With the exception of Belize, Panama is the Central American nation with the strongest historical links to Africa and the Caribbean. The first link comes from the long history of African slavery in Panama, although the number of slaves was small by comparison to Caribbean plantations. The second link and the most important comes from the thousands of West Indian immigrants.  These peoples came for the building of the Panama railroad and canal, giving way to the modern Panamanian working class.
    After Spain's conquest at the beginning of the 16th century, Panama became the main passageway for the Spanish to ship gold from Peru to Spain. However, having decimated the indigenous Indian population of Cunas, Chocos and Guaymis, the Spaniards were forced to bring in slaves from Africa to transport the gold and work on small farms. Many of these slaves escaped and formed rebel communities of cimmarones (Maroons) in the eastern mountains. They were led by the "Black King" Bayano. He defied the authority of the Spanish and collaborated with English pirates against them.
    For the next 300 years, the small population of Panama remained concentrated in the narrowest part of the isthmus with an important commercial center at Portobela. Several of the slaves were freed through manumission, while the diminished Amerindian population lived free but isolated in the jungles and mountains and on the San Blas islands. Unions between Africans, Spaniards and Indians gradually produced a predominantly black and mulatto population which identified itself as Panamanian. It was a society plagued with racial and class animosities, where the Indians were at the bottom of the social ladder and the "elite"  bragged about its one-quarter Spanish blood. Descendents of the freed blacks held considerable prestige within the society and played an important role in defining this national Panamanian culture. The native black population came to be referred to as negro colonial to distinguish it from the negros antillanos who arrived after independence.
    By the 19th century a new era of Panamanian history began as North American capital took over the country, importing its own foreign labor force. 3,000 Chinese and 4,000 other foreign laborers entered around 1850 for the building of the Panama railroad. From 1881, when the French began digging the canal, to 1914 when the U.S. completed the project, some 83,000 foreign workers entered Panama. The majority of them came from the English-and French-speaking Caribbean islands. A final wave came during the Second World War to work on U.S. military bases in the Canal Zone.
    Over 20,000 canal construction workers died during the French digging alone. Others eventually returned to their countries or migrated to the United States. However, those that remained and their descendants were numerous enough to have a permanent impact on Panamanian society.
    With the completion of the major work on the canal in 1913, some 5,000 workers were transferred to the United Fruit Company's banana plantations in the western province of Bocas del Toro. Around 1929, there were some 24,000 West Indians in Bocas, although their number fell when United Fruit transferred most of its operations to Chiriqui province on the Pacific. Most of the West Indians, however, congregated in Panama City and Colon, the terminal points of the canal.  In addition to the West Indians, the banana company used the labor of the Guaymi Indians.
    Cultural separateness of the West Indians and their special position as workers for the North Americans led to friction with the native Panamanians. The West Indians felt they had little in common with the latinized Panamanian campesinos, even though the majority of them were also black. The Panamanians, on the other hand, tended to view the antillanos as pawns of the Americans who had facilitated the takeover and division of the country by the U.S..
    During the Second World War, the Canal Zone became the scene of a huge U.S. military build-up. Fourteen military bases and 130 air and intelligence facilities were installed, ostensibly for defense of the canal but in fact as a permanent U.S. military presence in the region.
    In 1968, General Omar Torrijos came into power through a coup, advancing the canal-sovereignty issue as a key part of his revolution. His program defined in the 1972 constitution was not radical, but it challenged the political power of the oligarchy and brought working-class and campesino sectors into an alliance with the government. Most importantly, Torrijos launched a major campaign to integrate the country's diverse ethnic sectors into a unified society. In 1981 Torrijos died and both his social programs and the tentative national unity fell apart. He was followed by three different presidents and three heads of the National Guard, who tried to hold Torrijos's popular support while retreating from his progressive policies. By 1983, the General's reformist constitution had been replaced and many popular programs and laws  still on the books were no longer used. Today, young Panamanians of West Indian descent are active in putting an end to the days when the West Indian community remained aloof from national struggles.

See CIA Demographics