The Politics of Frustrated Nationalism

The Politics of Frustrated Nationalism

The CPN placed another candidate, Ernesto de la Guardia, in the presidency in 1956. The Remón government had required parties to enroll 45,000 members to receive official recognition. This membership requirement, subsequently relaxed to 5,000, had excluded all opposition parties from the 1956 elections except the National Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Nacional--PLN) which traced its lineage to the original Liberal Party.

De la Guardia was a conservative businessman and a member of the oligarchy. By Panamanian standards, he was by no means anti- Yankee, but his administration presided over a new low in United States-Panamanian relations. The Egyptian nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 raised new hopes in the republic, because the two canals were frequently compared in the world press. Despite Panama's large maritime fleet (the sixth greatest in the world), Britain and the United States did not invite Panama to a special conference of the major world maritime powers in London to discuss Suez. Expressing resentment, Panama joined the communist and neutral nations in a rival Suez proposal. United States secretary of state John Foster Dulles's unqualified statement on the Suez issue on September 28, 1956--that the United States did not fear similar nationalization of the Panama Canal because the United States possessed "rights of sovereignty" there-- worsened matters.

Panamanian public opinion was further inflamed by a United States Department of the Army statement in the summer of 1956 that implied that the 1955 treaty had not in fact envisaged a total equalization of wage rates. The United States attempted to clarify the issue by explaining that the only exception to the "equal pay for equal labor" principle would be a 25-percent differential that would apply to all citizens brought from the continental United States.

Tension mounted in the ensuing years. In May 1958 students demonstrating against the United States clashed with the National Guard. The violence of these riots, in which nine died, was a forecast of the far more serious difficulties that followed a year later. In November 1959 anti-United States demonstrations occurred during the two Panamanian independence holidays. Aroused by the media, particularly by articles in newspapers owned by Harmodio Arias, Panamanians began to threaten a "peaceful invasion" of the Canal Zone, to raise the flag of the republic there as tangible evidence of Panama's sovereignty. Fearful that Panamanian mobs might actually force entry into the Canal Zone, the United States called out its troops. Several hundred Panamanians crossed barbedwire restraints and clashed with Canal Zone police and troops. A second wave of Panamanian citizens was repulsed by the National Guard, supported by United States troops.

Extensive and violent disorder followed. A mob smashed the windows of the United States Information Agency library. The United States flag was torn from the ambassador's residence and trampled. Aware that public hostility was getting out of hand, political leaders attempted to regain control over their followers but were unsuccessful. Relations between the two governments were severely strained. United States authorities erected a fence on the border of the Canal Zone, and United States citizens residing in the Canal Zone observed a voluntary boycott of Panamanian merchants, who traditionally depended heavily on these patrons.

On March 1, 1960--Constitution Day--student and labor groups threatened another march into the Canal Zone. The widespread disorders of the previous fall had had a sobering effect on the political elite, who seriously feared that new rioting might be transformed into a revolutionary movement against the social system itself. Both major coalitions contesting the coming elections sought to avoid further difficulties, and influential merchants, who had been hard hit by the November 1959 riots, were apprehensive. Reports that the United States was willing to recommend flying the republic's flag in a special site in the Canal Zone served to ease tensions. Thus, serious disorders were averted.

De la Guardia's administration had been overwhelmed by the rioting and other problems, and the CPN, lacking effective opposition in the National Assembly, began to disintegrate. Most dissenting factions joined the PLN in the National Opposition Union, which in 1960 succeeded in electing its candidate, Roberto Chiari, to the presidency. De la Guardia became the first postwar president to finish a full four-year term in office, and Chiari had the distinction of being the first opposition candidate ever elected to the presidency.

Chiari attempted to convince his fellow oligarchs that change was inevitable. He cautioned that if they refused to accept moderate reform, they would be vulnerable to sweeping change imposed by uncontrollable radical forces. The tradition-oriented deputies who constituted a majority in the National Assembly did not heed his warning. His proposed reform program was simply ignored. In foreign affairs, Chiari's message to the Assembly on October 1, 1961, called for a new revision of the Canal Zone arrangement. When Chiari visited Washington on June 12 to 13, 1962, he and President John F. Kennedy agreed to appoint high-level representatives to discuss controversies between their countries regarding the Canal Zone. The results of the discussions were disclosed in a joint communique issued on July 23, 1963.

Agreement had been reached on the creation of the Bi-National Labor Advisory Committee to consider disputes arising between Panamanian employees and zone authorities. The United States had agreed to withhold taxes from its Panamanian employees to be remitted to the Panamanian government. Pending congressional approval, the United States agreed to extend to Panamanian employees the health and life insurance benefits available to United States citizens in the zone.

Several other controversial matters, however, remained unresolved. The United States agreed to increase the wages of Panamanian employees in the zone, but not as much as the Panamanian government requested. No agreement was reached in response to Panamanian requests for jurisdiction over a corridor through the zone linking the two halves of the country.

Meanwhile, the United States had initiated a new aid program for all of Latin America--the Alliance for Progress. Under this approach to hemisphere relations, President Kennedy envisioned a long-range program to raise living standards and advance social and economic development. No regular United States government development loans or grants had been available to Panama through the late 1950s. The Alliance for Progress, therefore, was the first major effort of the United States to improve basic living conditions. Panama was to share in the initial, large-scale loans to support self-help housing. Nevertheless, pressure for major revisions of the treaties and resentment of United States recalcitrance continued to move.

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