WINNING THE CANAL BUT LOSING THE COUNTRY?: Introduction: Torrijos and his Populist Alliance

September 25, 2007

The regime of Omar Torrijos has been ap- plauded by many within and outside Panama as "revolutionary." Torrijos himself indulged in flirting with this image. Being, or at least seeming, revolutionary has been an asset dur- ing certain moments of his regime's history. The Panamanian military, under then Col- onel Torrijos, took power in October 1968, following a crisis of the political rule that had been traditionally exercised by a few related families in Panama. By the late 1960s this oligarchy had failed to meet the economic needs of a rapidly increasing urban popula- tion, to modernize the agrarian sector or to address the middle class quest for more political participation.' Even more impor- tant, in 1967 it failed in its efforts to secure a treaty with the United States which would decolonize the Canal Zone. After more than ten years of governing Panama, and particularly after Torrijos capitulated to a neo-colonial solution to the Panama Canal question, it has become clear that there was nothing revolutionary in Torri- jos' approach to the pressing social, political and economic questions that confronted him when he took power. In fact he soon emerged as a populist leader from a fairly classic mold, willing only to push for certain reforms in the areas of labor, land tenure, education and politics which would in no way threaten the foundations of the existing social relations of production or give real political power to the masses. POPULISM IN PANAMA There are two important aspects of populism as a political phenomenon that are particularly relevant to the Torrijos regime. One is the heterogeneous nature of the class alliance that supports it, including labor, ur- ban masses, peasantry, middle classes and the more advanced fraction of the bourgeoisie. 2 In the case of Torrijos this alliance was dominated by transnational finance capital and took the form of a civil-military regime. A second aspect of populism is the relative weight of the various classes, fractions of classes or groups within that alliance. Unlike Peron in Argentina who counted primarily on the urban workers and masses in his bid to undermine the political power of the landed oligarchy, Torrijos relied largely on the rural masses themselves. This difference is of course due to important differences in the economic structures of the two countries. While 48% of Panama's 1.75 million population is urban, they are largely service workers, underemployed and unemployed. The rural sector, with more of the population working as small farmers, rural proletariat or landless peasantry has been dominated by the latifundists (the large, usually backward, landholding elite), primarily through their control of credit and distribution. Torrijos, in an effort to break the political control of the latifundists, sought to organize the various fractions of the rural sector into state-sponsored rice production collectives (Asentamientos Campesinos), agrarian pro- duction teams (Juntas Agrarias de Produc- cion) and cooperatives. The new production units, together with several state-owned sugar mills, were aimed at cheapening food staples and increasing sugar exports. These projects, financed by the World Bank and funneled through Panama's Agricultural Development Bank, served to deepen capitalist relations in the agricultural sector. But more immediate- ly, they displaced the latifundists as the political brokers in the rural sector, replacing them with the Torrijos regime as the primary source of credit, transportation and marketing facilities. Decolonizing the Canal Zone and control- ling the Canal administration were the new regime's most important political objectives. Its economic objectives were outlined five weeks after seizing state power: ') the vigorous broadening of the Colon Free Zone operations; . . 3) tourism; 4) exploita- tion of mineral resources recently discovered on the Atlantic zone; 5) promoting Panama as an international financial center based on existing national and foreign banks; 6) rational and prudent continuation of the import substitution policy.... I 20SeptOct 1979 Torrijos' acceptance of a Canal treaty th2 contains far less than he had hoped for can b explained by examining the scope and dept of U.S. domination over both the private an public sector of Panamanian society, an more importantly by the dependence of th regime on transnational finance capital.

Tags: Panama, Canal Zone, Omar Torrijos, treaty negotiations, workers

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