The Legacy of Omar Torrijos

The Legacy of Omar Torrijos

From 1968 until his death in an airplane crash in 1981, General Torrijos dominated the Panamanian political scene. His influence, greater than that of any individual in the nation's history, did not end with his death. Since 1981, both military and civilian leaders have sought to wrap themselves in the mantle of Torrijismo, claiming to be the true heirs of the general's political and social heritage. As of the late 1980s, none had been particularly successful in this effort.

Before 1968, Panama's politics had been characterized by personalism (personalismo), the tendency to give one's political loyalties to an individual, rather than to a party or particular ideological platform. The dominant force had been the traditional elite families, known as the rabiblancos (white tails), concentrated in Panama City. They manipulated nationalist sentiment, largely directed against United States control over the Canal Zone, the National Guard, and various political parties in order to maintain their control. The most dominant individual in the pre-1968 period was Arnulfo Arias, a charismatic, right-wing nationalist who was both feared and hated by the National Guard's officers. His overthrow in 1968 marked the third time that he had been ousted from the presidency, never having been allowed to finish even half of the term for which he had been elected.

It soon became apparent that the 1968 coup differed fundamentally from those that preceded it. Torrijos actively sought to add lower- and middle-class support to the power base provided by his control over the military, using a mixture of nationalism and populism to achieve this goal. He cultivated laborers, small farmers, students, and even the communists, organized in Panama as the People's Party (Partido del Pueblo--PdP). He excluded the traditional elites from political power, although he left their economic power base largely untouched. Political parties were banned, and the legislature was dissolved (until replaced in 1972 by the National Assembly of Municipal Representatives, 505 largely government-selected representatives of administrative subdistricts supposedly elected on a nonpartisan basis). Torrijos justified his policies as being required by the pressing social needs of the population and by the overriding need to maintain national unity in order to negotiate a treaty with the United States that would cede sovereignty over the Canal Zone and ultimately give control of the Panama Canal to Panama.

In the early 1970s, the strength of the populist alliance forged by Torrijos was impressive. He had reduced the traditional antagonism between the National Guard and the students, purging disloyal elements within both in the process. The loyalty of the middle classes was procured through increased public-sector employment. Major public housing projects, along with expanded health, education, and other social service programs, helped maintain support in urban areas. Labor leaders were cultivated through the adoption of a much more favorable labor code, and a constant emphasis on the necessity of gaining control over the canal undercut the nationalist appeal of Arnulfo Arias. By 1976, however, rising inflation, increased unemployment, and the continued failure to negotiate a canal treaty had begun to undermine the general's popularity.

The 1977 signing of the Panama Canal treaties, giving Panama full control over the canal in the year 2000, actually added to the problems confronting Torrijos. There was considerable opposition in Panama to some provisions of the treaties, and it took all of the general's prestige to secure the needed two-thirds majority for ratification in an October 1977 national plebiscite. Resentment further increased when the government acceded to several amendments passed by the United States Senate after the plebiscite. At the same time, in order to facilitate United States ratification of the treaties, Torrijos found it necessary to promise to restore civilian rule and return the military to the barracks.

The 1978 amendments to the Constitution were the first step in the process of restoring civilian rule. That same year, the government allowed exiled political opponents to return, permitted the re-emergence of political parties, and promised to hold legislative elections in 1980 and presidential elections in 1984. Only parties that could register 30,000 members, however, would gain official recognition. Torrijos and his supporters used the new system to create their own political party, the PRD, which tried to combine the old elements of the Torrijos coalition into a single political structure. Torrijos also appointed a new civilian president, Aristides Royo, and announced that he was relinquishing the special powers he had exercised since 1972.

Opponents argued that the pace of democratization was too slow and called for immediate, direct election of both the president and a representative legislature. Ultimately, however, most sought to achieve legal status for their parties. A major exception was Arnulfo Arias's Panameñistas, who initially boycotted the entire process. In the 1980 elections for nineteen of the fifty-seven seats in the legislature, the principal parties to emerge were the PRD, with twelve seats, and the opposition National Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Nacional--PLN), with five seats, and Christian Democratic Party (Partido Demócrato Cristiano--PDC), with one seat.

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