Organizing the New Republic

Panama Table of Contents

The provisional governing junta selected when independence was declared governed the new state until a constitution was adopted in 1904. Under its terms, Amador became Panama's first president.

The constitution was modeled, for the most part, after that of the United States, calling for separation of powers and direct elections for the presidency and the legislature, the National Assembly. The assembly, however, elected three persons to stand in the line of succession to the presidency. This provision remained in effect until 1946, when a new constitution provided for direct election of the vice president. The new republic was unitary; municipalities were to elect their own officials, but provincial authorities were to be appointed by the central government. The most controversial provision of the constitution was that which gave the United States the right to intervene to guarantee Panamanian sovereignty and to preserve order.

A two-party system of Liberals and Conservatives was inherited from Colombia, but the party labels had even less precise or ideological meaning in Panama than they had in the larger country. By the early 1920s, most of the Conservative leaders of the independence generation had died without leaving political heirs. Thus, cleavages in the Liberal Party led to a new system of personalistic parties in shifting coalitions, none of which enjoyed a mass base. Politics remained the exclusive preserve of the oligarchy, which tended to be composed of a few wealthy, white families.

Having successfully severed their ties with Colombia, the secessionists of Panama's central government were soon faced with a secessionist problem of their own. The Cuna of the San Blas Islands were unwilling to accept the authority of Panama, just as they had been unwilling to accept the authority of Colombia or Spain. The Panamanian government exercised no administrative control over the islands until 1915, when a departmental government was established; its main office was in El Porvenir. At that time, forces of the Colonial Police, composed of blacks, were stationed on several islands. Their presence, along with a number of other factors, led to a revolt in 1925.

In 1903 on the island of Narganá, Charlie Robinson was elected chief. Having spent many years on a West Indian ship, he began a "civilizing" program. His cause was later taken up by a number of young men who had been educated in the cities on the mainland. These Young Turks advocated forcibly removing nose rings, substituting dresses for molas (see Glossary), and establishing dance halls like those in the cities. They were actively supported by the police, who arrested men who did not send their daughters to the dance hall; the police also allegedly raped some of the Indian women. By 1925 hatred for these modernizers and for the police was intense throughout the San Blas Islands.

The situation was further complicated by the factionalism that resulted when Panama separated from Colombia. The leader of one of these factions, Simral Coleman, with the help of a sympathetic American explorer, Richard Marsh, drew up a "declaration of independence" for the Cuna, and on February 25, 1925, the rebellion was underway. During the course of the rebellion, about twenty members of the police were killed. A few days later a United States cruiser appeared; with United States diplomatic and naval officials serving as intermediaries, a peace treaty was concluded. The most important outcome of this rebellion against Panama was a treaty that in effect recognized San Blas as a semiautonomous territory.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress