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Panama: Growth and Structure of the Economy
Country Study > Chapter 3 > The Economy > Growth and Structure of the Economy


Since the early 1500s, Panamanians have relied on the country's comparative advantage -- its geography. Exploitation of this advantage began soon after the Spanish arrived, when the conquistadors used Panama to transship gold and silver from Peru to Spain. Ports on each coast and a trail between them handled much of Spain's colonial trade from which the inhabitants of the port cities prospered. This was the beginning of the country's historical dependence on world commerce for prosperity and imports. Agriculture received little attention until the twentieth century, and by the 1980s had -- for much of the population -- barely developed beyond indigenous Indian techniques. Industry developed slowly because the flow of goods from Europe and later from North America created a disincentive for local production.

Panama has been affected by the cyclical nature of international trade. The economy stagnated in the 1700s as colonial exchange via the isthmus declined. In the mid-1800s, Panama's economy boomed as a result of increased cargo and passengers associated with the California gold rush. A railroad across the isthmus, completed in 1855, prolonged economic growth for about fifteen years until completion of the first transcontinental railroad in the United States caused trans-isthmian traffic to decline. France's efforts to construct a canal across the isthmus in the 1880s and efforts by the United States in the early 1900s stimulated the Panamanian economy.

The United States completed the canal in 1914, and canal traffic expanded by an average of 15 percent a year between 1915 and 1930. The stimulus was strongly felt in Panama City and Colón, the terminal cities of the canal. The world depression of the 1930s reduced international trade and canal traffic, however, causing extensive unemployment in the terminal cities and generating a flow of workers to subsistence farming. During World War II, canal traffic did not increase, but the economy boomed as the convoy system and the presence of United States forces, sent to defend the canal, increased foreign spending in the canal cities. The end of the war was followed by an economic depression and another exodus of unemployed people into agriculture. The government initiated a modest public works program, instituted price supports for major crops, and increased protection for selected agricultural and industrial products.

The postwar depression gave way to rapid economic expansion between 1950 and 1970, when GDP increased by an average of 6.4 percent a year, one of the highest sustained growth rates in the world. All sectors contributed to the growth. Agricultural output rose, boosted by greater fishing activities (especially shrimp), the development of high-value fruit and vegetable production, and the rapid growth of banana exports after disease-resistant trees were planted. Commerce evolved into a relatively sophisticated wholesale and retail system. Banking, tourism, and the export of services to the Canal Zone grew rapidly. Most importantly, an increase in world trade provided a major stimulus to use of the canal and to the economy.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Panama's growth fluctuated with the vagaries of the world economy. After 1973, economic expansion slowed considerably as the result of a number of international and domestic factors. Real GDP growth averaged 3.5 percent a year between 1973 and 1979. In the early 1980s, the economy rebounded with GDP growth rates of 15.4 percent in 1980, 4.2 percent in 1981, and 5.6 percent in 1982. The acute recession in Latin America after 1982, however, wreaked havoc on Panama's economy. GDP growth in 1983 was a mere 0.4 percent; in 1984 it was negative 0.4 percent. In 1985 Panama experienced economic recovery with 4.1-percent GDP growth; the corresponding figure for 1986 was estimated to be 2.8 percent.

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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