Guillermo Endara, who had been robbed by Noriega of the presidency in 1989 and brutally beaten along with his vice-presidential candidates in the protests that followed, was finally sworn in as president during the invasion. His term was a period of instability, as Panama  worked to recover from the devastation of the invasion and the U.S. economic sanctions that preceded it.
A final military coup was attempted and failed. The Panama Defense Forces were disbanded, and today Panama no longer has a military. But crime increased in Panama while order was restored and a new civilian police force organized.
Endara—a figure of some fun in Panama because of his obesity, lack of political experience, and infatuation with his young, attractive wife—managed to serve out his term, and democracy took hold in Panama.
Endara was succeeded in 1994 by Ernesto Pérez Balladares, a member of the PRD, the party of Noriega and Torrijos. He won with 33 percent of the vote in an election that also featured Mireya Moscoso, the widow of Arnulfo Arias, and Rubén Blades, the famous salsa singer and actor. The election was considered fair.
The PRD attempted to distance itself from the Noriega years, but during the Balladares administration it continued to face accusations of drug trafficking, money laundering, and corruption. Balladares, popularly known as El Toro (The Bull), enacted free-market reforms that sparked protest in Panama and caused his popularity to suffer. He attempted to change the constitution to allow him to run for a second term, but Panamanian voters defeated the proposal by a two-to-one margin.
In 1999, Moscoso ran again for the presidency on the ticket of the Partido Arnulfista (PA) or Arnulfista Party. This time her main opponent was Martín Torrijos, the young son of the late dictator, who represented the PRD. Moscoso won and became Panama’s first female president. A peaceful democracy proved to be well established as full control of the Panama Canal  was turned over to Panama at noon on December 31, 1999.
The new millennium began with things looking pretty bright for Panama. The Panama Canal was in the middle of a billion-dollar expansion and was increasingly being run as a business, its raised tolls making a major contribution to the economy. New construction was transforming the Panama City  skyline, and thanks to Balladares, the road system throughout the country was greatly improved.
But a downturn in the world economy hit Panama’s services sector hard. Moscoso also generated a great deal of animosity, and not just from her political rivals. Her administration, like the one before it, was plagued by accusations of corruption. She did little to endear herself to the poor people among her supporters when, early in her administration, she presented each of the 72 members of the national legislature with a Cartier watch as a “Christmas present.”
Environmentalists also complained that her policies were wreaking immeasurable damage for short-term gain. Her support for a road linking Cerro Punta  and Boquete , for instance, sparked public outrage. Her critics maintained that a rough road already existed farther down the mountain and, if improved, would help many impoverished communities along the route with minimal harm to the environment. Moscoso favored building a new road right through the heart of Parque Nacional Volcán Barú ; public protests and a negative environmental impact study halted the plan.
Some of Moscoso’s actions were applauded, however. In 2001 her administration established a Comisión de la Verdad (Truth Commission) to investigate the disappearance of 110 people under the Torrijos and Noriega dictatorships. Forensic anthropologists dug up human remains all over the country, and in its final report the commission concluded that at least 70 of the cases it investigated were murders.
Throughout her term in office, Moscoso and her government continued to be hounded by impassioned accusations of corruption and incompetence that were striking for Panama, which traditionally has had a cynical attitude toward the actions of those in power. A widely quoted poll of Latin American countries, conducted toward the end of her time in office, put her approval rating among Panamanians at 15 percent, the second-lowest for a Central American leader at the time.
Moscoso’s term ended in 2004. Martín Torrijos ran a second time for the presidency and this time was elected. He took office on September 1, 2004—as always, to a single, five-year term.
Torrijos’s term had its share of troubles. A 2005 overhaul of the Caja de Seguro Social, Panama’s ailing social security system, led to sometimes-violent protests, including a monthlong strike. Under the new law, workers’ required contributions were increased, and the retirement age was raised by five years. It has also faced repeated protests from Suntracs (Sindicato Único de Trabjadores de la Construcción y Similares), Panama’s powerful construction workers’ union, over pay, benefits, and safety.
In 2006, the government was widely criticized for a public-health crisis that led to the deaths of at least 115 patients poisoned by cough syrup. Panamanian public-health officials made the syrup using what they believed to be glycerin but which was actually diethylene glycol, an industrial solvent used in antifreeze. The counterfeit glycerin was supplied by a Chinese company that did not have a license to sell drug ingredients. Chinese companies have been blamed for similar cases around the world. Investigations into the tragedy, including how the chemical ended up in the public-hospital system continue.
Officials doubt the true number of those killed or injured by the tainted medicine will ever be known. Victims’ families have slammed the government for not being aggressive enough in its investigation.
But many things also went well during Torrijos’s watch. Most notably, Panama’s economy boomed. That may help account for his relatively high approval rating, which remained above 50 percent throughout most of his term. On the other hand, rival politicians and some among the public complained that the Torrijos administration deferred tough decisions and spent too much time and money on public relations. Polls suggested that Panamanians were increasingly worried about issues they feel are not receiving enough attention, such as a perceived rise in violent crime, the increasing cost of living, and inadequate public transportation in congested Panama City .
If nothing else, Torrijos will be remembered for his support of the third-locks project at the Panama Canal , which was approved in a national referendum on October 22, 2006. Work on the project officially began on September 3, 2007, and is expected to be finished by 2014. Officials expect the project to cost US$5.3 billion, to be funded largely through increased tolls. Critics, however, believe the final figure could be twice as high, and they worry about where all that money will end up coming from. In any case, if and when the project is finally completed it should greatly expand the canal’s capacity.
On May 3, 2009, Ricardo Martinelli, the leader of the Cambio Democrático (Democratic Change), was elected president of Panama in a landslide. He received 60 percent of the vote, far ahead of his closest rival, Balbina Herrera of the PRD, who received about 36 percent.
The wealthy owner of a supermarket chain, Martinelli immediately set about cracking down on corruption, investigating former leaders, firing public workers who were not performing, and launching a plan to bring a modern transportation system to Panama City . For a while, he was the most popular leader in Latin America. His approval ratings had begun to slip, however, with some complaining that he was trying to accumulate too much power.