Panama The Government of Torrijos and the National Guard
Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies
The overthrow of Arias provoked student demonstrations and rioting in some of the slum areas of Panama City. The peasants in Chiriquí Province battled guardsmen sporadically for several months, but the Guard retained control. Urrutia was initially arrested but was later persuaded to join in the two-man provisional junta headed by Pinilla. Vallarino remained in retirement. The original cabinet appointed by the junta was rather broad based and included several Samudio supporters and one Arias supporter. After the first three months, however, five civilian cabinet members resigned, accusing the new government of dictatorial practices.
The provisional junta moved swiftly to consolidate government control. Several hundred actual or potential political leaders were arrested on charges of corruption or subversion. Others went into voluntary or imposed exile, and property owners were threatened with expropriation. The National Assembly and all political parties were disbanded, and the University of Panama was closed for several months while its faculty and student body were purged. The communications media were brought under control through censorship, intervention in management, or expropriation.
Pinilla, who assumed the title of president, had declared that his government was provisional and that free elections were to be scheduled. In January 1969, however, power actually rested in the hands of Omar Torrijos and Boris Martínez, commander and chief of staff, respectively, of the Guard. In early March, a speech by Martinez promising agrarian reform and other measures radical enough to alarm landowners and entrepreneurs provoked a coup within the coup. Torrijos assumed full control, and Martinez and three of his supporters in the military government were exiled.
Torrijos stated that "there would be less impulsiveness" in government without Martinez. Torrijos did not denounce the proposed reforms, but he assured Panamanian and United States investors that their interests were not threatened.
Torrijos, now a brigadier general, became even more firmly entrenched in power after thwarting a coup attempted by Colonels Amado Sanjur, Luis Q. Nentzen Franco, and Ramiro Silvera in December 1969. While Torrijos was in Mexico, the three colonels declared him deposed. Torrijos rushed back to Panama, gathered supporters at the garrison in David, and marched triumphantly into the capital. The colonels followed earlier competitors of Torrijos into exile. Because the governing junta (Colonel Pinilla and his deputy, Colonel Urrutia) had not opposed the abortive coup, Torrijos replaced them with two civilians, Demetrio B. Lakas, an engineer well liked among businessmen, and Arturo Sucre, a lawyer and former director of the national lottery. Lakas was designated "provisional president," and Sucre was appointed his deputy.
In late 1969 a close associate of Torrijos announced the formation of the New Panama Movement. This movement was originally intended to organize peasants, workers, and other social groups and was patterned after that of Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party. No organizational structure was established, however, and by 1971 the idea had been abandoned. The government party was revived under a different name, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Democrático--PRD) in the late 1970s.
A sweeping cabinet reorganization and comments of high-ranking officials in 1971 portended a shift in domestic policy. Torrijos expressed admiration for the socialist trends in the military governments of Peru and Bolivia. He also established a mutually supportive relationship with Cuba's Fidel Castro. Torrijos carefully distanced himself from the Panamanian Marxist left. The political label he appeared to wear most comfortably was "populist." In 1970 he declared, "Having finished with the oligarchy, the Panamanian has his own worth with no importance to his origin, his cradle, or where he was born."
Torrijos worked on building a popular base for his government, forming an alliance among the National Guard and the various sectors of society that had been the objects of social injustice at the hands of the oligarchy, particularly the long-neglected campesinos. He regularly traveled by helicopter to villages throughout the interior to hear their problems and to explain his new programs.
In addition to the National Guard and the campesinos, the populist alliance that Torrijos formed as a power base included students, the People's Party (Partido del Pueblo--PdP), and portions of the working classes. Support for Torrijos varied among interest groups and over time. The alliance contained groups, most notably the Guard and students, that were traditionally antagonistic toward one another and groups that traditionally had little concern with national politics, e.g., the rural sector. Nationalism, in the form of support of the efforts of the Torrijos regime to obtain control over the canal through a new treaty with the United States, provided the glue for maintaining political consensus.
In the early 1970s, the strength of the alliance was impressive. Disloyal or potentially disloyal elements within the National Guard and student groups were purged; increased salaries, perquisites, and positions of political power were offered to the loyal majority. The adherence of the middle classes was procured partly through more jobs. In return for its support, the PdP was allowed to operate openly when all other political parties were outlawed.
The Torrijos effort to secure political support in the rural sector was an innovation in Panamanian politics. With the exception of militant banana workers in the western provinces of Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro, the campesinos traditionally have had little concern with national political issues. Unlike much of Latin America, in Panama the elite is almost totally urban based, rather than being a landed aristocracy (see Urban Society , ch. 2).
No elections were held under the military government until April 1970, when the town of San Miguelito, incorporated as the country's sixty-fourth municipal district, was allowed to elect a mayor, treasurer, and municipal council. Candidates nominated by trade groups and other nonpartisan bodies were elected indirectly by a council that had been elected by neighborhood councils. Subsequently, the new system was extended throughout the country, and in 1972 the 505-member National Assembly of Municipal Representatives met in Panama City to confirm Torrijos's role as head of government and to approve a new constitution. The new document greatly expanded governmental powers at the expense of civil liberties. The state also was empowered to "oversee the rational distribution of land" and, in general, to regulate or initiate economic activities. In an obvious reference to the Canal Zone, the Constitution also declared the ceding of national territory to any foreign country to be illegal.
The governmental initiatives in the economy, legitimated by the new Constitution, were already underway. The government had announced in early 1969 its intention to implement 1962 legislation by distributing 700,000 hectares of land within 3 years to 61,300 families. Acquisition and distribution progressed much more slowly than anticipated, however (see Land Tenure and Agrarian Reform , ch. 3).
Nevertheless, major programs were undertaken. Primary attention and government assistance went to farmers grouped in organizations that were initially described as cooperatives but were in fact commercial farming operations by state-owned firms. The government also established companies to operate banana plantations--partly because a substantial amount of the land obtained under the land- reform laws was most suited to banana cultivation and had belonged to international fruit companies.
Educational reforms instituted by Torrijos emphasized vocational and technical training at the expense of law, liberal arts, and the humanities. The programs introduced on an experimental basis in some elementary and secondary schools resembled the Cuban system of "basic schools in the countryside." New schools were established in rural areas in which half the student's time was devoted to instruction in farming. Agricultural methods and other practical skills were taught to urban students as well, and ultimately the new curriculum was to become obligatory even in private schools. Although the changes were being instituted gradually, they met strong resistance from the upper-middle classes and particularly from teachers.
Far-reaching reforms were also undertaken in health care. A program of integrated medical care became available to the extended family of anyone who had been employed for the minimal period required to qualify for social security. A wide range of services was available not only to the worker's spouse and children, but to parents, aunts, uncles, cousins--to any dependent relative. Whereas in the past medical facilities had been limited almost entirely to Panama City, under Torrijos hospitals were built in several provincial cities. Clinics were established throughout the countryside. Medical-school graduates were required to spend at least two years in a rural internship servicing the scattered clinics.
Torrijos also undertook an ambitious program of public works. The construction of new roads and bridges contributed particularly to greater prosperity in the rural areas. Although Torrijos showed greater interest in rural development than in urban problems, he also promoted urban housing and office construction in Panama City. These projects were funded, in part, by both increased personal and corporate taxes and increased efficiency in tax collection. The 1972 enactment of a new labor code attempted to fuse the urban working class into the populist alliance. Among other things the code provided obligatory collective agreements, obligatory payroll deduction of union fees, the establishment of a superior labor tribunal, and the incorporation of some 15,000 additional workers, including street vendors and peddlers, into labor unions. At the same time, the government attempted unsuccessfully to unite the nation's three major labor confederations into a single, government-sponsored organization.
Meanwhile, Torrijos lured foreign investment by offering tax incentives and provisions for the unlimited repatriation of capital. In particular, international banking was encouraged to locate in Panama, to make the country a regional financial center. A law adopted in 1970 facilitated offshore banking (see Glossary). Numerous banks, largely foreign owned, were licensed to operate in Panama; some were authorized solely for external transactions. Funds borrowed abroad could be loaned to foreign borrowers without being taxed by Panama (see Finance , ch. 3).
Most of the reforms benefiting workers and peasants were undertaken between 1971 and 1973. Economic problems beginning in 1973 led to some backtracking on social programs. A new labor law passed in 1976, for example, withdrew much of the protection provided by the 1972 labor code, including compulsory collective bargaining. The causes of these economic difficulties included such external factors as the decline in world trade, and thus canal traffic. Domestic problems included a decline in agricultural production that many analysts attributed to the failure of the economic measures of the Torrijos government. The combination of a steady decline in per capita gross national product (GNP--see Glossary), inflation, unemployment, and massive foreign debts adversely affected all sectors of society and contributed heavily to the gradual erosion of the populist alliance that had firmly supported Torrijos in the early 1970s.
Increasingly, corruption in governing circles and within the National Guard also had become an issue in both national and international arenas. Torrijos's opponents were quick to note that his relatives appeared in large numbers on the public payroll.
Data as of December 1987
NOTE: The information regarding Panama on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Panama The Government of Torrijos and the National Guard information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Panama The Government of Torrijos and the National Guard should be addressed to the Library of Congress.