Panama Table of Contents

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 Rubén Darío 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 Panameñistas, 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 (Unión Nacional Democrática-- 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 Panameñista Party (Partido Panameñista--PP), a small faction that broke away from the majority of Panameñistas, who continued to follow Arnulfo Arias; and the Broad Popular Front (Frente Amplio Popular--FRAMPO). UNADE's presidential candidate was Nicolás 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 Democrática de Oposición--ADO), which encompassed three major parties: the majority of Panameñistas organized in the Authentic Panameñista Party (Partido Panameñista Auténtico--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 Calderón 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 Iván Zúñiga of the Popular Action Party (Partido de Acción 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 Iván Zúñiga, 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 Díaz Herrera, led to the forced retirement of Díaz 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 Díaz 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.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress