improved data collection techniques.
The present Afro-descendant population in Panama can be regarded as the product of two major waves of migration.
The first wave landed with the Spanish in the 1500s. For two centuries Spain used the Isthmus of Panama as the major commercial centre for its American colonies. It was the point through which all people and commodities were moved overland from the Atlantic to the Pacific side of the New World and vice versa along the Camino Real (Royal Road) that was built between Panama City and the Caribbean port of Nombre de Dios.
Large numbers of enslaved Africans were brought to Panama to transport these goods across the Isthmus as well as to load and unload the ships at both ends of the Camino Real. Africans were also sent to work in the nearby gold mines of Veraguas and Darién.
Panama was also important as a slave-trading centre. Regional slave markets were established in Portobelo as well as in Panama City (Panama Viejo), where tens of thousands of enslaved Africans were sold to Spanish planters and miners from Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, as well as Panama itself.
Large numbers of Africans also escaped from forced labour conditions during the colonial era fleeing into the remote jungles of the Darién and forming free communities. Some intermarriage occurred between Africans and indigenous communities and today maroon descendants known as the Playeros (Beach dwellers) still live along the rivers and coastal areas of the Darién.
On the Pacific side of the country, the Pearl Islands (off the coast of the Darién) were also settled by maroons whose descendants still live there.
Another region of Panama that developed a large Afro-Caribbean population is the North-Western province of Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean coast just south of Costa Rica.
Beginning in the 1830s black migrants from the Caribbean began arriving to work in commercial agricultural enterprises and on construction projects. This included the construction of the trans-Isthmus Panama railroad in 1846.
After the end of the railroad construction in 1855 some Afro-descendant workers remained and settled in Bocas del Toro where they began farming smallholdings. This included pioneering the cultivation of bananas, which they sold to US exporters.
After initially buying the crops from Afro-Caribbean farmers, the United Fruit Company began establishing its own large banana plantations at the turn of the century. As in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala; the United Fruit Company then recruited large numbers of Afro-Caribbean workers to work on these plantations. The Bocas Del Toro region existed as an English-speaking banana enclave that related more to other Central American banana enclaves than to the Panamanian republic. It existed as part of a single economic and cultural complex that ran from Colón City in Panama to Limon in Costa Rica and functioned under the British-American sphere of influence.
A significant Afro-Panamanian population of Caribbean ancestry is now concentrated in the town of Bocas del Toro as well as in nearby Almirante. In addition the residents of the island village of Bastimentos which is located 20 minutes from Bocas, are almost entirely of African ancestry.
The Panama Canal
The next major wave of Afro-Panamanians came between 1907 and 1914 accelerated by the the US-run construction of the Panama Canal. Three-quarters of the 50,000 workers who built the Canal were Afro-Caribbean migrants from the British West Indies. Thousands of Afro-Caribbean workers were recruited from Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. By the 1930s, this migration had changed the demographics of Panama City, and Colón City around the Canal.
Black Panamanians have faced a double racism, despite being more integrated than in other Central American countries. First, they have suffered US-style discrimination. During the construction of the Canal, black workers were paid in silver while their white counterparts were paid in gold. Within the Canal Zone, segregation was practised by US government social services and, in the 1950s, the Canal administrators expelled Afro-Panamanians from the Canal Zone to avoid civil rights protests, creating a form of apartheid.
Second, they have suffered discrimination within Panama’s mestizo society. Panamanian nationalism attempts to co-opt black people born in Panama while encouraging or coercing Afro-Caribbeans to identify with Hispanic values. Panamanians often distinguish between Caribbean black people (antillanos) and those who predate the Caribbean migrations (negros nativos). The distinction is related to the resentment of English-speakers. This was challenged by Torrijos’ more encompassing nationalism, and the predominantly white Panamanian oligarchy’s opposition to Manuel Noriega had racial overtones since Noriega himself was of mixed race.
The US invasion proved disastrous for Afro-Panamanians. The poor neighbourhoods which disproportionately suffered most of the casualties from US artillery fire were mainly inhabited by Afro-Panamanians. In addition, the invasion exacerbated the existing crisis in social services.
However, from the 1980s, when Afro-Panamanian activists organized a series of national congresses to discuss issues of race and ethnicity, there has been a growing pan-African consciousness. This is reflected in the leading involvement of Afro-Panamanians in community education, the labour movement, human rights groups and campaigns with indigenous community organizations to demand equality.
The Panamanian government has enacted laws to ensure ‘equal treatment’ for all of its diverse ethnic groups and a greater awareness of black culture and tradition continues to grow within the community. However this may have slowed down but not stopped the ongoing process of Afro-Panamanian assimilation into Panamanian mestizo culture.
Afro-Panamanians are markedly absent from positions of political and economic power. Mainstream political and economic elites continue to ignore the acute economic and social problems that affect Afro-Panamanian populations and the areas where they constitute the majority.
Many Afro-Panamanians remain clustered in the economically depressed province of Colόn and poorer neighbourhoods of Panama City. The Bocas del Toro region and the city of Colόn, with majority populations made up of descendants of English-speaking Afro-Caribbean migrants from the 19th and early 20th century, continue to suffer from the conspicuous lack of government services and social sector investment.
Mainstream Panamanian society continues to favour lighter skin tones and assimilationist mestizo cultural values. In an economy heavily geared towards banking, commerce and tourism, discrimination against citizens with darker skin is effected in the public and private sector through preferential hiring practices, racial profiling by law enforcement agencies, and manipulation of government resources in the public sector.
In recent years the government has implemented some positive steps, such as the creation of the National Secretariat for the Development of Afro-Panamanians (SENADAP) in 2016 to promote greater equality and rights for the community. These and other achievements are the result of a longstanding struggle by civil society groups such as the National Coordinator for Afro-Panamanian Organizations (CONEGPA) to promote and protect the rights of the Afro-descendant population. Nevertheless, Afro-Panamanians continue to be marginalized and invisible. The failure to recognize Afro-Panamanian culture, language and history is evident within public institutions, school texts and many other areas of daily life in Panamanian society.
The inequalities experienced by the Afro-Panamanian community are reflected in many areas of their lives. Afro-Panamanians are amongst the most excluded groups in the country, with high levels of unemployment, poverty and illiteracy. Reduced accessibility to health care, compared to the rest of the population, is also a serious issue: Urenna Best, SENADAP’s General Director, has stated that serious health issues such as diabetes and hypertension are ‘almost naturalised’ amongst the Afro-Panamanian population.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in