Ohio State University

“Panama Papers” Show Panama’s Democracy Could Improve through Civic Engagement by Madeleine Haas @ Ohio State University

Civic engagement is a vital component of any democracy, however immature or struggling. Panama is one such young and struggling democracy. The response of citizens and government officials to the release of the Panama Papers shows us that Panama is at a crucial moment in its history: a moment which will either bring about the fortification or downfall of its democracy. The people’s response to the Panama Papers and desire to be seen as more than a country of scandals is reassuring, but in order to determine the future of the nation’s democracy, we will have to see if this engagement takes effective forms and is utilized by the government to increase the quality of Panama’s democracy.


In order to understand the state of Panama’s democracy and the effect of the Panama Papers, it’s important to know a little bit about the country’s history. Long-ruling military dictator Manuel Noriega was removed from power in 1989 by United States forces after promoting and enforcing a tumultuous series of attacks against citizen protests and ignoring the electoral win of opposition Guillermo Endara. After being ousted, Noriega was taken prisoner by the United States. Endara served as Panama’s President from 1989-1994.

Since then, Panama has been a steady democracy, as evidenced by the data collected by the research organization Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem). V-Dem’s website outlines the various indices they have created to test the quality and strength of a democracy from a variety of different angles. Panama has kept a steady rating on every democracy index, including electoral, liberal, deliberative, egalitarian, and participatory, since having a massive spike in rating in 1989. While this rating isn’t perfect, its steadiness is indicative of Panama’s effort to maintain democracy.

Panama’s imperfect rating is largely due to the corruption it sees in higher government. I don’t intend to downplay the harm of this corruption, or the fact that it is indeed cause for concern about Panama’s democracy. Currently, former President Ricardo Martinelli, who fled to and is now imprisoned in the U.S., is facing extradition to Panama to be charged with wiretapping and spying.

Certainly, this kind of corruption at this level of government is more than concerning for Panama’s state of democracy. However, I argue that the Panamanian citizens’ and officials’ desire to be seen as more than their corruption and scandals could be a good sign for the future of their democracy.


In 2015, a series of confidential documents were leaked from a Panamanian law firm that outlined the suspicious finances of several countries’ most powerful leaders. The documents showed that a law firm in Panama had set up illicit off-shore accounts for many wealthy and powerful people. These documents were popularly dubbed the “Panama Papers,” but it should be made clear that this information was leaked not from the Panamanian government, but rather from a private Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca.

In response to the release of what some Panamanian citizens have dubbed the “Mossack Fonseca Papers,” citizens started a social media campaign to show the world that Panama is more than just a scandal. This campaign took the form of hashtags, for example, #PanamaEsMásQuePapeles, #PanamaIsMoreThanPapers, and #WeArePanama. These hashtags were often posted with pictures of Panamanian citizens enjoying what Panama has to offer beyond its scandals: beautiful scenery, great tourist spots, and civic pride.

While Panama is aware both of its history as an anti-democratic government and of its democratic government’s history of corruption, there is an attempt by its citizenry to show the world that they are proud to be Panamanian. This might seem small, but this act of civic engagement in the face of a worldwide scandal represents the commitment of a people to their country, to the world’s perception of their country, and therefore to its improvement. There are steps that can be taken by these citizens to increase civic engagement and build a better movement for changing the world’s perception of Panama – I will revisit these later.

Panama’s government and officials are also acutely aware of the nation’s history and scandalous world image. In order to address the citizens’ concerns raised by the Panama Papers leak, government officials set up a seven-member commission to look into and take action on increasing the transparency of Panama’s financial sector. This step didn’t go as planned, the details of which could certainly be seen as a threat to Panama’s democracy – the fact that the government was willing to look into issues of transparency but failed to do so is at best the unfortunate start to a continued dialogue and at worst a sign of further corruption and cover-up by government officials.

If Panama is able to maintain its democracy, especially in terms of V-Dem’s electoral democracy index, and if the Panamanian people engage with their communities, government, and the world, it’s very possible that a new set of officials can be voted into office who prioritize increasing transparency and ending corruption in the same way that the people do. However, this result is reliant upon the maintenance of free elections and representative democracy in a very vulnerable time for Panama. The scale could tip either way for a country in this position.

This is just the beginning for Panama’s young democracy, and though at this stage it’s easy to be cynical, it’s important to remain aware of all of the possibilities for improvement and success in a democracy that has so steadily maintained itself in the face of many struggles.


Panama’s state of affairs is not perfect, but it seems like the desire to create a better, more transparent democracy is there – so what can the citizens and government officials of Panama do in order to accomplish this?

First, the Panamanian citizens who have already proven they are dedicated to their country’s image and improvement can take further steps to build a movement, not only to show the world Panama is more than papers, but to show their government that they prioritize improving the great things about their country and decreasing corruption in government. Movements like this can benefit from the same tactics successful resistance movements use: there’s strength in numbers, in diversity, and in being able to change your movement’s strategies to adapt to new situations. Additionally, it’s important for a movement to plan ahead rather than just react to news as it is released.

On the other hand, the most important thing that government officials can do in a democracy is listen to the people and follow through on their promises. It is time for Panama’s government to successfully set up not just one but multiple transparent taskforces dedicated to the decreasing of corruption and the strengthening of democracy. A democracy based on engagement between public officials and their constituents is a strong one – and I hope to see that engagement fortify Panama’s democratic government in the coming years.

Featured image by Daniel Sánchez Q., “Bandera panameña” (Flickr), Creative Commons License

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