Noriega Takes Control

Panama Table of Contents

Manuel NoriegaIn November 1982, a commission was established to draft a series of proposed amendments to the 1972 Constitution. The PRD supported the amendments and claimed that they would limit the power of the Guard and help the country return to a fully democratic system of government. These amendments reduced the term of the president from six to five years, created a second vice presidency, banned participation in elections by active members of the Guard, and provided for the direct election of all members of the legislature (renamed the Legislative Assembly) after nomination by legitimate political parties. These amendments were approved in a national referendum held on April 24, 1983, when they were considered to be a positive step toward lessening the power of the National Guard. In reality, however, the National Guard leadership would surrender only the power it was willing to surrender.

General Paredes, in keeping with the new constitutional provision that no active Guard member could participate in an election, reluctantly retired from the Guard in August 1983. He was succeeded immediately by Noriega, who was promoted to brigadier general. During the same month, Paredes was nominated as the PRD candidate for president. National elections were only five months away, and Paredes appeared to be the leading presidential contender. Nevertheless, in early September, President de la Espriella purged his cabinet of Paredes loyalists, and Noriega declared that he would not publicly support any candidate for president. These events convinced Paredes that he had no official government or military backing for his candidacy. He withdrew from the presidential race on September 6, 1983, less than a month after retiring from the Guard. Although Paredes subsequently gained the support of the Popular Nationalist Party (Partido Nacionalista Popular--PNP) and was able to appear on the 1984 ballot, he was no longer a major presidential contender. Constitutional reforms notwithstanding, the reality of Panamanian politics dictated that no candidate could become president without the backing of the National Guard and, especially, its commander.

With Paredes out of the way, Noriega was free to consolidate power. One of his first acts was to have the Legislative Assembly approve a bill to restructure the National Guard, which thereafter would operate under the name of Panama Defense Forces (Fuerzas de Defensa de Panamá--FDP). Nominally, the president of the republic would head the FDP, but real power would be in the hands of Noriega, who assumed the new title of commander in chief of the FDP.

Meanwhile, the PRD--the military-supported party--was left without a candidate. To strengthen its base for the upcoming election, the PRD created a coalition of six political parties called the National Democratic Union (Unión Nacional Democrática-- UNADE), which included the PALA, PLN, and PR, as well as the smaller PP and the left-of-center Broad Popular Front (Frente Amplio Popular--FRAMPO). With the approval of the military, UNADE selected Nicolás Ardito Barletta Vallarino to be its presidential candidate. Ardito Barletta, a University of Chicago-trained economist and former minister of planning, had been a vice president of the World Bank for six years before his nomination in February 1984. Ardito Barletta was considered well qualified for the presidency, but he lacked his own power base.

Opposing Ardito Barletta and the UNADE coalition was the Democratic Opposition Alliance (Alianza Democrática de Oposición-- ADO) and its candidate, the veteran politician, Arnulfo Arias. ADO, formed by the PPA, the PDC, the center-right National Liberal Republican Movement (Movimiento Liberal Republicano Nacional-- MOLIRENA), and an assortment of leftist parties, was a diverse coalition made up of rural peasants (especially from Arias's home province of Chiriquí) and lower- and middle-class elements that opposed military rule and government corruption. During the campaign, Arias emphasized the need to reduce military influence in Panamanian politics. He called for the removal of the defense bill passed in September 1983, which had given the FDP control over all security forces and services.

The campaign proved to be bitterly contested, with both sides predicting victory by a large margin. Arias and his backers claimed that Ardito Barletta was conducting the campaign unfairly. Indeed, UNADE took advantage of being the pro-government coalition, and used government vehicles and funds to help conduct its campaign. In addition, most of the media--television, radio stations, and newspapers--favored the government coalition. For example, only one of the country's five daily newspapers supported the ADO.

Voting day, May 6, 1984, was peaceful. Violence broke out the next day between supporters of the two main candidates in front of the Legislative Palace, where votes were being counted. One person was killed, and forty others were injured. Irregularities and errors in the voter registration and in the vote count led to credible charges of electoral misconduct and fraud. Thousands of people, who believed that they had registered properly, showed up at the polling places only to discover that their names had been inexplicably left off the voting list. Large-scale vote-buying, especially in rural areas, was reported.

More serious problems developed during the next several days. Very few official vote tallies were being delivered from the precinct and district levels to the National Board of Vote Examiners, with no apparent reason for the delay. The vote count proceeded slowly amid a climate of suspicion and rumor. On May 9, the vote tabulation was suspended. On May 11, the members of the National Board of Vote Examiners declared that they could not fulfill their function because of 2,124 allegations of fraud, and they turned the process over to the Electoral Tribunal. The opposition coalition publicized evidence showing that many votes had been destroyed before they had been counted. These charges and all subsequent challenges by the opposition were rejected by the tribunal, even though the head of the three-man tribunal demanded a further investigation into the allegations. The election results were made public on May 16. Ardito Barletta won the election with 300,748 votes; Arias came in second with 299,035; retired General Paredes received 15,976. The military-supported candidate had won the election, and the threat to the political power of the FDP had been circumvented.

The United States government acknowledged that the election results were questionable but declared that Ardito Barletta's victory must be seen as an important forward step in Panama's transition to democracy. Relations between the United States and Panama worsened later in the year because of Panama's displeasure at the alleged slowness with which the United States-controlled Panama Canal Commission was replacing American workers with Panamanians.

The resignation of President Ricardo de la Espriella and his cabinet on February 13, 1984 was barely noticed during the intense election campaign. De la Espriella was forced out by Noriega. De la Espriella had opposed the military's manipulation of the election and strongly advocated free elections for 1984. During his brief tenure, de la Espriella had failed to institute any significant policy changes, and his presidency was lackluster. De la Espriella was succeeded immediately by Vice President Jorge Illueca, who formed a new cabinet.

Ardito Barletta, a straitlaced and soft-spoken technocrat, took office on October 11, 1984. He quickly launched an attack on the country's economic problems and sought help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to refinance part of the country's US$3.7-billion debt--the world's highest on a per-capita basis. He promised to modernize the government's bureaucracy and implement an economic program that would create a 5-percent annual growth rate. On November 13--to meet IMF requirements for a US$603-million loan renegotiation--he announced economic austerity measures, including a 7-percent tax on all services and reduced budgets for cabinet ministries and autonomous government agencies. He revoked some of the measures ten days later in response to massive protests and strikes by labor, student, and professional organizations.

Negative popular reaction to Ardito Barletta's efforts to revive the country's stagnant economy troubled opposition politicians, the military, and many of his own UNADE supporters. Ardito Barletta's headstrong administrative style also offended Panamanian politicians who had a customary backslapping and back- room style of politicking. Moreover, Arditto Barletta's economic program conflicted with the military's traditional use of high government spending to keep the poor and the political left placated.

On August 12, 1985, Noriega stated that the situation in the country was "totally anarchic and out of control;" he also criticized Ardito Barletta for running an incompetent government. Observers speculated that another reason--and probably the real one--for the ouster of Ardito Barletta was FDP opposition to the president's plan to investigate the murder of Dr. Hugo Spadafora, a prominent critic of the Panamanian military. Shortly before his death, Spadafora had announced that he had evidence linking Noriega to drug trafficking and illegal arms dealing. Relatives of Spadafora claimed that witnesses had seen him in the custody of Panamanian security forces in the Costa Rican border area immediately before his decapitated body was found on September 14, just a few miles north of the Panamanian border.

Because of uneasiness within the FDP over the Spadafora affair, Noriega, using Ardito Barletta's ineffectiveness as an excuse, pressured Ardito Barletta to resign, which he did on September 27, 1985, after only eleven months in office. Ardito Barletta was succeeded the next day by his first vice president, Eric Arturo Delvalle Henríquez, who announced a new cabinet on October 3, 1985.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress