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Panama - Government


IN LATE 1987, PANAMA'S political system was unable to respond to the problems confronting the nation. Protests over the role in the government played by the Panama Defense Forces (Fuerzas de Defensa de Panam�--FDP) and their commander, General Manuel Antonio Noriega Moreno, had produced economic disruption and the appearance of political instability and had contributed to serious strains in relations with the United States. With no immediate resolution of the conflict likely, Panama appeared to be in its most severe political crisis since the 1968 coup, which had made the military the dominant political force in the nation.

The October 1968 coup marked the third time that the military had ousted Arnulfo Arias Madrid from the presidency of Panama. It differed from previous coups, however, in that it installed a military regime that promoted a mixture of populist and nationalist policies, while at the same time assiduously courting international business. Led, until his death in 1981, by the charismatic General Omar Torrijos Herrera, the military used limited but effective repression to prevent civilian opposition groups from returning to power. Torrijos also created the Democratic Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Democr�tico--PRD), which became the official ruling party.

The death of Torrijos, in an airplane crash on July 31, 1981, precipitated a prolonged struggle for power. In a little more than four years Panama had three FDP commanders and five civilian presidents. At the same time, both domestic and international pressures for a return to civilian rule increased steadily. Constitutional revisions in 1983, followed by presidential and legislative elections in 1984, were supposed to promote this process. The elections, however, were tainted by widespread allegations of fraud. Whatever credibility the newly installed civilian government had was undermined further in September 1985, when President Nicol�s Ardito Barletta Vallarino was forced out of office by General Noriega and the FDP. In the following two years, political tensions continued to increase, fueled by negative publicity abroad, by the murder of a prominent opposition political figure, Dr. hugo Spadatora, by the open break between General Noriega and his most prominent rival within the military, Colonel Roberto D�az Herrera, and by serious economic problems, notably a major international debt burden and major capital flight.

The era of military rule had not been without its positive accomplishments. Most notable was the successful negotiation of the 1977 Panama Canal treaties with the United States. These treaties, which went into effect on October 1, 1979, ended the separate territorial status of the Panama Canal Zone and provided for Panama's full control over all canal operations at the end of the century. Under the military, Panama also had emerged as a major international banking center, had become a more prominent actor in world affairs, exemplified by its position as one of the original "Core Four" mediators (along with Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia) in the Contadora negotiating process seeking to mediate the conflicts in Central America, and had implemented numerous social reforms, raising the standard of living for many of its citizens. In late 1987, however, many of these accomplishments appeared jeopardized by the continuing crisis in civil-military relations and the inability of the Panamanian government to maintain a peaceful evolution toward a more open, democratic political system.

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In 1987 Panama was governed under the Constitution of 1972 as amended by the Reform Acts of 1978 and the Constitutional Act of 1983. This was Panama's fourth constitution, previous constitutions having been adopted in 1904, 1941, and 1946. The differences among these constitutions have been matters of emphasis and have reflected the political circumstances existing at the time of their formulation.

The 1904 constitution, in Article 136, gave the United States the right to "intervene in any part of Panama, to reestablish public peace and constitutional order." Reflecting provisions of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, this confirmed Panama's status as a de facto protectorate of the United States. Article 136, along with other provisions of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, such as that giving the United States the right to add additional territory to the Canal Zone whenever it believed this was necessary for defensive purposes, rankled Panamanian nationalists for more than three decades.

In 1939 the United States abrogated its right of intervention in internal Panamanian affairs with the ratification of the HullAlfaro Treaty. The 1941 constitution, enacted during Arnulfo Arias's first, brief presidential term, not only ended Panama's constitutionally mandated protectorate status, but also reflected the president's peculiar political views. Power was concentrated in the hands of the president whose term, along with that of members of the legislature, was extended from four to six years. Citizenship requirements were added that discriminated against the nation's English-speaking black community and other non-Hispanic minorities.

In October 1941, President Arias was deposed by the National Police (the predecessor of the National Guard and FDP), and the presidency was assumed by Ricardo Adolfo de la Guardia. In 1946 President de la Guardia promulgated a new constitution, which was basically a return to the 1904 document without the offensive Article 136. The 1946 constitution lasted for twenty-six years. Following the 1968 military coup, eleven constitutional guarantees, including freedom of speech, press, and travel, were suspended for several months, and some were not restored fully until after the adoption of the 1972 Constitution. The 1972 Constitution was promulgated by General Torrijos and reflected the dominance of the political system by the general and the military.

Article 277 of the 1972 Constitution designated Torrijos as the "Maximum Leader of the Panamanian Revolution," granting him extraordinary powers for a period of six years, including the power to appoint most government officials and to direct foreign relations. On October 11, 1978, this and other temporary provisions of the 1972 Constitution expired, and a series of amendments, ratified by the Torrijos-controlled National Assembly of Municipal Representatives, became law. These amendments called for a gradual return to democratic political processes between 1978 and 1984 and were designed, in part, to assuage United States concerns over the undemocratic nature of the Panamanian political system.

In 1983 a commission representing various political parties was created to amend further the Constitution in preparation for the 1984 elections. The sixteen-member commission changed nearly half of the Constitution's articles, producing several significant alterations. Article 2 had given the military a special political role, but all mention of this was omitted in the revised draft. The legislature was also revamped. The National Legislative Council was eliminated, and the unwieldy, government-controlled National Assembly of Municipal Representatives, which had 505 representatives, one from each corregimiento (municipal subdistrict), became the Legislative Assembly, with 67 members apportioned on the basis of population and directly elected. The independence of the judiciary and the Electoral Tribunal were strengthened, the term of the president was reduced to five years, and two vice presidents were to be elected. Guarantees of civil liberties were strengthened, and official support for candidates in elections was, at least in theory, severely restricted.

The amended Constitution contains 312 articles. Power emanates from the people and is exercised by the three branches of government, each of which is "limited and separate," but all of which, in theory, work together in "harmonious collaboration." The national territory is defined as "the land area, the territorial sea, the submarine continental shelf, the subsoil, and air space between Costa Rica and Colombia." Any ceding, leasing, or other alienation of this territory to any other state is expressly forbidden. Spanish is the country's national language.

Citizenship may be acquired by birth or naturalization. Articles 17 through 50 guarantee a broad range of individual rights, including property rights, but Article 51 gives the president power to suspend many of these by declaring a "state of emergency." Articles 52 through 124 establish the role of the state in protecting the family, regulating labor conditions, promoting education and culture, providing assistance for health and other areas of social security, promoting agriculture, and protecting the environment.

After the elaboration of the composition, powers, and duties of the various organs of the governmental system, the Constitution ends with descriptions of the state's responsibilities with respect to the national economy, public administration, and national security. Engaging in economic activities, for example, is primarily the function of private individuals, but the state will "orient, direct, regulate, replace, or create according to social necessities . . . with the object of increasing national wealth and to ensure its benefits for the largest possible number of the nation's inhabitants." Article 308 provides for amending the Constitution, either through approval of amendments without modification by an absolute majority of two successive elected assemblies or approval with modifications by two assemblies and subsequent ratification of the modified text by a national referendum.

Panama's successive constitutions have been respected in varying degrees by the republic's governments. Since the 1968 coup, opponents of various governments have accused them of violating the spirit and, at times, the letter of the Constitution and of invoking the state of emergency provisions for purely political purposes. Creating public confidence in the rule of law established by the Constitution presented the government with one of its major challenges in the late 1980s.




The Executive

As is the case throughout most of Latin America, constitutional power in Panama--although distributed among three branches of government--is concentrated in the executive branch. The 1978 and 1983 amendments to the Constitution decreased the powers of the executive and increased those of the legislature, but the executive branch of government remains the dominant power in the governmental system as defined by the Constitution.

The executive organ is headed by the president and two vice presidents. They, together with the twelve ministers of state, make up the Cabinet Council, which is given several important powers, including decreeing a state of emergency and suspending constitutional guarantees, nominating members of the Supreme Court, and overseeing national finances, including the national debt. These officials, together with the FDP commander, attorney general, solicitor general, president of the Legislative Assembly, directors general of various autonomous and semiautonomous state agencies, and president of the provincial councils, make up the General Council of State, which has purely advisory functions.

The president and the two vice presidents, who must be nativeborn Panamanians and at least thirty-five years of age, are elected to five-year terms by direct popular vote. Candidates may not be related directly to the incumbent president or have served as president or vice president during the two preceding terms. Should the president resign or be otherwise removed from office, as was the case with President Ardito Barletta in 1985, he is replaced by the first vice president, and there is no provision for filling the vacancy thus created in the vice presidential ranks.

Under the Constitution, the president has the exclusive right to appoint or remove ministers of state, maintain public order, appoint one of the three members of the Electoral Tribunal, conduct foreign relations, and veto laws passed by the Legislative Assembly. In theory a veto may be overridden by a two-thirds majority vote of the assembly. In addition, many powers are exercised by the president jointly with the appropriate individual cabinet member, including appointing the FDP high command, appointing and removing provincial governors, preparing the budget, negotiating contracts for public works, appointing officials to the various autonomous and semiautonomous state agencies, and granting pardons. The president's power to appoint and remove cabinet members would seem to make the requirement for operating with the consent of the cabinet largely a formality, but the FDP and its allies in the PRD frequently have dictated the composition of the cabinet, using this as a means to exercise control over the president.

The two vice presidencies are relatively powerless positions, but since three vice presidents have succeeded to the presidency during the 1980s, the posts are not insignificant. The first vice president acts as chief executive in the absence of the president, and both have votes in the Cabinet Council.

The ministers of state include the ministers of agriculture, commerce and industries, education, finance, foreign relations, government and justice, health, housing, labor and social welfare, planning and economic policy, presidency, and the public works. There is no ministry directly representing or having jurisdiction over the FDP. Nevertheless, the minister of government and justice has nominal authority over the FDP's police functions, along with control over prisons, civil aviation, and internal communications, making this one of the most powerful cabinet posts. This ministry also supervises local government in the Comarca de San Blas as well as in the nine provinces, thus exerting central government control over local affairs.

The Legislature

The 1983 amendments to Panama's Constitution created a new legislative organ, the Legislative Assembly, a unicameral body with sixty-seven members, each of whom has an alternate. Members and alternates are elected for five-year terms that run concurrently with those of the president and vice presidents. To be eligible for election, an individual must be at least twenty-one years of age and be a Panamanian citizen either by birth or by naturalization with fifteen years of residence in Panama subsequent to naturalization. The legislature holds two four-month sessions each year and may also be called into special session by the president.

In theory, the assembly has extensive powers. It can create, modify, or repeal laws, ratify treaties, declare war, decree amnesty for political offenses, establish the national currency, raise taxes, ratify government contracts, approve the national budget, and impeach members of the executive or judicial branches. There are, however, significant limitations on these powers, both in law and in practice. Members are nominated for election by parties, and the parties may revoke their status as legislators. This gives the official government party, the PRD, and its allies the power to ensure conformity with government policy and prevent defections from its ranks. Moreover, there are no provisions for legislative control over the military. The legislature also is severely limited in its ability to control the budget. Under Article 268 of the Constitution, the assembly is prohibited from adding to the budget submitted by the executive without the approval of the Cabinet Council. It may not repeal taxes included in the budget unless, at the same time, it creates new taxes to make up any revenue lost.

Differences in practice are also important. Since its creation, the assembly has never rejected an executive nomination for a government post, refused to ratify a treaty, or turned down an executive request for grants of extraordinary powers or for the establishment or prolongation of a state of emergency. The opposition, which held twenty-two seats in late 1987, has used the assembly as a forum to attack government policies and to criticize the role played in the administration by the FDP, but it has been unable to block or even seriously delay any government project. Assembly debates normally are broadcast live, but during the disturbances of June 1987, speeches by opposition members frequently were not carried on the radio.

The lack of institutional independence also has inhibited the development of local or special interest representation within the assembly. The tight control over the selection of candidates and their subsequent performance as legislators by their respective parties works against such representation, as does the dominance of the executive branch. This control is further strengthened by the fact that elections are held only every five years and occur in conjunction with presidential elections.

Should political conditions change in Panama and the dominant role of the military be significantly reduced, the Legislative Assembly has the potential to emerge as a significant participant in the national political process, but its powers would still be less extensive than those exercised by the executive branch. Under the circumstances existing in late 1987, it lacked both the power and the will to block, or even significantly modify, government projects and served largely as a public debating forum for government supporters and opponents.

The Judiciary

The Constitution establishes the Supreme Court as the highest judicial body in the land. Judges must be Panamanian by birth, be at least thirty-five years of age, hold a university degree in law, and have practiced or taught law for at least ten years. The number of members of the court is not fixed by the Constitution. In late 1987, there were nine justices, divided into three chambers, for civil, penal, and administrative cases, with three justices in each chamber. Judges (and their alternates) are nominated by the Cabinet Council and subject to confirmation by the Legislative Assembly. They serve for a term of ten years. Article 200 of the Constitution provides for the replacement of two judges every two years. The court also selects its own president every two years.

The Constitution defines the Supreme Court as the guardian of "the integrity of the Constitution." In consultation with the attorney general, it has the power to determine the constitutionality of all laws, decrees, agreements, and other governmental acts. The court also has jurisdiction over cases involving actions or failure to act by public officials at all levels. There are no appeals from decisions by the court.

Other legislation defines the system of lower courts. The nation is divided into three judicial districts: the first encompasses the provinces of Panam�, Col�n, and Dari�n; the second, Veraguas, Los Santos, Herrera, and Cocl�; the third, Bocas del Toro and Chiriqu�. Directly under the Supreme Court are four superior tribunals, two for the first judicial district and one each for the second and third districts. Within each province there are two circuit courts, one for civil and one for criminal cases. The lowest regular courts are the municipal courts located in each of the nation's sixty-five municipal subdivisions. In the tribunals, the judges are nominated by the Supreme Court, while lower judges are appointed by the courts immediately above them.

The Constitution also creates a Public Ministry, headed by the attorney general, who is assisted by the solicitor general, the district and municipal attorneys, and other officials designated by law. The attorney general and the solicitor general are appointed in the same way as Supreme Court justices, but serve for no fixed term. Lower-ranking officials are appointed by those immediately above them. The functions of the Public Ministry include supervising the conduct of public officials, serving as legal advisers to other government officials, prosecuting violations of the Constitution and other laws, and arraigning before the Supreme Court officials over whom the Court "has jurisdiction." This provision pointedly excludes members of the FDP.

Several constitutional provisions are designed to protect the independence of the judiciary. These include articles that declare that "magistrates and judges are independent in the exercise of their functions and are subject only to the Constitution and the law;" that "positions in the Judicial Organ are incompatible with any participation in politics other than voting;" that judges cannot be detained or arrested except with a "written order by the judicial authority competent to judge them;" that the Supreme Court and the attorney general control the preparation of the budget for the judicial organ; and that judges "cannot be removed, suspended, or transferred from the exercise of their functions except in cases and according to the procedures prescribed by law."

The major defect in the judicial system lies in the manner in which appointments are made to the judiciary. Appointments of judges and of the attorney general are subject to the approval of the Legislative Assembly, but that body has functioned as a rubber stamp for candidates selected by the executive. Lower-level appointments, made by superiors within the judicial organ, are not subject to assembly approval. In addition, the first two Supreme Court justices appointed after the 1984 elections were both former attorneys general, closely associated with the government and even involved in some of its most controversial actions, such as the investigation of the murder of opposition leader Spadafora. As a result, the opposition has denounced regularly the judicial system for being a political organ controlled by the FDP and the PRD. Numerous external observers, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS), the United States Department of State, and various human rights organizations, also have criticized the lack of independence of the Panamanian judiciary and of the Public Ministry.

State Agencies and the Regulation of Public Employees

In addition to the three branches of government, the state apparatus includes numerous independent or quasi-independent agencies and institutions that function in a variety of ways. The most important of these is the three-member Electoral Tribunal. The Constitution provides that the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government will each select one of the members of this body. The tribunal is charged with conducting elections, tabulating and certifying their results, regulating, applying, and interpreting electoral laws, and passing judgment on all allegations of violations of these laws. The tribunal also conducts the registration of voters and the certification of registered political parties and has jurisdiction over legal disputes involving internal party elections. Its decisions are final and may be appealed only in cases where the tribunal is charged with having violated constitutional provisions. Although the tribunal may pass judgment on charges of violations of electoral laws and procedures, the prosecution of those charged with such violations is in the hands of the electoral prosecutor, an individual independent of the tribunal who is appointed by the president for a single term of ten years.

While autonomous in theory, in practice the Electoral Tribunal has consistently followed the dictates of the government and the FDP. This was exemplified most clearly in the decision to certify the results of the 1984 elections, dismissing all charges of fraud and other irregularities. The position of the electoral prosecutor is even more subject to administrative control. The opposition parties consistently have attacked the lack of independence of the tribunal and the prosecutor and have refused to participate in tribunal-controlled projects aimed at reforming the electoral code in preparation for the 1989 elections. President Eric Arturo Delvalle Henr�quez urged broad participation in such efforts and promised to appoint a member of the opposition to the tribunal, but such actions did not satisfy the opposition. The tribunal, itself, has declared that it is not provided adequate funds for the tasks with which it is charged.

The Constitution also provides for an independent comptroller general who serves for a term equal to that of the president and who may be removed only by the Supreme Court. The comptroller is charged with overseeing government revenues and expenditures and investigating the operations of government bodies. Although independent in theory, in practice holders of this office have virtually never challenged government policy.

Quasi-independent governmental commissions and agencies include the National Bank of Panama; the Institute of Hydraulic Resources and Electrification, which is in charge of the nation's electrical utility; the Col�n Free Zone; and the University of Panama. Other state agencies and autonomous and semiautonomous agencies function in various capacities within the social and economic system of the nation.

Public employees, defined by the Constitution as "persons appointed temporarily or permanently to positions in the Executive, Legislative, or Judicial Organs, the municipalities, the autonomous and semiautonomous agencies; and in general those who collect remuneration from the State" are all to be Panamanian citizens and are governed by a merit system. The Constitution prohibits discrimination in public employment on the basis of race, sex, religion, or political affiliation. Tenure and promotion, according to Article 295, are to "depend on their competence, loyalty, and morality in service." Several career patterns relating to those in public service are outlined and standardized by law. The Constitution also identifies numerous individuals, including high political appointees, the directors and subdirectors of autonomous and semiautonomous agencies, secretarial personnel, and temporary employees, who are exempted from these regulations. In addition, the Constitution stipulates that a number of high government officials, including the president and vice president, Supreme Court justices and senior military officials, must make a sworn declaration of their assets on taking and leaving office. In practice, these provisions often are ignored or circumvented. Public employment is characterized by favoritism, nepotism, and a tendency to pad payrolls with political supporters who do little if any actual work.

Provincial and Municipal Government

The nine provincial governments are little more than administrative subdivisions of the central government. Article 249 of the Constitution states that "in each province there shall be a Governor freely appointed and removed by the Executive who shall be the agent and representative of the President within his jurisdiction." In addition, each province has a body known as the Provincial Council, composed of district (corregimiento) representatives. The governor, mayors, and additional individuals "as determined by the law" also take part in each council, but without voting rights. The powers of these councils are largely advisory, and they lack actual legislative responsibility. The Comarca de San Blas, inhabited largely by Cuna Indians, has a distinct form of local government headed by caciques, or tribal leaders.

In contrast, the nation's sixty-five municipal governments are "autonomous political organizations." Although closely tied to the national government, municipal officials, under Article 232 of the Constitution, may not be removed from office by the national administration. In each municipality, the mayor, the director of municipal administration, and their substitutes (suplentes) are directly elected for five-year terms. There is, however, an additional constitutional provision that the Legislative Assembly may pass laws requiring that officials in some or all municipalities are to be appointed by the president rather than elected. In 1984 municipal officials were elected in a separate election, held on short notice after the election of the president and the legislature. Opposition parties protested the timing and conditions of these elections, but participated. The great majority of offices, including those in the capital, were won by progovernment candidates, but opposition parties did gain control of a few municipalities, notably in David, capital of Chiriqu� Province.

Municipalities are divided further into districts, from each of which a representative is elected to the Municipal Council. Should a town have fewer than five districts, five council members are chosen in at-large elections. These districts, in turn, have their own form of local government, headed by a corregidor, and including a junta communal made up of the corregidor, the district's representative to the Municipal Council, and five other residents "selected in the form determined by law."

The major concern of municipal and district officials is the collection and expenditure of local revenues. These local politicians have some control over public works, business licenses, and other forms of local regulations and improvements, but many functions that fall within the jurisdiction of local governments in other nations, such as educational, judicial, and police administration, are left exclusively to the jurisdiction of the central government. Local administrations do contribute to the cost of schools, but the amount of their contribution is determined at the national level, based on their population and their state of economic and social development.




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 Paname�istas, 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 Dem�crato Cristiano--PDC), with one seat.




The death of General Torrijos in a July 1981 airplane crash represented a major break in the pattern of Panamanian politics. The next several years saw considerable turmoil both in the National Guard and among the political leadership, as various individuals jockeyed to fill the void created by Torrijos's untimely death. Command of the National Guard was initially assumed by Colonel Florencio Florez Aguilar, but in March 1982, a struggle for power among the officers resulted in his replacement by Colonel Rub�n Dar�o Paredes, who promptly promoted himself to general and, four months later, forced President Royo to resign. In December, further changes in the National Guard's command structure saw the emergence of Colonel Noriega as chief of staff and the likely successor to Paredes.

On April 24, 1983, nearly 88 percent of the voters in a national referendum approved further amendments to the Constitution designed to set the stage for the 1984 presidential and legislative elections. Much of the rest of the year was devoted to maneuverings by Paredes and other potential presidential candidates, seeking to gain support for their ambitions and to form coalitions with other political groups and parties, in order to further enhance their prospects. By September, 13 parties had gained the 30,000 signatures necessary for official registration. These included the Paname�istas, as Arnulfo Arias reversed his longstanding boycott of the political process. Nominated by the PRD and several other parties, Paredes resigned from his post as the Guard's commander to pursue his presidential ambitions. Nevertheless, after Noriega was promoted to general and took over command of the National Guard, he quickly moved to undercut Paredes, leading to a sudden announcement of Paredes's withdrawal as a presidential candidate in September.

Paredes's withdrawal led to considerable confusion in the political process. Ultimately, two major coalitions emerged and presented candidates for president. (Although the parties united behind their presidential candidates, they nevertheless ran separate slates for seats in the legislature.)

The National Democratic Union (Uni�n Nacional Democr�tica-- UNADE) was formed by six parties: the PRD; the Labor and Agrarian Party (Partido Laborista Agrario--PALA), frequently referred to simply as the Labor Party; the PLN; the Republican Party; the Paname�ista Party (Partido Paname�ista--PP), a small faction that broke away from the majority of Paname�istas, who continued to follow Arnulfo Arias; and the Broad Popular Front (Frente Amplio Popular--FRAMPO). UNADE's presidential candidate was Nicol�s Ardito Barletta, an international banker with little political experience. Republican Party leader Eric Arturo Delvalle and PLN veteran Roderick Esquivel received the vice presidential nominations. UNADE's principal competition was the Democratic Opposition Alliance (Alianza Democr�tica de Oposici�n--ADO), which encompassed three major parties: the majority of Paname�istas organized in the Authentic Paname�ista Party (Partido Paname�ista Aut�ntico--PPA), the PDC, and the National Liberal Republican Movement (Movimiento Liberal Republicano Nacional--MOLIRENA). A number of smaller parties also joined the coalition. ADO's presidential candidate was eighty-three-year-old Arnulfo Arias. Carlos Francisco Rodriguez and Christian Democratic leader Ricardo Arias Calder�n were its vice presidential candidates.

Five minor candidates also entered the race. They included General Paredes, who reentered the field as the candidate of the Popular Nationalist Party (Partido Nacionalista Popular--PNP); Carlos Iv�n Z��iga of the Popular Action Party (Partido de Acci�n Popular--PAPO); and the candidates of three small, far-left parties.

The campaign and election were marred by violence and repeated charges by Arnulfo Arias and other opposition candidates that the Guard was using force, fraud, and intimidation to promote Ardito Barletta's candidacy. Official counting of the vote was delayed for several days and the Electoral Tribunal appeared divided, but ultimately the government certified Ardito Barletta as president, declaring that he had won with 300,748 votes to 299,035 for Arias. None of the minor candidates won more than 16,000 votes. All parties outside the major alliances plus the smallest members of the UNADE coalition (FRAMPO and the PP) lost their legal status by failing to receive 3 percent of the total vote. Supporters of Arnulfo Arias charged that Ardito Barletta's victory was the result of massive government fraud and organized several protest demonstrations, but to no avail. Charges of fraud also were launched against the winners of several legislative seats. In these races, official returns gave a large majority to members of the government coalition; the PRD won thirty-four seats, the PPA fourteen, PALA seven, the PDC five, the Republican Party and MOLIRENA three each, and the PLN one.

Disturbances continued for weeks after the announcement of Ardito Barletta's victory, contributing to a decision to postpone scheduled municipal elections. The disturbances also aggravated an already deteriorating economic situation, fueled by a massive debt and a rising budget deficit. In November 1984, shortly after his inauguration, Ardito Barletta attempted to implement an austerity program and to reduce the budget deficit through increased taxes. These measures led to a wave of strikes and public demonstrations, and the president was forced to back off on some of his proposals.

Conditions continued to deteriorate in 1985. Elements of the government coalition joined in protests against Ardito Barletta's economic policies, and pressures from the Guard and the PRD forced the president to agree to changes in several key cabinet posts. Both business and labor confederations withdrew from government- sponsored meetings to discuss the situation, and labor disturbances increased. In August, Noriega publicly criticized the government.

Rumors of a coup were spreading when, on September 14, 1985, the headless body of a prominent critic of Noriega, Dr. Hugo Spadafora, was found in Costa Rica. This discovery unleashed another round of protest demonstrations. Noriega and the National Guard denied any involvement in the murder, but they refused to allow an independent investigation. When Ardito Barletta seemed to indicate some willingness to do so, he was hurriedly recalled from a visit to the United Nations (UN) and, on September 28, forced to resign. Vice President Delvalle became the fifth president in less than four years.

The ousting of Ardito Barletta failed to calm the situation. Protests over Spadafora's murder and over the economic situation continued. In October the government was forced to close all schools for several days. Rising tensions also began to affect relations with the United States, which had opposed the ousting of Ardito Barletta, and even created problems within the major pro- government party, the PRD, which underwent a shake-up in its leadership.

The new administration initially attempted to reverse the rising tide of discontent by returning to the populist policies of the Torrijos era. Prices of milk, rice, and petroleum were lowered, and President Delvalle announced that any agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) would be based on negotiations with labor and with the private sector. Economic realities, however, soon forced the government to impose an austerity program remarkably similar to that advocated by Ardito Barletta and to introduce, over strong objections from the unions, sweeping reforms in the labor code, designed to make Panama more attractive for foreign and domestic investment. A national strike protesting the new policies failed when Noriega and the FDP supported Delvalle. The new policies produced some economic improvement but did nothing to resolve mounting political problems.

Panama's domestic problems were paralleled by growing criticism abroad, notably in the United States. In March 1986, the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations began holding hearings on the situation in Panama, and the following month hearings also began in the House of Representatives. In June a series of articles by Seymour Hersh alleging involvement by Panamanian officials in narcotics trafficking, the murder of Spadafora, and the passing of sensitive intelligence to Cuba were published in the New York Times. Both within and outside Panama, the increased criticism focused attention on the military and on General Noriega. Delvalle's civilian government found it increasingly difficult to contend with the perception that it was little more than a pliant tool of the military. These perceptions were further strengthened in October 1986, when the president, despite open protests, was forced to dismiss four cabinet ministers and appoint their replacements from a list prepared by the PRD.

Tensions also increased between the government and opposition media within Panama in 1986. Roberto Eisenman, Jr., editor of La Prensa, took refuge in the United States, alleging that there was a government plot to kill him. Radio Mundial, owned by opposition political leader Carlos Iv�n Z��iga, was ordered closed. But despite increased protests and international pressures, the government's hold on power seemed unshaken.

The situation changed abruptly in June 1987. A long-time power struggle within the FDP between Noriega and his chief of staff, Colonel Roberto D�az Herrera, led to the forced retirement of D�az Herrera on June 1. Six days later, the colonel responded by a series of public denunciations, accusing Noriega of involvement in the deaths of Torrijos and Spadafora and of using massive fraud to ensure the victory of Ardito Barletta in the 1984 elections. The result was widespread rioting. The opposition demanded that both Noriega and Delvalle resign, and numerous civic and business groups formed the National Civic Crusade (Crusada Civilista Nacional--CCN) to press for changes in the government. As demonstrations spread, the government declared a state of emergency, suspending constitutional rights and instituting censorship. The CCN responded by calling a national strike that paralyzed the economy for several days. Violent actions by government forces and antigovernment demonstrators further polarized public opinion. The leadership of Panama's Roman Catholic Church joined in criticism of the government but urged a peaceful solution to the national crisis. Such calls were ignored by the government, which, instead, threatened to arrest those involved in the protests and seize the property of businesses that joined in the strike, closed the schools, and unleashed a virulent propaganda campaign accusing its opponents of being linked with United States interests that wanted to abort the Panama Canal treaties.

The general strike collapsed after a few days, but protests did not end. Periodic protests, strikes, and demonstrations continued throughout the summer and fall of 1987. Relations with the United States deteriorated rapidly as the government charged the United States embassy with supporting the opposition and bitterly protested a United States Senate resolution calling for an investigation of the charges made by D�az Herrera. An attack on the embassy by a mob and the arrest of United States diplomatic and military personnel by the FDP led to a suspension of military assistance by the United States. At the end of 1987, relations were more strained than at any time since the 1964 riots.

The continued civil strife also badly damaged Panama's economy. The future of the banking sector seemed especially imperiled if the deadlock between the government and its opponents should be prolonged.

In late 1987, it seemed clear that the CCN and the opposition political parties could not, by themselves, force a change in either the military or civilian leadership. Indeed, their efforts may have solidified military support behind Noriega and Delvalle. But it was equally clear that the incumbent leadership could neither restore business confidence nor stop the steady flight of capital from the country. Efforts to portray the conflict as a class struggle, or as part of a United States plot to retain control of the canal only exacerbated the situation. Restoring order, rebuilding the economy, and creating faith in the political system were formidable tasks that became more difficult with each passing month. Panama, in late 1987, was a society in crisis, with a political system that could not function effectively, but the government appeared determined to resist any effort to produce fundamental changes.




During the first decades of independence, Panamanian politics were largely dominated by traditional, upper class families in Panama City. By the 1940s, however, the populist nationalism of Arnulfo Arias and the growing strength of the National Police (later the National Guard and then the FDP) had begun a steady process of reducing the oligarchy's ability to control events. Following World War II, students and, to a lesser extent, labor groups became more active in national politics. The 1968 military coup, which brought Torrijos to power, represented both the ascendancy of the military as the preeminent political force in Panama and a further diminution in the influence of traditional political parties and elite families. At the same time, the growth of the Panamanian economy gave business and professional organizations greater importance and potential influence.

From the 1964 riots until the 1978 ratification of the Panama Canal Treaties, the issue of United States control over the Panama Canal dominated the national political scene. When treaty ratification largely removed that issue, the focus shifted back to internal political conditions, and pressures, both domestic and international, for a return to civilian rule mounted steadily. Internal political dynamics had changed fundamentally, however, during the Torrijos era. His death in 1981 unleashed a struggle for power within the military, between the military and civilians, and among civilians, which has continued and intensified in subsequent years.

<> Political Parties
<> The Panama Defense Forces
<> Business, Professional, and Labor Organizations
<> Students
<> The Roman Catholic Church


Panama - Political Parties


Panama inherited the traditional political parties of Colombia- -the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party--which vied against one another from 1903 until the 1920s. This proved to be an unnatural party alignment: the Conservatives had never identified strongly with the independence movement and were not able to develop a mass following. The dominant political focus was rather on divisions within the Liberal Party. In time, the Liberals split into factions clustered around specific personal leaders who represented competing elite interests. The emergence of Arnulfo Arias and the Paname�istas provided a major challenge to the factionalized Liberals. The creation of a military-linked party in the 1950s, the National Patriotic Coalition (Coalici�n Patri�tico Nacional--CPN), further reduced the Liberals' strength. Liberals (the PLN) did win the 1960 and 1964 presidential elections, but lost in 1968 to Arnulfo Arias, who was ousted promptly by the military. In the aftermath of that coup, the military declared political parties illegal. Despite this edict, the PLN and the PPA survived the period of direct military rule and other parties, such as the PDC, actually gained strength during this period.

The first party to register after political parties were legalized in late 1978 was the PRD. Designed to unify the political groups and forces that had supported Torrijos, the PRD, from its inception, was linked closely with and supported by the military. Proclaiming itself the official supporter and upholder of Torrijismo, the vaguely populist political ideology of Torrijos, the PRD included a broad spectrum of ideologies ranging from extreme left to right of center. The prevailing orientation was left of center. Like the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional--PRI) in Mexico, the PRD has managed to co-opt much of the Panamanian left, thereby limiting and undermining the strength of avowedly Marxist political parties. Unlike the PRI, however, the PRD has never been able to separate itself from the military or to gain majority popular support. At times, the PRD also has claimed a social-democratic orientation, and in 1986 it acquired the status of a "consulting member" in the Socialist International.

According to its declaration of principles, in the late 1980s the PRD was a multi-class, revolutionary, nationalistic, and independent party. Its structure included organizations for workers, peasants, women, youth, government employees, and professionals. It consistently had sought, with some success, to cultivate close ties with organized labor. The PRD had 205,000 registered members in 1986. It won approximately 40 percent of the votes in the 1980 elections, but gained only 27.4 percent of the vote in 1984, losing its place as the nation's largest party to the PPA. The PRD did, however, win thirty-four of the sixty-seven seats in the legislature.

Because of its inability to muster majority support, the PRD has sought electoral alliances with other parties. At first it was allied with FRAMPO and the PdP, the orthodox, pro-Moscow communist party that had earlier supported Torrijos. The PRD later cut its ties with the PdP and, together with FRAMPO, joined the PLN, PALA, PP, and Republican Party to form the UNADE coalition, which supported the 1984 presidential candidacy of Ardito Barletta. FRAMPO won only 0.8 percent of the vote in 1984 and lost its legal status, as did the PP, but the coalition of the other 4 parties-- PRD, PLN, PALA, and Republican Party--remained officially in place in the late 1980s.

In the late 1980s, the PLN was only a shadow of its former self. It had split repeatedly, including a rift in late 1987 when Vice President Esquivel began criticizing the policies of President Delvalle and was, in turn, ousted from control of the party by a faction headed by Rodolfo Chiari. Affiliated with the Liberal International, the party won 4.4 percent of the vote in 1984 and gained 1 seat in the legislature. Its ideology was generally right of center.

The PALA was the second largest party in UNADE. PALA won 7.1 percent of the vote and 7 seats in the legislature in 1984. The party's secretary general, Ram�n Sieiro, is Noriega's brother-in- law. Despite its title, the party generally has adopted a right-of- center, pro-business position. The party experienced considerable turmoil in 1987, with founder Carlos Eleta being ousted as party president. In addition, one of its seven legislators, Mayin Correa, denounced the government's actions during the June disturbances, leading, in turn, to efforts to expel her from PALA.

The Republican Party was a right-of-center party dominated by the aristocratic Delvalle and Bazan families. In return for joining UNADE, Delvalle was given one of the vice presidential nominations and became president following the forced resignation of Ardito Barletta. The party won 5.3 percent of the popular vote and gained 3 seats in the legislature in the 1984 elections.

The principal opposition party was the PPA, which won 34.5 percent of the votes in the 1984 elections, the largest percentage gained by any party. Since its founding in the 1940s, the Paname�ista Party had served as the vehicle for the ambitions and populist ideas of Arnulfo Arias. After a party split in 1981, the great majority of Paname�istas stayed with Arias and designated themselves as Arnulfistas, and their party became known as the PPA. The smaller faction adopted Partido Paname�ista (PP) as its name. Strongly nationalist, the PPA was anticommunist and antimilitary, and advocated a populist nationalism that would restrict the rights of West Indian blacks and other immigrant groups.

Arias turned eighty-six in 1987 and could no longer exercise the leadership or muster the popular support he enjoyed in the past. He remained politically active, however, and his party was officially committed to installing him as president. With fourteen seats, it controlled the largest opposition bloc in the legislature, but its future, given the age and growing infirmity of its leader, was highly uncertain.

In 1984 the PPA had joined with several other parties in the ADO, which supported the presidential candidacy of Arnulfo Arias. The most important of these parties was the Christian democratic PDC, which won 7.3 percent of the 1984 vote but secured only 5 seats in the legislature. Its leader, Ricardo Arias Calder�n, was a vice presidential candidate on the Arnulfo Arias ticket and emerged in 1987 as the most visible spokesman of the political opposition. The party was an active member of both the Latin American and world organizations of Christian democratic parties. The party was anticommunist and was generally located in the center of the political spectrum, advocating social reforms and civilian control over the military.

MOLIRENA also joined ADO and won 4.8 percent of the vote and 3 seats in the legislature in 1984. It was a pro-business coalition of several center-to-right political movements including dissident factions of the PLN. Its supporters worked closely with the PDC.

In addition to the 7 principal parties that won more than 3 percent of the 1984 vote, thereby gaining representation in the legislature and maintaining their legal status as registered parties, there were numerous other, smaller political parties and organizations that lacked this legal status. They included the Authentic Liberal Party, a dissident Liberal faction that supported ADO in 1984, and the PP, a small group that broke with Arnulfo Arias and supported UNADE in 1984. There were also several groups on the far left, including the Moscow-oriented PdP, the Socialist Workers Party, and the Revolutionary Workers Party. All were Marxist, all ran presidential candidates in 1984, and each won less than 1 percent of the vote.

The PAPO was an independent group with a social democratic orientation. It had ties to the leading opposition newspaper, La Prensa, and was a constant critic of the government and of the FDP. It ran Carlos Iv�n Z��iga for president in 1984 but gained only 2.2 percent of the vote, thus forfeiting its legal status.


Panama - The Panama Defense Forces


Although Panama's Constitution expressly prohibits military intervention in party politics, there was general agreement in the late 1980s that the FDP and its commander, General Noriega, controlled the internal political process. The PRD and, to a lesser extent, PALA, were seen as vehicles for military influence in politics. Presidents served at the pleasure of the military, and elections were widely viewed as subject to direct manipulation by the FDP. The officer corps had virtually total internal autonomy, including control over promotions and assignments and immunity from civil court proceedings. The military was supposed to have begun a turnover of power to civilians in 1978, but, in 1986 Professor Steve Ropp noted that "the system of government, established by General Torrijos, which allows the Defense Forces high command to rule through the instrument of the Democratic Revolutionary Party, remains largely intact."

If anything, the influence and power of the FDP increased after 1978. The force expanded from a total of 8,700 in 1978 to nearly 15,000 by the end of 1987. The military retained direct control of all police forces and expanded its influence in such areas as immigration, railroads, ports, and civil aviation. Three presidents were forced to resign, and the military itself changed commanders several times without consulting the president or the legislature.

The small size and pyramidical rank structure of the FDP's officer corps has helped maintain unity and concentrated effective power in the hands of the commander. This situation facilitated communications and consultations among senior officers, inhibited dissent, and made any effort to defy the wishes of the commander both difficult and dangerous. The total failure of the efforts of former Colonel D�az Herrera to gain support from within the officer corps, following his forced retirement in June 1987, illustrated both the cohesion of this body and the ability of its commander to dominate subordinate officers. Internal discipline within the officer corps was very strong, pressures to support existing policies were constant, and any deviation from these norms was likely to be fatal to an officer's hopes for future advancement.

The gap between the FDP and the civilian population was great and probably widening in the late 1980s. Part of this distance was the result of a deliberate policy by the high command, which actively promoted institutional identity defined in terms of resisting any external efforts to reduce the military's power or privileges or to gain any degree of control over its internal affairs. In this context, any criticisms of the FDP's commander, of the FDP's role in politics or the economy, and any charges of corruption have been viewed as attacks on the institution, and mass meetings of junior officers have been held to express total support for the high command.

Although there was no ideological unity within the officer corps, there was a consensus in favor of nationalism (often defined as suspicion of, if not opposition to, United States influence), developmentalism, and a distrust of traditional civilian political elites. There was also an overwhelming consensus against allowing Arnulfo Arias to return to power. The FDP was very proud of its extensive civic-action program, which it has used to gain political support in rural areas. It also saw itself as the promoter and guarantor of the populist political heritage of Torrijos.


Panama - Business, Professional, and Labor Organizations


Traditionally, sectoral interest groups have played a minor role in Panamanian politics. Commercial and industrial interests were expressed largely within the extended family systems that constituted the oligarchy. A heavy reliance on government jobs inhibited the development of professional organizations that could reflect middle-class interests. The slow rate of industrial development, the major role of the United States as an employer of Panamanians in the Canal Zone, and fragmentation and infighting within the labor movement all contributed to keeping that sector chronically weak. Nevertheless, the absence of political parties during most of the 1970s, accompanied by economic expansion, led to a growing importance for sectoral groups as vehicles for the expression of political interests. Frustrations over the failures of the political process and the evident inability of political parties to control the military gave this trend further impetus during the 1980s. As a result, sectoral groups emerged during the 1987 upheavals as major political actors, mounting a significant challenge to military domination of the political process.

In the late 1980s, Panamanian businesses and professions were organized into numerous specialized groups, such as the Bar Association, the National Union of Small and Medium Enterprises, the Panamanian Banking Association, and the National Agricultural and Livestock Producers. Two of the most important organizations were the Chamber of Commerce, Industries, and Agriculture of Panama and the Panamanian Business Executives Association. These and numerous other organizations were included in the National Free Enterprise Council (Consejo Nacional de la Empresa Privada--CONEP). The various groups within CONEP have often disagreed on issues, making it difficult to present a position of common interest. On two issues, however, protection from government encroachments on the private sector and the maintenance of their position vis-�-vis labor, members of CONEP consistently have found a unified position. Moreover, sentiment has grown increasingly within CONEP and many of its affiliated organizations that the problems facing the private sector extend beyond specific issues to growing problems within the political system as a whole. Resentment over continued military domination of the political system, a perception of increased corruption and inefficiency within the government, and a feeling that political conditions were increasingly unfavorable for business all combined to make many business leaders willing to join, and even lead, open opposition to the government when the June 1987 crisis erupted.

During the June 1987 crisis, business groups played a key role in the organization and direction of the CCN, which spearheaded protests against the regime. Many of the major bodies within CONEP, such as the Chamber of Commerce and Panamanian Business Executives Association, became formal members of the CCN. A total of more than 130 business, professional, civic, and labor groups joined the crusade, which undertook the task of organizing, directing, and coordinating the campaign to force Noriega out of power and to reduce the role of the military in government. The crusade deliberately excluded political parties from its membership and active politicians from its leadership. The presidents of CONEP and of the Chamber of Commerce took major leadership roles within the crusade, which emphasized peaceful demonstrations, economic pressures, and boycotts of government enterprises as means of forcing change on the government. The FDP responded with a campaign of measured violence and intimidation against the crusade's leaders and supporters. By the fall of 1987, most of the original leadership had been driven into exile and the effort appeared to have lost much of its impetus. The economic pressures continued, however; exiled leaders undertook a major international propaganda campaign against the government, and business groups within Panama kept up economic pressures, which began to have a serious impact on the economy and on government revenues. In December 1987, Delvalle offered an amnesty to most of the exiled crusade leaders, but this action neither appeased the opposition among the business and professional classes nor in any way responded to the causes that had created the crusade.

Although at the end of 1987 the crusade had not been able to force basic change on the government and the military, neither had the government and the FDP been able to end the campaign of civic opposition. How long the CCN would endure and what ultimate success it might enjoy remained unanswered questions, but the role and power of business and professional organizations within the Panamanian political structure had undergone fundamental change.

The Panamanian labor movement traditionally had been fragmented and politically weak. The political weakness of labor was exacerbated further by the fact that Panamanians working in the Canal Zone belonged to United States rather than Panamanian labor unions. The 1977 Panama Canal treaties made provisions for the collective bargaining and job security of these workers, and it was likely that Panamanian unions would replace United States unions when Panama assumed full control over the canal, but in the late 1980s, most canal workers remained with the original unions.

Labor organizations grew significantly in size and importance under Torrijos, who actively supported this trend. Major labor federations included the relatively moderate Confederation of Workers of the Republic of Panama, which had approximately 35,000 members, and the somewhat smaller, leftist, antibusiness National Workers' Central, which had ties with the Moscow-oriented PdP. There was also the Isthmian Workers' Central, a small confederation linked to the PDC. In 1972 these three bodies created the National Council of Organized Workers (Consejo Nacional de Trabajadores Organisados--CONATO) to give them a more unified voice and greater influence on issues of interest to organized labor. Other unions, including the important National Union of Construction and Related Workers, have since joined CONATO, increasing its affiliates to 12 with a claimed combined membership of 150,000. The diverse labor alliance in CONATO was an uneasy one, but the council succeeded in generating greater unity and militancy than had its component unions individually. A 1985 general strike called by CONATO forced the government to suspend plans to amend the labor code. Ultimately, however, the code was amended, reducing workers' job security. A March 1986 strike protesting these changes failed. CONATO reacted by urging its members to resign from parties that supported the government.

Despite the 1985-86 problems, labor generally was more supportive of the government than of the political opposition. This situation, however, was strained by the disturbances that began in June 1987. A few smaller labor groups joined the civic crusade, but CONATO did not. The government's problems, however, were compounded by a series of strikes by the public employees' union, the National Federation of Associations and Organizations of Public Employees (Federaci�n Nacional de Asociaciones y Sindicatos de Empleados P�blicos--FENASEP). The leadership of FENASEP even went so far as to threaten to respond to any government effort to dismiss government workers by publishing lists of all those on the government payroll "who do not go to work." CONATO was also critical of many government actions, demanding that closed newspapers and radio stations be reopened and that the government open a dialogue to end the continuing crisis. Whereas labor's influence in Panamanian politics remained limited, it was increasing steadily and was something that neither the government nor its political opposition could control or take for granted.


Panama - Students


University and secondary school students have long played a leading role in Panama's political life, often acting as advocates of the interests of the lower and middle classes against the oligarchy and the military. Students also played a leading role in demonstrations against United States control over the Canal Zone. Using a combination of force and rewards, the Torrijos government largely co-opted the students at the University of Panama, gaining considerable influence over the Federation of Panamanian Students (Federaci�n de Estudiantes Paname�os--FEP), the largest of several student federations. But relations between the government and student groups began to deteriorate in 1976, and a variety of competing student federations developed, notably the Federation of Revolutionary Students (Federaci�n de Estudiantes Revolucionarios-- FER), a group on the far left. Student groups were leaders in the opposition to ratification of the Panama Canal treaties, objecting largely to the continued presence of United States military bases in Panama.

Students and some teachers' groups played a major role in the 1987 protests. At least one university student was killed by the FDP, and the government closed the University of Panama twice and closed all secondary schools during the June protests. Periodic student protests took place throughout the year, frequently producing violent confrontations with the security forces. Although most student organizations were not part of the CCN, their growing opposition to the political role of the FDP and the policies of the government made the task of restoring order and stability even more difficult.


Panama - The Roman Catholic Church


Although Panama was nearly 90 percent Roman Catholic in the late 1980s, the church had a long tradition of noninvolvement in national politics. Weak organization and a heavy dependence on foreign clergy (only 40 percent of the nation's priests were native-born Panamanians) inhibited the development of strong hierarchical positions on political issues. As a result, Panamanian politics largely avoided the anticlericalism that was so prevalent in much of Latin America. Church concern over social issues increased notably in the 1960s and 1970s, and there were conflicts between the hierarchy and the Torrijos government, especially following the disappearance in 1971 of a prominent reform priest, Father H�ctor Gallegos.

In the late 1980s, the church hierarchy was headed by Archbishop Marcos Gregorio McGrath, a naturalized Panamanian citizen and a leader among the Latin American bishops. McGrath and the other bishops strongly supported Panama's claims to sovereignty over the Canal Zone and urged ratification of the Panama Canal treaties. Nevertheless, the church leadership also criticized the lack of democracy in Panama and urged a return to elected civilian rule. In 1985, as political tensions began to mount, the archbishop called for an investigation into the murder of Dr. Hugo Spadafora and urged both the government and the opposition to enter into a national dialogue. When the 1987 disturbances began, the church stepped up its criticism of the government, accusing the military of having "beaten civilians without provocation" and of using "tactics to humiliate arrested individuals." Priests were frequently present at CCN rallies and demonstrations, and masses downtown became a focal point for some CCN activities. Priests also stayed with D�az Herrera in his house after he issued his June 1987 charges against Noriega and the government, and when the house was stormed by the FDP and D�az Herrera arrested, the bishops demanded his release and denounced government restrictions on the press. But the church stopped short of endorsing the CCN or calling for specific changes in the government and the FDP. Instead, it stressed the need for dialogue and reconciliation. The archbishop's insistence on pursuing a moderate, neutral course in the conflict did not satisfy all of the church leadership. In November, two assistant bishops and a large number of clergy issued their own letter, denouncing government actions and urging changes in the conduct of the military. In late 1987, the church was becoming more active but was finding it difficult to agree on the manner and nature of that activity.


Panama - The Media


The press, radio, and, more recently, the television of Panama have a history of strong political partisanship and rather low standards of journalistic responsibility. The government has subsidized some news outlets and periodically censored others. During most of the Torrijos era, the press and radio were tightly controlled but, following the ratification of the Panama Canal treaties, a significant degree of press freedom was restored. It was at this time that the most significant opposition paper, La Prensa, was founded.

Throughout the 1980s, conflicts between the government and the opposition media, notably La Prensa, escalated. The government and the FDP blamed La Prensa and its publisher, Roberto Eisenmann Jr., for much of the negative publicity they received in the United States. The paper was attacked, its writers were harassed and, in 1986, Eisenmann fled to the United States, charging that his life had been threatened.

Events in 1987 increased the level of conflict between the government and the media. Strict censorship was instituted over all newspapers and radio and television news broadcasts. In response, three opposition papers suspended publication. Publication was resumed in late June, but in July the government closed La Prensa and the two other papers, as well as two radio stations. The English-language Panama Star and Herald, the nation's oldest newspaper, was forced out of business. The government pressured remaining stations and newspapers to engage in selfcensorship and attempted to crack down on foreign press coverage, expelling several correspondents. In October, President Delvalle sent to the legislature a proposed press law that would have made the publishing of "false, distorted, or inexact news" a crime for which individual journalists would be held responsible. Even the pro-government media attacked this proposal, which the legislature rejected. Although there were indications that the opposition media would be allowed to re-open in 1988, it seemed unlikely that government efforts to control news coverage would cease.




Panama's strategic location, the traditional domination of both the economy and the political agenda by the canal, and the strong influence exerted by the United States throughout most of Panama's independent history have combined to magnify the importance of foreign policy in the nation's political life. From the signing of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty in 1903 until the ratification of the Panama Canal treaties in 1978, Panama's overriding concern, both domestically and internationally, was to gain sovereignty over the Canal Zone and the control over the canal, itself. Determined to obtain sovereignty over its entire national territory, but aware of the limitations posed by its weakness in comparison with the United States, Panama sought the support of other nations, particularly in multilateral forums, in its efforts to renegotiate the canal treaties. In pursuing this end, Panama gained an international visibility much greater than that of most nations of similar size.

Traditionally, all other foreign policy matters were subordinated to Panama's concern with the canal issue. Secondary emphasis was given to commercial interests in dealings with other nations. Vehicles of international trade, such as the Col�n Free Zone, international banking, and shipping were central factors in Panama's foreign economic relations. In the 1980s, the issue of the mounting foreign debt also had become the focus of increasing attention and concern.

The experience and visibility gained in the long effort to obtain international support for Panama's stance in the canal negotiations were carried over into the years following the signing of the new treaties, as exemplified by Panama's role in the 1978-79 Nicaraguan civil conflict, and its participation in the Contadora peace process. Panama also has tried, with limited success, to appeal to the same Latin American and Third World sentiments that won it support for its efforts to renegotiate the Panama Canal treaties to gain support in subsequent disputes with the United States. Although foreign policy concerns were not as dominant in the 1980s as in previous decades, they occupied a high priority for Panama's government and still centered on relations with the United States. This pattern was likely to persist until at least the year 2000.

<> Relations with the United States
<> Relations with Central America


Panama - Relations with the United States


The Panama Canal

United States and Panamanian relations on issues connected to the control, operation, and future of the canal were conducted within the framework of the 1977 Panama Canal treaties. The negotiation of these treaties took several years and aroused domestic political controversies within both nations. Negotiations were finally concluded in August 1977 and, the following month, the treaties were signed in Washington.

The treaties were ratified in Panama by slightly more than twothirds of the voters in a national plebiscite. Ratification by the United States Senate was much more difficult and controversial and was not completed until April 1978. During the ratification process, the Senate added several amendments and conditions, notably the DeConcini Condition, which declared that if the canal were closed or its operations impaired, both the United States and Panama would "have the right to take such steps as each deems necessary . . . including the use of military force in the Republic of Panama, to reopen the canal or restore the operations of the canal." Despite an additional amendment, which specifically rejected any United States "right of intervention in the internal affairs of the Republic of Panama or interference with its political independence or sovereign integrity," the Senate's changes were met with strong protests from Panama, which never ratified the new amendments. Formal ratifications, however, were exchanged in June, and the treaties came into force on October 1, 1979.

To implement the provisions of the treaties establishing the new Panama Canal Commission, to regulate the conditions for canal employees, and to provide for the handling and disbursement of canal revenues, the United States Congress enacted Public Law (PL) 96-70, the Panama Canal Act of 1979. Several provisions of this act immediately became a focus for ongoing controversy between the two nations. Panamanians objected to provisions for the use of canal revenues to pay for early retirements for United States employees, to finance travel for education by the dependents of United States employees, and to provide subsidies to make up for any loss of earning power when, as required under the treaties, United States employees lost access to United States military commissaries. By 1986 Panamanian authorities were claiming that such provisions had cost their nation up to US$50 million. The claim was largely based on the fact that Panama had not been receiving the up to US$10 million annual contingency payment from Panama Canal Commission profits provided for by the treaties. The commission explained that this was because the surplus simply did not exist, a fact that Panama, in turn, attributed to provisions of PL 96-70.

The level of Panamanian complaints about PL 96-70 and the intensity of government charges of noncompliance by the United States in other areas were often influenced by the overall state of relations between the two nations. As tensions increased during 1986 and 1987, Panamanian complaints became more frequent and passionate. United States executive and congressional pressures and the suspension of aid that followed the June 1987 disturbances were portrayed by the government and its supporters as part of a United States plot to block implementation of the 1977 treaties and/or to maintain the United States military bases in Panama beyond the year 2000. In the months that followed, the government stepped up this campaign, attempting to link the opposition with elements in the United States Congress who allegedly were trying to overturn the treaties. Such charges, however, seemed more an effort to influence domestic opinion than a reflection of actual concerns over the future of the treaties.

Article XII of the Panama Canal Treaty provides for a joint study of "the feasibility of a sea-level canal in the Republic of Panama." In 1981 Panama formally suggested beginning such a study. After some discussion, a Preparative Committee on the Panama Canal Alternatives Study was established in 1982, and Japan was invited to join the United States and Panama on this committee. The committee's final report called for the creation of a formal Commission for the Study of Alternatives to the Panama Canal, which was set up in 1986. Although there was a general perception that the costs of such a canal would outweigh benefits, the commission was still studying the problem in late 1987, and further action in this area would await the conclusion of its labors.

One continuing bone of contention related to the treaties was the presence and function of United States military bases in Panama. United States military forces in Panama numbered slightly under 10,000. The United States military also employed 8,100 civilians, 70 percent of whom were Panamanian nationals. In addition to the units directly involved in the defense of the canal, the United States military presence included the headquarters of the United States Southern Command, responsible for all United States military activities in Central and South America, the Jungle Operations Training Center, the Inter-American Air Forces Academy, which provided training for Latin American air forces, and the Special Operations CommandSouth . Until 1984 Panama also was home to the United States Army School of the Americas, which trained Latin American army officers and enlisted personnel, but the facility housing that institution reverted to Panama in 1984 and, when negotiations with Panama over the future of the school broke down, the United States Army transferred the operation to Fort Benning, Georgia.

Issues involving the United States military presence included the possible retention of some bases beyond the year 2000, the use of the bases for activities not directly related to the defense of the canal, most notably allegations of their use in support of operations directed against Nicaragua's government and, since June 1987, charges by the United States of harassment and mistreatment of United States military personnel by Panamanian authorities. There were also problems relating to joint manuevers between United States and Panamanian forces, exercises designed to prepare Panama to assume responsibility for the defense of the canal. These manuevers were suspended in 1987, in part because of a United States congressional prohibition on the use of government funds for "military exercises in Panama" during 1988.

Despite such problems, the implementation of the 1977 treaties has continued on schedule and the United States has stated repeatedly its determination to adhere to the provisions and transfer full control of the canal to Panama in the year 2000. An October 1987 effort to amend the fiscal year (FY) 1988 foreign relations authorization act to include a sense of the Senate resolution that the United States should not have ratified the treaties and that they should be voided if Panama refused to accept the DeConcini Condition within six months was defeated by a vote of fifty-nine to thirty-nine. Barring a much higher level of turmoil in Panama that would directly threaten canal operations, it appeared highly likely that the canal would become fully Panamanian in the year 2000.

Other Aspects of Panamanian-United States Relations

Panamanian relations with the United States, in areas other than those related to the canal, have undergone increasing strains since the 1985 ouster of President Ardito Barletta. The United States protested this action by reducing economic assistance to Panama and began pressuring Panama to reform its banking secrecy laws, crack down on narcotics trafficking, investigate the murder of Spadafora, and reduce the FDP's role in the government. When these points were raised by United States ambassador-designate to Panama, Arthur Davis, in his confirmation hearings, Panamanian officials issued an official complaint, claiming that they were the victim of a "seditious plot" involving the United States Department of State, Senator Jesse Helms, and opposition politicians in Panama.

Additional problems continued to arise throughout 1986 and early 1987. In April 1987 the United States Senate approved a nonbinding resolution calling for a 50-percent reduction in assistance to Panama because of alleged involvement by that nation's officials in narcotics trafficking. The Panamanian legislature responded with a resolution of its own, calling for the withdrawal of Panama's ambassador in Washington. Hearings on Panama held by Senator Helms produced further controversy, especially when a Senate resolution called on the United States Central Intelligence Agency to investigate narcotics trafficking in Panama. Again Panama protested. The FDP issued a resolution accusing Helms of a "malevolent insistence on sowing discord," and the Panamanian representative to the Nonaligned Movement's meeting in Zimbabwe charged that the United States was not fulfilling the Panama Canal treaties.

Continued United States pressure in such areas as human rights, political reform, narcotics trafficking, and money laundering, as well as conflicts over economic matters, including a reduction in Panama's textile quota, kept relations tense during the first months of 1987. In March Panama issued an official protest, charging the United States with exerting "political pressures damaging to Panama's sovereignty, dignity, and independence." This, however, did not deter Senate passage, a few days later, of a nonbinding resolution rejecting presidential certification of Panamanian cooperation in the struggle against the drug trade. President Ronald Reagan's certification that Panama was cooperating in the struggle against drug trafficking was based on some Panamanian concessions on bank secrecy laws and a highly publicized narcotics and money-laundering sting operation.

The deterioration in relations accelerated following the outbreak of disturbances in June 1987. United States calls for a full investigation of the allegations made by D�az Herrera and for movement toward "free and untarnished elections" led to Panamanian charges of United States interference in its internal affairs.

The Legislative Assembly adopted a resolution demanding the expulsion of the United States ambassador, and the head of the PRD charged that United States pressures were part of a plot "not to fulfill the obligations of the Carter-Torrijos Treaties," and were also designed to "to get Panama to withdraw from the Contadora Group." Panama took its protest over United States policy and the Senate resolution to the Organization of American States (OAS), which on July 1 adopted, by a vote of seventeen to one with eight abstentions, a resolution criticizing the Senate resolution and calling for an end to United States interference in Panama's internal affairs. On June 30, a government-organized mob attacked the United States embassy, inflicting over US$100,000 in damages. The United States responded by suspending economic and military assistance until the damage was paid for. Panama apologized for the attack and, at the end of July, paid for the damage, but the freeze on United States assistance remained in effect as a demonstration of United States displeasure with the internal political situation.

Relations between the two nations failed to improve during the balance of 1987. Attacks on United States policies by progovernment politicians and press in Panama were almost constant. The actions of the United States ambassador were an especially frequent target, and there were suggestions that he might be declared persona non grata. There was also a growing campaign of harassment against individual Americans. In September the economic officer of the United States embassy was arrested while observing an antigovernment demonstration. The following month, nine American servicemen were seized and abused under the pretext that they had been participating in such demonstrations. United States citizens driving in Panama were repeatedly harassed by the Panamanian police. Restrictions also were increased on United States reporters in Panama.

For its part, the United States kept up pressure on Panama. In August the secretary of state announced that the freeze on United States aid would remain in effect, despite Panama's having paid for the damage done to the embassy. In November the United States cancelled scheduled joint military exercises with Panama. In December Congress adopted a prohibition on economic and military assistance to Panama, unless the United States president certified that there had been "substantial progress in assuring civilian control of the armed forces," "an impartial investigation into allegations of illegal actions by members of the Panama Defense Forces," agreement between the government and the opposition on "conditions for free and fair elections," and "freedom of the press." The same bill suspended Panama's sugar quota until these conditions were met. Panama responded by ordering all personnel connected with the United States Agency for International Development mission out of the country.

At the end of 1987, United States-Panamanian relations had reached their worst level since at least 1964. On the United States side, there was a high degree of agreement between the executive branch and the Congress that fundamental changes in both the domestic and international behavior of Panama's government were needed. There was little sign of movement toward resolving any of the basic issues that divided the two nations, and it appeared that this deadlock would continue until there was a change in the Panamanian leadership's position or composition.


Panama - Relations with Central America


Although it is part of the same geographic region as the countries of Central America, Panama historically has lacked strong political and economic ties with the five nations immediately to its north. Panama was not a member of either the Central American Common Market or the Central American Defense Council, although it did have observer status with the latter body. Under the rule of Torrijos, however, Panama actively sought to expand its contacts with Central America. At first, much of this was related to the effort to gain support in negotiations with the United States over a new canal treaty. During the Nicaraguan civil conflict of 1978-79, Torrijos gave political and military support to the Sandinista guerrillas seeking to overthrow the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. At the June 1979 OAS foreign ministers meeting on Nicaragua, Panama allowed the foreign minister-designate of the Sandinista-organized provisional government to sit with the Panamanian delegation. After the Sandinistas took power, Torrijos offered to train their military and police forces. But the Panamanian mission soon found itself reduced to training traffic police, and Torrijos, frustrated by growing Cuban influence in Nicaragua, withdrew his advisers. Since then, Panamanian relations with Nicaragua have been of lessened importance. Panamanian leaders have criticized United States efforts directed against the Sandinistas, but they also have criticized Sandinista policies. Nevertheless, during the June 1987 crisis in Panama, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega visited Panama, and the Nicaraguan government expressed strong support for Delvalle and Noriega.

Torrijos also had attempted to influence internal events in El Salvador, where he supported the reform efforts of Colonel Adolfo Majano, a military academy classmate of his, who had been named to the ruling junta in 1979. But Majano was removed from power in 1980 while visiting Panama, largely ending Panamanian influence in that nation.

Relations with Costa Rica were cool for several decades, following a 1921 settlement of the border dispute between the two nations, a settlement that Panama viewed as largely unfavorable to its interests. The opening of the Pan-American Highway between the two nations led to an increase in commercial ties and contributed to a steady strengthening of bilateral relations in the 1960s and 1970s. During the 1978-79 Nicaraguan civil conflict, Panama offered to help defend Costa Rica's northern border from incursions by Nicaraguan forces and, during the war's last months, then Costa Rican President Rodrigo Carazo and Torrijos worked closely together to facilitate the flow of supplies to the Sandinista insurgents. Cordial relations were maintained with Carazo's successor, Luis Alberto Monge, but numerous problems have emerged since Oscar Arias became president of Costa Rica in 1986. These began with the discovery, in Costa Rican territory, of the mutilated body of leading Panamanian critic Spadafora. Commercial disputes also began to disrupt trade. Early in 1987, the two nations signed an agreement to regulate commerce in the border region, but a few days later, Panama closed the border, claiming that Costa Rica was violating the agreement. The border was reopened after a few days, and in March presidents Delvalle and Arias signed an agreement designed to deal with commercial problems and to promote cooperation in areas such as health and education. Costa Rican press criticism of Panamanian government policy following the June disturbances, however, led to a cooling in relations. In December the Panamanian ambassador to Costa Rica charged that United States and Costa Rican officials were plotting to organize an invasion of Panama and to assassinate Noriega. Costa Rica rejected the charges, for which no supporting evidence was produced. Although this issue soon faded, relations between the two nations at the end of 1987 were less cordial than they had been in preceding years.

Reflecting both the growth of Panamanian involvement in Central American affairs and the expanded international role that the nation has sought was Panama's participation in the Contadora peace process. In January 1983, Panama invited the foreign ministers of Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia to meet at the island resort of Contadora to discuss ways of mediating the conflicts in Central America. The result was the formation of the Contadora Group, a four-nation effort to promote a peaceful resolution of Central American conflicts. Although Panama's role in the mediating process was not so prominent as that of some of the other nations, it did give Panama increased visibility and prestige in international relations. Panama was also the site for many of the group's meetings with Central American representatives. Although the Contadora peace process failed to produce the hoped-for peace treaty, and, since 1987, has taken a backseat to the peace proposals of Costa Rica's President Arias, the Contradora group still exists and, under the Arias Plan, could play a significant role in dealing with security issues involving Central American states.


CITATION: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

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