Date: Wed, 8 Sep 1999 21:47:14 -0500 (CDT)
Historical backdrop to Panama's change of government
By Eric Jackson, 9 September 1999
The origins of Panama's main political parties
Panamanians share a tradition of New Year's Eve drinking parties with the United States. Yet New Year's is also celebrated in Panama by the burning of effigies representing the old year, which are set up in often elaborate roadside displays during the Christmas season and then torched as the new year chimes in. The celebrations continue on New Year's Day, when friends gather for a traditional meal. Drinking is often a feature of the New Year's Day festivities as well.
And so it was at the presidential palace as 1930 became 1931. Florencio Arosemena, the well-heeled standard bearer of the Liberal Party, hosted the cream of the elite rabiblanco society at celebrations that went on well into the evening of January 1. The Great Depression was hardly felt by Zonian society, but across the street in Panama the drastic cutback in world trade, thus shipping through Panama, hit hard. Things had fallen apart on Arosemena's shift, and whether or not he had anything to do with it, he was taking much of the blame.
Among Arosemena's guests was Dr. Arnulfo Arias Madrid, a young physician from a traditional landowning family from Penonome in the country's interior. Arnulfo was not related to the Ariases who had taken part in the conspiracy by which Panama was severed from Colombia. His family, like much of the latifundist class, were loyal Colombians, Conservative partisans, without particular economic ties to or affection for the United States in 1903. Despite the Arias family's apparent opposition to the US-inspired separation from Colombia, Arnulfo was educated at the University of Chicago and Harvard, while his brother Harmodio, an attorney, practiced before the Canal Zone Courts.
The Arias Madrid brothers were also without strong ties to the traditional ruling cliques. They stood at the head of a new formation, Accion Comunal, which was composed largely of young Creole or cholo (mixed race) professionals who had been excluded from the aristocracy for lack of the right blood ties. Accion Comunal took one of its symbols from an important US social movement of the time, the Ku Klux Klan. They dressed in white robes and hoods, though, being good Catholic Panamanians, they didn't adopt cross burning or some of the Klan's other symbols and beliefs.
With the help of some confederates, Arnulfo Arias discretely unlocked some of the windows of the palace during the course of the night's celebrations. In the wee hours of January 2, he led a small band back into the palace, through the unlocked windows. He placed a pistol to the head of Arosemena, persuading him to resign in favor of his elder brother, Harmodio Arias Madrid.
Harmodio Arias was not unknown to the Americans. A prominent attorney, he had often practiced before the Canal Zone courts. Familiarity did not breed respect, however, and it soon became apparent that Harmodio Arias lacked the all-important backing of the United States. US ambassador Roy T. Davis met with the rebels and their captive Arosemena. Davis then issued an ultimatum to the effect that if the issue were not resolved constitutionally by five o'clock that afternoon, there would be US intervention.
The Arias brothers' coup was "constitutionally" ratified to the extent that Arosemena's resignation under duress was "accepted." The Panamanian Supreme Court met in emergency session, ruled that the election of Arosemena in 1928 had been valid, his forced resignation was also valid, but the election of the first and second vice presidents in the same vote that had put Arosemena in office was not valid, thus the previous vice presidents were still legally in office. Thus Ricardo J. Alfaro, Panamanian ambassador to the United States and first vice president under the previous president, returned to serve out the remainder of Arosemena's term. Harmodio Arias was given an important position (minister of justice and government) in Alfaro's cabinet.
Arosemena and his family were given refuge at the Panama Canal Company's Tivoli Hotel in the Canal Zone. Ambassador Davis attended Alfaro's inauguration. Though the State Department denied any US involvement in or prior knowledge of the coup, the Americans had a trusted friend in the Presidential Palace.
The American choice of New Year's 1931 was a short-lived arrangement. In the 1932 election, Harmodio Arias was declared the winner by a landslide. That same year, Franklin D. Roosevelt, an American president less eager to intervene in Latin America than his GOP predecessors of the 1920s, also was elected by a landslide. The Arias brothers, who espoused a sort of nationalism that would not have been tolerated by prior US governments, were allowed to take office.
Harmodio appointed Arnulfo as Panama's ambassador to Mussolini's Italy. The younger Arias was impressed by European fascism, not only from observations made during his tenure in Rome, but also from a number of visits that he made to Hitler's Germany.
In 1936, as a part of his "Good Neighbor Policy," President Roosevelt renounced the legal right of the United States to intervene in Panama's affairs. Panama also got more money in annual rent for the canal than had been provided for in the 1903 treaty, but US claims to the right to run the Canal Zone "in perpetuity" were retained.
In 1940, the younger Arias became president of Panama. He quickly enacted a new racist constitution that deprived West Indians and Asian-Panamanians of citizenship. Legislation to prohibit foreigners from engaging in retail business, aimed particularly at the now-foreign Chinese-Panamanian merchants but also affecting some Americans, soon followed. A new press law was enacted that prohibited foreigners from commenting on Panamanian affairs, thus providing criminal penalties for Panamanians of West Indian origin who protested their mistreatment by the Arias regime.
Because the railroad was owned by the United States, Arias couldn't do anything about making the trains run on time. However, he did require vendors in public markets to wear military-style uniforms. Emulating European fascist command economies, he established semi-official monopolies for the sale of most important food staples and regulated utility rates. These latter two policies, but not its racial measures, prompted The New York Times to describe the Arias government as totalitarian.
All of these controversial domestic measures seemed tolerable enough to Roosevelt, who after all counted southern racists among the coalition partners that put him in the White House. However, this was the time of Lend-Lease military aid shipments to Great Britain, using ships that were subject to attack by German U-boats. Arias prohibited the arming of Panamanian registry ships, a move that disrupted Roosevelt's plans to use American-owned ships flying the Panamanian flag of convenience to supply the British. Ships going into and coming out of the Atlantic end of the canal were being tailed, and sometimes attacked, by the German subs, yet Arias refused US requests for bases and increased surveillance on the Caribbean coast. Probably the worst of all were the rumors that the Arias family was loading food onto the Nazi submarines from one of their ranches on the Caribbean coast of Bocas del Toro province. The pro-Axis tilt was intolerable to Roosevelt.
One weekend in 1941, when Arnulfo Arias flew to Havana to spend some time with his mistress and visit his oculist, young officers of Panama's national police force, in consultation with US authorities, deposed Arias in favor of the vice president. This was Panama's first military coup. A number of Arias loyalists were jailed, including Nicolás Ardito Barletta, the mayor of Panama City, whose son of the same name would later be the beneficiary of election theft from Arnulfo Arias.
The acting chief of police, Lt. Col. Fernando Gómez Ayan, a Guatemalan who had been selected to keep the armed forces out of politics, was arrested and replaced by the Panamanian Col. Rogelio Fábrega. However, behind the scenes a young officer named José Remón, who had been trained at the Military College in Mexico City and at Ft. Riley, Kansas, began a quiet but meteoric rise to power. There began an era during which Remón was the true power behind a succession of figurehead civilian presidents.
Arias went on to become Panama's most popular political figure. He was denied the presidency by electoral fraud in 1948, ultimately allowed by Remón to take office during that chaotic year, then later that year overthrown by a coup. During the course of that coup Arias ordered the Presidential Guard to fire on rebel soldiers, creating a rare instance of violence in a Panamanian coup. Panama's army (the old national police force had now been reorganized and renamed La Guardia Nacional) never forgave Arias for ordering soldiers to kill soldiers.
The Panamanian military's hostility to Arnulfo Arias was reciprocated. An anti-military stance was coupled with racist and fascist ideas in arnulfismo, the peculiar hybrid ideology that took its name from its founder.
Arnulfo Arias later mended fences with much of Panama's urban elite. In his later years, he appealed to the descendants of the Asians and West Indians whose sterilization he had earlier advocated, distinguishing the more assimilated later generations from their forebears. Arnulfo Arias sometimes played up and sometimes played down the anti-American card, whichever seemed more opportune at a given time. At times he even allied his Panameñista Party with the communists in electoral coalitions.
Arnulfistas (as Arias supporters were long called, and since 1991 as members of their political party are formally known) often claim that their leader was consistently cheated of the presidency whenever he ran, which was more often than not. This is open to reasonable dispute, particularly as to the 1964 vote, which the Dr. appears to have legitimately lost. There is no serious doubt, however, that Arias won the presidency in 1968, only to be ousted by a coup after 11 days in office. Nor is it reasonably disputed that he was denied the presidency by fraud in the 1984 elections.
Arnulfo Arias died in 1988 at the age of 87. Although his Panameñista Party splintered in the later years of his life, his personal following stayed intact to the very end. Among his proteges was a corpulent attorney and legislator, Guillermo Endara, who would in 1989 would win an election that Gen. Noriega tried to annul, arriving belatedly in the presidential palace by way of a US invasion.
Endara and Arnulfo Arias's young widow, Mireya Moscoso, founded the Arnulfista Party in 1991. Endara proved to be ineffectual and unpopular during his years as president, and the voters took that out against the Arnulfista Party in the 1994 elections. Moscoso lost that race, with legitimate doubts about whether she finished second or third.
The Arnulfistas, still led by Moscoso as the 1999 elections approach, usually don't participate in candidate debates and typically run on sketchy platforms. Basically they tend to be cultural and economic nationalists in their outlook, but in practice they don't carry these to extremes that would endanger Panama's membership in the world economy. To the Arnulfistas, Panama is Latin American and not Caribbean, foreign residents attracted by the canal and its associated commercial and financial sectors are to be tolerated at best, and people of Chinese ancestry can't be "real Panamanians." The Arnulfistas draw support from all economic classes, both rural and urban, and, unlike the oligarchic factions that have ballot status, they're a right-wing party with a strong following among the poorest and most marginalized Panamanians.
If Arnulfo Arias was influenced by Mussolini, Gen. José Remón borrowed much from Franklin D. Roosevelt. Like Roosevelt, Remón was a son of the elite turned social reformer. Under his behind the scenes leadership, weak civilian presidents enacted a social security system and built one of the best public education systems in Latin America.
Remón, educated at the Military College in Mexico City, then trained at Fort Riley, Kansas, entered what was a small and inconsequential national police force in 1931 and built it into a major power center. In a society with sharp class divisions, Remón moved to open the ranks of the army's officer corps to the darker and poorer sons of ordinary Panamanians. The guardia thus became the only national institution in which talented young men of humble means could rise to positions of power and influence, one of the few avenues of social mobility in a society rigidly monopolized by the rabiblancos.
Remón took care of his troops, and also took care of himself. While on a modest public servant's salary, and with but a modest inheritance, he nevertheless became a wealthy rancher. He limited the guardia's corruption, but did not eliminate it.
Gen. Remón also had a nationalistic streak, which came to the fore in 1947. In May of 1942, Remón acquiesced in the building of some 138 US military bases on 37,050 acres of land in Panama outside the Canal Zone, principally to fortify the isthmus against feared German or Japanese attacks. Most of the bases were pillboxes and artillery emplacements along the coasts. Others, like an airstrip and barracks at Rio Hato on the Pacific side some 80 miles west of Panama City, were more substantial. The bases pact provided that the US installations would last only as long as the war.
While 14 ships were sunk by German submarines operating off Colon and a Japanese miniature submarine ran aground on an island in the Gulf of Panama, there was never any invasion of Panama and the canal itself was never attacked. None of the 138 bases ever saw combat during the war.
With the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, however, President Harry S. Truman wanted to keep the bases. An agreement, the ill-fated Filos-Hines Treaty, was negotiated to prolong US possession of the bases. The deal was signed and announced to the public on December 10, 1947.
The first group to denounce the pact and call for demonstrations was an association of Panama's magistrates. Protesters took to the streets in large numbers within hours of the announcement of the proposed treaty.
Among the most enthusiastic opponents of the proposed treaty were the high school students from Panama City's Instituto Nacional, often referred to as the Eagles' Nest as it was (and is) the flagship of Panama's public secondary school system. The kids marched behind their school's Panamanian flag, which in 1964 would become the center of tragic events after being torn in a scuffle between Panamanian and American schoolkids. One of the leaders of the protesting high school students was a young socialist named Luis Carlos Noriega, who was to exercise great influence on his younger half-brother, one Manuel Antonio Noriega.
On December 11, Remón declared that the Filos-Hines Treaty was not acceptable to the army. The next day it was unanimously rejected by the National Assembly. The US military withdrawal to the Canal Zone began within minutes.
Truman tried to renegotiate a deal that would allow the US to hold onto at least some of the bases, but neither Remón nor Panamanian public opinion would have any of it. In 1948 Truman gave up the quest as a lost cause, and thereafter "Give them Hell Harry" had mostly unflattering things to say about Panamanians.
In 1952, after more than a decade as the power behind the throne and a period of extreme instability in which he had imposed five presidents in four years, Remón ran for president in his own right. He was elected in a landslide.
At the time of his election many expected a period of unusual corruption, of the sort associated with the Somozas and other strongmen-turned-presidents in neighboring countries. These expectations were not fulfilled. As president Remón ran an honest and efficient government. The national debt was greatly reduced.
Remón's presidency was most notable for negotiations with the Eisenhower administration by which Panama sought to modify the canal treaty of 1903. In 1955 a new pact, the Eisenhower-Remón Treaty, gave Panama certain concessions but failed to win the most important demand, Panamanian sovereignty over the Canal Zone. In exchange for concessions to Panama, Eisenhower won the right for the United States to use the Rio Hato base until 1970.
The 1955 treaty gave Panamanian merchants two major concessions.
First, the Panama Canal Company agreed to buy those products that were not imported from the United States from Panamanian sources in preference to third country sources. Thus, for example, the snack bars at Canal Zone swimming pools would make hamburgers with Panamanian instead of Argentine beef, and serve Panamanian rather than Colombian coffee.
Second, Panamanians were prohibited from shopping in Canal Zone commissaries. Panamanian merchants got the business. Zonians approved of the arrangement as a form of segregation that further removed them from contact with Panamanians. An alliance between the military and a merchant class whose ambitions were often held in check by the rabiblancos' system of exclusive distributorships was fostered. This alliance also had an ethnic component, as many of these merchants were Asians or Jews, people who were suspicious of the Arnulfistas.
Remón also promoted protectionist import-export policies, a reform favored by sectors of the oligarchy. He passed new electoral laws that reduced the number of parties that could get ballot status, hoping that this would lead to more stable political alignments. This change also favored the parties of the rich, though that may not have been the intention. Remón maintained the ban on the Moscow-line People's Party and continued policies that effectively prevented labor unions from organizing.
For the non-American employees of the canal, most of whom were still of West Indian descent (thus also likely to suspect the Arnulfistas), Remón won a promise that there would be no discrimination in Panama Canal Company employment practices. This promise, however, was never effectively kept. Racial discrimination against black American tourists was banned, yet blacks failed to reach the top levels of Panamanian institutions.
Remón's appeal to the poorest sectors was like a gift from a patron. No concession of rights was necessarily implied. Still, he offered at least a bit of protection and opportunity, more than anybody else in his position had ever offered before.
The Eisenhower administration, acting on the advice of the president's brother Milton (an expert of sorts on Latin American affairs), while conceding no governmental power over the Canal Zone to Panama, made the symbolic concession that the Canal Zone was in fact part of Panama. In recognition of this, it was agreed that the Panamanian flag would fly next to the US flag at Shaler Triangle in the Canal Zone, across the street from Panama City.
Remón never lived to see the treaty implemented. On January 2, 1955, after the treaty was signed but before it was ratified and implemented, Remón was gunned down at a horse racing track. He died one hour later at Santo Tomás Hospital. Two others, including one who was thought to have been one of the assassins, were killed with him, and four individuals were wounded. The strongman was only 46 years old when he died. His vice president and several of his bodyguards were implicated in the murder, but in the end they were found not guilty by the courts.
Remón's most famous quotation is found on the facade of the Legislative Palace in the capital and at various other places around the country: "Neither millions nor charity: We want justice." While Remón tried to take a short-cut around the most self-destructive habits of the oligarchy to open society up to talent from below, he never took on the rabiblancos as an adversary, nor did he open the doors of opportunity wide enough for the traditionally excluded to assert themselves in a bid for power.
For all of his failures and shortcomings, younger generations of military officers revered the memory of Gen. José Remón. Among these were one Omar Torrijos and one Manuel Antonio Noriega. Torrijos in particular held power for many years, and it is from him that the social reforming militarist tradition that Remón founded and Torrijos extended got a name. Thus torrijismo, a tradition that predates Torrijos, arose to become, along with arnulfismo, one of the two major political traditions in Panama.
The Torrijos years, 1968 to 1981, were marked by the creation of a multiracial middle class in the public sector and the rise of the banking and import-export sectors on the private side of the economy. Labor unions were effectively legalized and rural cooperatives were generally encouraged. These economic policies did much to create the necessary base of public support for later Torrijista political formations.
Gen. Torrijos, said to have been influenced by the left as a student, coopted many of Panama's communists and other leftists into his political orbit, but was fairly ruthless in suppressing the radicals who didn't go along. The most noteworthy repressive events were the 1989 Coiba Island penal colony beating death of dissident communist leader Floyd Britton and the 1971 disappearance of radical priest and rural coop organizer Héctor Gallego.
For most of his time in power, Torrijos played the nationalist card to dampen labor-management and left-right tensions. By setting his sights on the Panama Canal Zone, he united most Panamanians in a quest to redeem valuable real estate, high-paying jobs and a sense of national dignity. That consensus served to submerge many social and political conflicts, at least until the Panama Canal Treaties came into effect in 1979. The emphasis on gaining sovereignty over the Canal Zone also attracted many of the sons and daughters of the traditional economic and political elite-whom Torrijos had overthrown with Arnulfo Arias-to the general's side.
The companion 1977 Carter-Torrijos canal and neutrality pacts ended US governance of the old Canal Zone and provided for the gradual transfer of the canal itself and adjoining real estate and other assets to Panamanian hands. Most controversially from several points of view, the deal provided that US military presence in Panama would end by noon on December 31, 1999.
The treaties' adoption was the high point of Omar Torrijos's public career. Though dissidents claimed that Panama's ratification was the product of vote fraud in the referendum held on the subject, the deal made Torrijos a hero at non-aligned summits. Among that set of colleagues he was the leader of a small Third World country who took on the greatest power of all and won back a most valuable part of his nation's territory.
In large part to blunt criticism by US Republicans during the treaty ratification debate-recall Ronald Reagan's characterization of Torrijos as a "tinhorn dictator"-Torrijos set into slow motion a process of formal military withdrawal from power, and in March 1979 set up the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) to champion his policies in planned elections. Whether the general's democratization plans were sincere or not is a matter of historical dispute, but there is no question that after his death in a 1981 plane crash and the subsequent rise of Manuel Antonio Noriega the military strengthened its hold over both the government and the PRD.
Since its inception the PRD has enjoyed the support of about one-third of all Panamanian voters. That, plus a large dose of fraud, made banker Nicolás Ardito Barletta into Noriega's figurehead president in the 1985 elections. Though no fraud was politically feasible in the 1989 vote, when the opposition forces were united against the dictatorship and backed by the US government and the Catholic church, the vast majority of PRD supporters stuck with their party through that rout.
After the 1989 US invasion deposed Noriega and knocked the PRD from its privileged position, the party's civilian members asserted control and rebuilt the organization. Leading this process was US-educated banker and economist Ernesto "Toro" Pérez Balladares, who won the Panamanian presidency in May 1994 with about one-third of the vote in a seven-way race.
Toro calls himself a "social democrat," but in office he has followed free market economic policies designed to secure Panama's membership and good standing in the World Trade Organization. To this observer, Pérez Balladares's social and economic philosphies seem little different from Bill Clinton's, and the closest US analogue to the PRD would be the Chicago Democratic machine. The PRD is led by the rich, dominated by professional politicians and attracts the votes of people from all walks of life. Like the Arnulfistas and unlike the rest of Panama's registered political parties, the Democratic Revolutionary Party enjoys substantial support among the country's rural and urban poor.