The Panama Defense Forces

Panama Table of Contents

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 Díaz 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.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress