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Panama: The Elite
Country Study > Chapter 2 > The Society and Its Environment > Social Organization > Urban Society > The Elite


Urban society in the late 1980s included virtually all members of the elite. Centered mainly in the capital, this class was composed of old families of Spanish descent and a few, newer families of immigrants. All elite families were wealthy, but the assets of the immigrant families were more tightly linked with commerce and Panama's twentieth-century development as a transit zone. Older families were inclined to think of themselves an aristocracy based on birth and breeding. Newer families, lacking such illustrious antecedents, had less prestige and social status. Until the advent of Torrijos, whose power base was the National Guard, an oligarchy of older elite families virtually controlled the country's politics under the auspices of the Liberal Party.

The upper class was a small, close-knit group that had developed strong ties of association and kinship over the years. Prominent family names recurred frequently in the news of the nation: Arias, Arosemena, Alemán, Chiari, Goytía, and de la Guardia. People without a claim to such a family background could gain acceptance, at least for their children, by marriage into an elite family.

Since colonial times, education had been recognized as a mark of status; hence, almost all men of elite status received a university education. Most attended private schools either at home or abroad, and many studied a profession, with law and medicine the most favored. The practice of a profession was viewed not as a means of livelihood, but as a status symbol and an adjunct to a political career. The elite maintained a dual cultural allegiance, because families usually sent their sons to Western Europe or the United States to complete their education. Increasing numbers of women also attended college, but most families did not see such education as essential.

Politics was the quintessential career for a young man of elite background. The old, aristocratic families had long provided the republic's presidents, its cabinet ministers, and many members of the legislatures. Young women were increasingly finding employment in public administration and commerce in the 1980s.

Older elite families were closely interrelated and were careful to avoid racially mixed unions. Antillean blacks enjoyed little success in attaining elite status, although a wealthy, Spanishspeaking, Roman Catholic black could gain acceptance. There was an increasing degree of admixture with mestizo and more recent immigrant elements. Many such families entered the elite and intermarried with members of the older families. In a sense, commercial success had in large measure become a substitute for an illustrious family background. "Money whitens everyone" was a popular saying describing the phenomenon.

Data as of December 1987

Last Updated: December 1987

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Panama was first published in 1987. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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Section 49 of 142


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