The Cousins' Republic

September 25, 2007

PANAMA'S POLITICAL CRISIS IS HARDLY A revolutionary one. It is a dispute among elites which in no way challenges the status quo for the poor majority. Since the crisis began in earnest in June 1987, it has become ever clearer that the government and the opposition have no fundamental policy disagreement. They differ only on who should hold the reins of power. This is the latest version of a battle that has raged for much of Panama's independent life. Until 1968, when the National Guard rose up to put an end to oligarchic rule, Panamanian politics were nothing but family rivalries within the ruling caste. In the "cousins' republic," as it was commonly called, such disputes as now divide the elite were mediated by the United States; vain old Uncle Sam sought to play favorites with whichever nephew claimed to love him most. UJ LY/AUGUST 1988 The oligarchy's parties faced stiff competition after 1936 from the Authentic Panamanian Party of Arnulfo Arias Madrid, who died in August of this year. Arias towered over Panama's politics for 50 of the country's 85 years of independent life. A rancher, coffee grower and member of the oligarchy, Arias was at once nation- alist, pro-United States, pro-fascist and populist, but above all immensely proud of being one of the last remaining caudillos in Latin America. His election to the presidency in 1941 prompted a military coup, since his desire to nationalize the canal-as well as his favor- able attitude towards Hitler-were frowned upon by the United States. Denied victory again in 1948, Arias was installed by a coup in 1949, but was impeached and banned from public life a year later. In 1968, the legendary populist triumphed once more. In that election the poor intruded on Panama's Church-sponsored food line in Panama City PANAMA The grand master of Panamanian politics: Arnulfo Arias elite political scene with increasing demands from workers, peasants and other dispossessed. Eleven days after Arias took office, a military coup forced him to flee to the Canal Zone. Although the National Guard emerged in 1968 as the only force capable of maintaining the status quo, it had no social base of support nor any coherent program of government. Only after several purges, when Omar Torrijos Herrera became strongman of the Guard and government, did it become clear that this coup would be unlike any other. Torrijos sought to build a new political system in which the poor would participate but the military would rule in their name. He cloaked class and race divisions under the banner of national unity, focusing Panama's nationalist tradition on the canal treaty negotiations with the United States which had been underway since 1964.1 Torrijos instituted a program of labor, agrarian, political and social reforms that responded to the needs of the poor, while directing the embryonic popular movement towards official channels. Although Torrijos clearly undercut the oligarchy's political power (parties were banned), he also built an alliance with a sector of the elite by developing a center for international bank- ing and related transnational services which became the dynamo of Panama's growing economy. By the end of the 1970s, Torrijos' rule had achieved economic growth and modernization, living standards had improved and large sectors of the poor were brought into the political system. More importantly, Torrijos' program gave birth to a "military-business complex" which would dominate Panama's politics long after his demise. In 1977, Torrijos signed treaties with President Jimmy Carter by which the Canal would be turned over to Panama in the year 2000. While the treaties did not fulfill most Panamanians' aspirations for total sover- eignty, they did put an end to the pact of national unity that Torrijos had been able to enforce during their nego- tiation. Workers no longer had to contain their de- mands, nor did the oligarchy have to check its desire to govern without intermediaries. TraHE UNITED STATES CONDITIONED ITS 1 ratification of the treaties on Panama's adopting a "democratic" form of government, clearly in the hope that Panama's civilian politicians would prove more malleable than the nationalist Torrijos. The National Guard, still the center of gravity of Panamanian politics, and Omar Torrijos, the hub of that center, chose to drop out of sight. He resigned from the government in Octo- ber 1978, paving the way for the return of legal political parties. The military founded the Democratic Revolu- tionary Party (PRD) to carry forth its policies, and a civilian regime drawn from the new party was inaugu- rated. In July 1981, an airplane carrying Gen. Torrijos crashed suspiciously on the slopes of Cerro Marta dur- ing a ten-minute flight and the gradual transition of Panama's society was thrown abruptly off course.' The balance between the military and the civilian govern- ment was lost, and the only political leader who could have beaten Amulfo Arias at the polls was gone. As Gabriel Garcia Mdrquez put it, "Central America lost its great moderator." After his death, Torrijos' program unraveled. Under pressure from the United States and in the context of an economic recession and fiscal crisis, the government weakened agrarian policy, eliminated the system of local representation and restored the pre-1968 Legisla- tive Assembly. It pulled the teeth from the Labor Code, and cut back progressive health, education and housing programs. In foreign policy, a junior role in Contadora took the place of frontal attacks on U.S. imperialism. One sign of the decomposition of torrijismo were frequent changes in the nation's leaders. In three years there were four presidents, three commanders of the National Guard (which became the Defense Forces in 1983) and several complete changes in the leadership of the official party, the PRD. The man who managed to consolidate power was Manuel Antonio Noriega, chief of the Defense Forces as of 1983. Panama's economic elites and their foreign mentors pushed hard for a return to business-as-usual politics, where votes are bought, manipulated and influenced by the powerful. They wanted the Defense Forces to return to their pre-Torrijos role as guarantor of elite rule. And despite widespread protests, they lobbied successfully REPORT ON THE AMERICASfor the imposition of an unpopular International Mone- tary Fund stabilization plan. T HE SCENE WAS SET FOR THE GREAT political battle of 1984, the first direct presidential and vice-presidential elections in 16 years.' The dispute for power between the military-business alliance and the old oligarchy was to be settled at the polls. Any doubts about the government's rightward trend were put to rest in 1984 when the PRD brought the oligar- chy's Liberal and Republican parties into its National Democratic Union (UNADE) coalition, along with the business-oriented Labor Party (PALA) which, like the PRD, is a creature of the military. UNADE nominated World Bank vice-president Nicolhs Ardito Barletta for president. As planning minister, Barletta had been the brains behind the strengthening of the international banking center and the transnational services platform. His running mates were made of similar cloth. First vice presidential can- didate Erick Arturo Delvalle-later Reagan's cause c6l6bre-was a businessman who made millions in sugar, television and thoroughbred horses. His party, the Republican, is a family clan which ceases to exist between elections. His uncle Max was vice-president in the 1960s and led a coup attempt in 1967. UNADE's candidate for second vice president was the Liberal Roderick Esquivel, an expert in political fraud and in- trigue, tied to landowning and merchant interests. UNADE had several sources of support: the govem- ment, the Defense Forces, the business class linked to transnational interests, the traditionally torrijista pub- lic employees and grass-roots leaders as well. It even enjoyed the support of the U.S. Embassy and Southern Command, and most of the media. But an important sector of the ruling party, the Torrijos Lives Movement, put out a warning that would prove to be prophetic: A process of "Reaganization" of the country is under- way. It began with the physical liquidation of Torrijos and now would like to liquidate his economic and social program. The UNADE slate is center-Right. The military has changed its politics, attacking the funda- mentals oftorrijismo.... We are facing an accelerated race towards the past in which democracy is viewed simply as the pre-1968 political system.' CHALLENGING UNADE WAS THE DEMO- cratic Opposition Alliance (ADO), which gar- nered the support of less profitable business interests, such as landowners, real estate interests and non-export merchants, as well as sectors of the middle class, unor- ganized workers and poor campesinos. Most of them were drawn by the charisma of ADO candidate Amulfo Arias Madrid, who at 82 had been thrice elected presi- dent, as many times overthrown, and seemed virtually immortal. Besides Arias's Authentic Panamanian Party (PPA), ADO's principal members were the Liberal Republican Nationalist Movement (MOLIRENA) and the Christian Democratic Party (PDC). While the PPA was the per- sonal vehicle of the old caudillo, MOLIRENA is a po- litical quilt sewn from dissident patches of the oligar- chic Liberal and Republican parties and from the de- funct Third Nationalist Party. The Christian Democrats are a different kettle of fish. As elsewhere in Latin America, Panama's PDC is a middle-class reformist party. Heavily influenced by the right wing of the Christian Democratic Intema- tional, it is one of the most conservative of Central America's PDCs. Many view it as the opposition party of the future which, with the demise of Amulfo Arias, will inherit his base of popular support. Despite such strident slogans as "Let us drive away from our shores the threat of violent and enslaving Castro-communism!" ADO did not put forth a specific platform. Rather, the campaign churned out an unend- ing stream of snippets from "The Leader's" half-cen- tury of political speech-making. ADO did have the support of some of the media and the ideologues in the Reagan Administration, but when it promised to try military officers for human rights abuses, it picked a fight with a powerful enemy. The elections held in May and June were tumultu- ous, and the vote-counting even more so. Evidence of fraud abounded. According to the official results, Bar- Leaflets have become the opposition's press JULY/AUGUST 1988 -- -- ------- ----PANAMA letta won by only 1,713 votes. 6 The opposition protested bitterly, but little came of it. Many thought the 1984 elections would build sufficient consensus among poli- ticians, businessmen and the United States, to carry through the modernization begun under Torrijos. In- stead, internecine struggles over how to continue ruling Panama only grew worse, until they boiled over in June of last year. W HEN COL. ROBERTO DIAZ HERRERA DETO- nated the current political crisis with his accusa- tions against Noriega, he unleashed pent-up tension at all levels of Panamanian society. 7 Thousands of dem- onstrators took to the streets, raising barricades, stoning buildings and burning automobiles. The opposition moved quickly to harness anti-government sentiment, forming the National Civic Crusade to direct anti-gov- ernment activities. Despite its name and the member- ship of dozens of professional, civic and business or- ganizations, the real movers and shakers behind the Crusade are the major political parties which united to contest the 1984 elections: PPA, MOLIRENA and PDC. Until February, the Crusade was able to muster a great degree of unity. Even the parties toed the line, although, beyond the goal of removing Gen. Noriega, they had their differences. But once Delvalle turned on Noriega (apparently at Elliott Abrams' request) and was dismissed, the business leaders, the PDC and MOLI- RENA-making up the majority of the opposition-fol- lowed President Reagan's lead and called for the rein- statement of the government they had been fiercely struggling to oust! The one exception, the PPA, contin- ued insisting on the immediate enthronement of Arnulfo Arias, and in practice pulled out of the Crusade. But with his death in August, the PPA lost its drawing card and its strength. The Left is small and divided, with the communist People's Party (PdelP) offering the government un- bridled support, the Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT) giving it critical support, and the Trotskyite So- cialist Workers Party (PST) first taking a stance parallel to that of the Civic Crusade, then working with the anti- imperialist and anti-military Popular Civic Movement (MCP) headed up by Dr. Mario Ztifiiga, who led dem- onstrations against the IMF austerity package in 1984- 85. G ENERAL NORIEGA, MEANWHILE, SEEMS to have consolidated the support of the Defense Forces, after the U.S.-inspired coup attempt on March 16 provided him with an opportunity to identify and purge dissidents. The loyal PRD-"Gen. Noriega is not negotiable"' '-remains in control of the Legislative As- sembly, most municipalities and most cabinet positions. The Labor Party (PALA), the next strongest party in the ruling UNADE coalition, has adopted a more concili- atory attitude towards the opposition. Without specify- ing just what is negotiable, it is as firm as the PRD in rejecting U.S. interference. Other components of his government, meanwhile, have not been such easy partners. All the members of the UNADE slate in the last elections-Barletta, Del- valle and Esquivel-have been pushed out of office and into the opposition. As might be expected, the Republi- can Party of ex-president Delvalle is to all practical purposes out of UNADE. Noriega's predecessor as commander-in-chief (Gen. Paredes) and the officer who was second-in-command until 1987 (Col. Diaz Her- rera), as well as a part of the officer corps who were loyal only a few months ago, are now against the strong- man. In addition, a cohort of bureaucrats and business- men, many of them beneficiaries of Torrijos' policies, now wave white handkerchiefs with the Crusade on Panama City's exclusive Calle 50 or lobby against Noriega in the halls of the Pentagon, the State Depart- ment or the White House. Noriega's great achievement has been to hang on to power with so many lined up against him. He has done so by knowing how to ignite Panamanian pride, the essence of the country's past and the key to its future. Noriega has sung all the high notes of the nationalist hymn: the fatherland under attack, imperial arrogance, the lyrical and emotional value of land, ethnicity and culture. Arias' death seems to have ended all hope for a negotiated settlement prior to the elections still sched- uled for May 1989. His death deprived the opposition of its only legitimate spokesperson, and vastly im- proved the government's chances of winning at the polls. No candidates have been put forth on either side, although the name of Noriega himself has been bandied about. The outlines of next year's campaign are already evident in the two strains of crisis discourse broadcast to the Panamanian people. One is the PRD's neo- torrijista rhetoric promising to reweave a process which is hopelessly unraveled. The other is the rhetoric of the opposition, which promises a democracy more formal than real. Both would like the people to forget the 1984 elections, and all of Panama's electoral history for that matter, where the parties of the rich treated voters as consumers to be swindled with empty market- ing techniques. For the time being, Panama's poor seem to be mes- merized by the political battle between Noriega and his foes. But neither side addresses the deeper crisis of Panamanian society: its poverty and underdevelopment. When those who dispute power eventually reach a set- tlement, the poor will be no more than spectators and victims of whatever deal is finally struck. And the poor will then face once again the need to build their own alternative, where democracy and nationalism are more than the empty rhetoric of politicians. The Cousins' Republic 1. The United States agreed to renegotiate the canal treaty fol- lowing the January 1964 "flag riots," in which U.S. troops and Canal Zone residents killed 21 Panamanian demonstrators and wounded over 400. The demonstrators, mostly students, had at- tempted to peacefully raise Panamanian flags within the Zone, in accordance with a 1963 U.S.-Panama agreement. 2. Most Panamanians blame the United States. Torrijos earned U.S. enmity by providing the Sandinistas with material aid in their struggle against Somoza, and was a major obstacle to U.S. plans for the region. Within months, two other key opponents of U.S. policy, President Rold6s of Ecuador and Gen. Hoyos of the Peruvian Air Force, died in similar "accidents." 3. Legislative electionshad been held in 1972, 1978 and 1980; a plebiscite on the Canal Treaties was held in 1978; and in 1983 a referendum on constitutional amendments was approved. 4. Movimiento Torrijos Vive, February 1984. 5. There were other candidates. The social democratic Popu- lar Action Party (PAPO) ran Dr. Carlos Ivan Zufiiga; the centrist Popular Nationalist Party (PNP) ran ex-commander of the National Guard Rub6n DArio Paredes; and three leftist parties ran Jos6 Rendn Esquivel (PRT), Ricardo Barria (PST) and Carlos del Cid (P del P) respectively. 6. The voters did give more votes to Arias' Authentic Pana- manian Party than to any other, with the ruling PRD at its heels. Of the 12 other parties, seven received less than 3% of the vote and thus were ruled off the ballot. Most of these were new progressive parties with few resources. Six of the seven that survived were traditional old-style oligarchic parties from the pre-Torrijos period. The Republican and Liberal parties showed little strength, as did the three Left parties. 7. Four days after being forcibly retired as second-in-com- mand of the Defense Forces, he accused Gen. Noriega of being involved in the death of Gen. Torrijos, the murder of Left opposi- tion figure Hugo Spadafora, the electoral fraud of 1984, and the 1985 resignation of President Barletta.

Tags: Panama, US involvement, political elite, Imperialism

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