Shifts in Panama - The Military Steps Ahead

September 25, 2007

After nearly a year of deceptive tranquility, following General Omar Torrijos' death in an air crash, Panama became the scene of far- reaching political shifts. Between March and September, the head of the National Guard was removed; the president was forced to resign; social democrats within the government were purged; and a new general emerged as the key contender for the strongman role left vacant by Torrijos. For a country that has enjoyed considerable stability within a volatile region, these events were extraordinary. Yet because they were staged so skillfully, and were in large part predictable, they caused hardly a stir. Right-wing sectors, which stand to gain the most from these changes, went through the motions of denouncing this mockery of constitutional pro- cedures. But the popular outrage that might once have accompanied such dramatic shifts to the right was entirely missing. Panama's "official Left," as reformers within the gov- erning party are called, had be- trayed popular interests too many times. Now they could call on few supporters to prevent their own demise. How did all this come about and why? The origins of this "constitu- tional coup" predate the death of Torrijos. They must be understood within the context of shifting alli- ances and priorities toward the end of his thirteen-year rule. Regroupment and Reconciliation Popular support for the Torrijos government began to erode as its promises of reform gave way to the exigencies of economic austerity and political pragmatism. By the late 1970s, a clear political choice had been made: to compensate for waning popular support, the regime would seek a rapprochement with Panama's dominant elites-the very sectors it had alienated with its rhetoric of reform.* * For a more in-depth treatment of the fate of reformism under Torrijos, see "Panama: For Whom the Canal Tolls," NACLA Report on the Americas (Sept-Oct 1979). Torrijos was intent on forging a new coalition, with strong backing from the private sector, that would enable his party to prevail in the elections scheduled for 1984. His personal popularity, and his re- markable skill at playing one politi- Scal faction against another, seemed to guarantee that he would continue to dominate any new coalition- and that Panama's stability would be preserved. His sudden death did not call into question the need for "regroupment," but it dramatically changed the context in which it would take place. Without Torrijos, latent rivalries within the National Guard rose to the surface; conflicts emerged be- tween the Guard and the civilian president, Aristides Royo; and serious divisions within the ruling PRD party threatened to dash its electoral hopes even before the race began. The right-wing opposition pounced on these weaknesses to score political points. The Reagan Administration, displeased by Panama's resistance to its Central American policies, also took ad- vantage of the regime's vulnerabili- ty to twist its arm. A new political balance was in the making. The on- ly question was who would prevail: the social democrats, who clung nostalgically to the reformist image of Torrijos' early years, or the "business wing" of the party, a slick clique of bankers, industrialists and financiers, whose influence was steadily on the rise. A Changing of the Guard The first institution to succumb to these strains was the National Guard. Torrijos' death had left its power diffused among rival officer cliques, with a line of command that did not correspond to the real bal- ance of power within the General Staff. Colonel Florencio Flores be- 3update * update *update * update came commander-in-chief simply because he was next in line after Torrijos. But he lacked a following among the officer corps, recogni- tion outside the military and strong ties to the bourgeoisie. Yet he was certainly ambitious and eager to ex- pand his role, and Panama's op- position parties began to court him in an effort to circumvent and un- dermine the more liberal President Royo. Flores began to negotiate with the private sector without con- sulting the General Staff. Instead of fostering cohesion, his actions threatened internal unity-and this was all the excuse his rivals needed to call for his ouster. On March 3, the General Staff an- nounced that, along with other senior officers, Colonel Flores was retiring after 25 years of service, as required by law. Named to replace him was General Ruben Dario Paredes, former minister of agricul- ture, friend of bankers and oli- garchs and, at age 47, the man most frequently mentioned as the PRD's next presidential candidate. To maintain a certain balance among rival cliques within the Guard, the position of Colonel Manuel Noriega, chief of military in- telligence, and other officers was enhanced. But if the shake-up in command did not dispel all ten- sions, it did establish an internal agreement that would enable the Guard to reassert itself as the decisive power in the land. After four years of standing on the side- lines, the National Guard, with Paredes in command, made clear that it intended to call the shots. Royo Can't Resist The position of President Aristides Royo was too weak to pose much opposition to the ambi- tions of General Paredes. His at- tempts to make friends with conser- vative business sectors had been thwarted by members of his own 40 party, who blocked his legislative initiatives. The opposition scoffed at Royo's impotence, and the newspapers they control carried almost daily headlines of govern- ment corruption and incompetence. Perhaps not by mere coinci- dence, there was a storm of popu- lar protests against the Royo gov- ernment during this period of shift- ing balances and testing of political waters. The protests, led by striking teachers, reflected the accumu- lated grievances of the working and middle classes. Years of regressive economic policies had caused ser- ious hardship and the Royo govern- ment certainly deserved its share of blame. But the unexpected ferocity of the protests, and their manipula- tion by conservative forces to discredit the president, was one more factor in shifting the balance toward the Right, Royo tried to recapture popular support by taking a more assertive, nationalist stance. He denounced the U.S. role in the Malvinas crisis and boldly called for the creation of a new inter-American organization that would exclude the United States. His gestures did evoke a popular response, but they also aroused the enmity of Washington, which had never liked Royo any- way, and now saw compelling reason to get him out. The Final Blow In April, General Paredes de- clared emphatically that major Cabinet changes were needed to rid the government of corruption and incompetence. President Royo countered the next day that no changes were contemplated. It was a clear test of strength and, not sur- prisingly, three days later the Cabi- net was overhauled. It was in just this fashion, without attempts to avoid embarrassment or dissemble the shift in power, that the liquidation of President Royo and his social democratic allies began. Cabinet posts were filled by the "business wing" of the PRD and all blame for past mistakes and misdeeds was assigned to the luck- less reformers. If before the military shake-up Royo was a lame-duck president, now he was the prover- bial scapegoat. The final blow fell on July 31, the first anniversary of Torrijos' death. The government had declared a na- tional day of mourning and organ- ized a huge procession to honor the fallen general. Leading the proces- sion were General Paredes, clearly aiming to be recognized as the new and true successor, and Vice Presi- dent Ricardo de la Espriella. The president's absence was the subject of much speculation-until Royo went on television several hours later. In a perfectly clear and resonant voice, he announced that he no longer would be able to per- form his duties as president due to a throat ailment. Royo was resigning. Within an hour, General Paredes appeared on the same TV screen to welcome de la Espriella as the new president, and to suggest that it would make the president's job much easier if the Cabinet and top government officials, including diplomats, would submit their resig- nations-by Monday, please. In ad- dition to other "recommendations to the new president, Paredes also announced the closure of the coun- try's newspapers for seven days. The general's "I'm in charge" at- titude did little to endear him to many Panamanians who would like to see the military's role reduced. But the shift to the right was irresisti- ble, carried out with crack efficien- cy. Again, members of the PRD's social democratic faction were re- placed by its "business wing" and representatives of the right-wing opposition, while conservative government officials were quickly reinstated. A panel of distinguished NACLA Reportupdate update update*update jurists, established to revise the Constitution, was heavily weighted with members of the country's tra- ditional elite. The only pretense of pluralism in the new government was cleverly reserved for two ministries that would bear the blame for unpopular policies: housing, put in the hands of Communist Party representa- tives, and labor, under the control of influential union bureaucrats. Presidential Ambitions General Paredes makes no secret of his presidential aspira- tions in 1984. Between now and then, he will be building his coali- tion-offering Panama's right-wing opposition better terms than Torri- jos had he lived, but furthering that same process of "regroupment" begun several years ago. The forces he wants and needs to unite are extremely fractious, however. If they coincide in their opposition to the Left and demands for the reversal of many reforms, they differ on everything else. Paredes, by positioning himself as the indispensable power broker, the man through whom all deals must pass, keep his rivals at bay. But he also knows that without his base in the National Guard, his chances for winning the presidency are virtually nil. Paredes was scheduled for man- datory retirement from the Guard in September 1982, after 25 years of service. Rumors flew that his chief rival, Colonel Noriega, and other of- ficers would make sure-by force if necessary-that he resign. On Sep- tember 6, at the request of Presi- dent de la Espriella and the General Staff of the National Guard, Paredes agreed to retain his command for another two years. He had success- fully maneuvered for enough time to prepare for the 1984 elections. Among those who applauded Paredes' new lease on life was General Wallance Nutting, com- mander of the U.S. Southern Com- mand and an ardent supporter of Washington's interventionist policy in Central America. But it remains to be seen how much Paredes can move Panama's foreign policy to the right. The Torrijos legacy is still strong. And nationalism is still the bottom line.

Tags: Panama, Omar Torrijos, nationalism, Gen. Ruben Dario Paredes, Aristides Royo

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