A New Treaty
In 1968 Arnulfo Arias was again elected president. He took office on October 1 and immediately called for the turnover of the canal to Panama and attempted to take control of the National Guard. The second move was a mistake. A military junta deposed him on October 11, and, ironically enough, he fled to the Canal Zone for protection. He had served 11 days in office, his shortest term yet.
After a period of chaos and demonstrations, a National Guard colonel named Omar Torrijos Herrera assumed power. He was himself the subject of an attempted coup by three rival colonels when he took a trip to Mexico early in his rule. When he learned of this, he returned to Panama, rallied supporters in the western city of David, and marched on the capital. He regained power and sent the colonels into exile.
Torrijos had himself promoted to general and became a remarkably popular figure. Though a military dictator, he was also a populist who flirted with socialist ideas—he had a friendly relationship with Fidel Castro—and instituted sweeping social reforms. Though he installed a figurehead president, Demétrios Lakas, everyone knew who was really in charge.
In 1972 he introduced yet another new constitution that confirmed him as head of a powerful central government and curtailed civil rights. He ordered the redistribution of land to the campesinos (country people, farmers), greatly expanded public health programs, reformed the school system, built roads and bridges in rural areas, and laid the groundwork for Panama’s emergence as an international banking center. Some of these changes came at the expense of the oligarchy.
For all these accomplishments, however, corruption and nepotism blossomed under Torrijos, and the bodies of his political enemies are still being dug up around the country.
One of the things that helped ensure Torrijos’s popularity was his focus on a new treaty that would turn control of the canal over to Panama. Negotiations began with the Nixon and Ford administrations, but progress was slow until Jimmy Carter took office in 1977. On September 7 of that year, Torrijos met Carter in Washington, D.C., to sign two new Panama Canal treaties. The first called for a gradual turnover of the canal to Panamanian control, to allow the small country time to absorb the massive undertaking. Panama gained complete jurisdiction over the canal and former Canal Zone at noon on December 31, 1999.
The second one, the Neutrality Treaty, bound the United States and Panama to guarantee the canal’s neutrality in peace or war and allow unimpeded transit of the ships of all nations. The United States reserved the right to act against any perceived threat to the canal, but not otherwise intervene in the domestic affairs of Panama. This second treaty was open-ended and is still in effect, and it continues to be a source of discontent in Panama from time to time. Two-thirds of the Panamanian people voted in favor of the new treaties, a weaker show of support than expected.
To gain support in Washington for the treaties, Torrijos had agreed to begin a process of democratization. He stepped down as the official head of government but retained ultimate authority by retaining his position as head of the National Guard. He allowed Arnulfo Arias to return to Panama and start rebuilding his political support. The constitution was amended in October 1978 to weaken the power of the executive branch somewhat and increase that of the Asamblea Legislativa, the national legislature. The legislature voted in Aristides Royo, a candidate backed by Torrijos, as president.
The first political party granted official recognition was the Partido Revolucionario Democrático (Democratic Revolutionary Party) or PRD, which was controlled by Torrijos and his supporters and would come to be known as the National Guard’s party. National elections were held in 1980. Opposition parties gained some representation in the national legislature, but Torrijos ensured that most seats were reserved for the PRD.
Noriega Takes Power
On July 31, 1981, Torrijos died in a small plane that crashed in the mountains above El Copé in central Panama. The area has since been turned into a national park named in his honor. Rumors that the crash was arranged by one of his political rivals circulated immediately. A period of turmoil followed, with a parade of military figures succeeding each other in power.
By 1983, General Manuel Antonio Noriega had firm control of the National Guard, which he soon renamed the Fuerzas de Defensa de Panamá (Panama Defense Forces), and the country as a whole. Torrijos had spotted Noriega’s potential early in his own military career, and when he became dictator he had put Noriega in charge of military intelligence.
Despite this long association, some speculated that Noriega was behind the death of Torrijos. The contrast between the two dictators could not have been more stark. Torrijos was a handsome, charismatic man who inspired loyalty among his supporters and enacted many popular programs. Noriega’s pockmarked face earned him the nickname cara de piña (pineapple face), and he ruled through fear.
In the 1984 elections, the Noriega-controlled PRD nominated Nicolás Ardito Barletta Vallarino, a former World Bank vice president with a degree in economics from the University of Chicago. Opposing him was the indefatigable Arnulfo Arias. Barletta was elected president in what was widely agreed to be a fraudulent vote count. The United States decided to recognize him anyway.
But in September 1985 a horrific event occurred that began Noriega’s spectacular fall from power. Dr. Hugo Spadafora, a colorful and charismatic Noriega opponent who had been a guerrilla fighter in Africa and a protégé of Torrijos, decided to return to Panama by bus to challenge Noriega’s hold on power. He claimed to have information on Noriega’s illegal dealings throughout Latin America that would force him from power. He took a bus from the Costa Rican border toward Panama City on September 13, but he was stopped near the town of Concepción and forced off the bus. He was subsequently tortured and beheaded, his decapitated body later found in a river across the border in Costa Rica. Suspicion immediately fell on Noriega.
The following year, the Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter Seymour Hersh began breaking stories in The New York Times that detailed a laundry list of shady dealings by Noriega: that he had long been a CIA asset, that he was deeply involved in drug dealing and money laundering, that he’d rigged the 1984 election, that he did intelligence work for Cuba, that he was implicated in the murder of Spadafora.
When the Iran-Contra scandal broke, Noriega emerged as a vital player who was said to have a cozy relationship with Oliver North, CIA director William Casey, and other Iran-Contra figures. He was accused of helping the Contras with everything from shipping arms to planning sabotage operations in Nicaragua. Noriega was proving an increasing embarrassment, first to President Ronald Reagan and then President George H. W. Bush, whom Noriega had known since Bush’s days as CIA director in the 1970s.
Operation Just Cause
A new election was held on May 7, 1989, with a Noriega-backed candidate named Carlos Duque running against Guillermo Endara, a lawyer and protégé of Arnulfo Arias, whose long political career had finally ended the year before, when he died at age 86. Panama always elects two vice presidents, and Endara’s running mates were Guillermo “Billy” Ford and Ricardo Arias Calderón.
The election was a sham: votes were bought; eligible voters were turned away from the polls; ballots were destroyed. Jimmy Carter, who had flown to Panama as an election observer, held a press conference at a Panama City hotel and declared, “The government is taking the election by fraud.” He said the opposition had won by a margin of three to one.
Endara and his two running mates led a protest march three days later that was attacked by Panama Defense Forces troops and Noriega goons. Demonstrators were blasted with buckshot and tear gas. Endara was knocked unconscious by an attacker wielding a steel pipe, and Arias Calderón and Ford were beaten and shot at. Images of the bloodied candidates were beamed around the world.
By now, some officers of the Panama Defense Forces were becoming nervous at what seemed to be Noriega’s increasingly erratic behavior. Major Moises Giroldi decided to mount a coup, with tentative support from a suspicious Washington. On October 3, 1989, Giroldi and his supporters took Noriega hostage at his headquarters, the Comandancia, but hesitation and confusion allowed Noriega time to phone his most loyal troops, who surrounded the Comandancia and engaged in a firefight with the rebels. Noriega prevailed and the coup plotters were tortured and executed. The Bush administration denied having any involvement with the coup attempt, despite considerable evidence it had encouraged the coup, then declined to give it support at the vital moment.
Periodic violent clashes between the Panama Defense Forces and U.S. military personnel traveling outside the Canal Zone reached a low point when a U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant, Robert Paz, was shot dead in Panama City on December 17. Three days later, on December 20, 1989, President Bush ordered an invasion of Panama, dubbed Operation Just Cause. It left somewhere between 200 and 4,000 civilians dead.
The true number may never be known, as it was in the interest of the United States and the subsequent Panamanian government to downplay the number, and of those with other political agendas to inflate it. The hardest-hit area was El Chorrillo, an impoverished neighborhood of wooden tenements and anti-Noriega sentiment that lay right next to the Comandancia. It was swept by a fire that left an untold number dead and thousands homeless.
Noriega escaped and sought asylum at the residence of the papal nuncio, the representative of the Vatican in Panama, on Christmas Eve. U.S. troops surrounded the house and “psychological operations” personnel blasted loud rock music to keep him from getting any rest. He surrendered on January 3, 1990, and was flown to Florida. On July 2, 1992, he was sentenced to 40 years in a Miami prison on drug and racketeering charges. The sentence was later reduced.
With time off for good behavior, Noriega completed his sentence on September 9, 2007, having served 17 years in prison. He remained in custody, however, while he fought extradition to France, where he faced charges of laundering drug money. He was finally extradited, and in July 2010 was tried and sentenced to seven years in a French prison.
The Panamanian government has called for his extradition to Panama, where he was convicted in absentia of a number of crimes, including murdering the leaders of the 1989 coup attempt. What would actually happen to Noriega if he is ever returned to Panama is unclear. He is now in his 70s, and under a new law convicts older than 70 can serve their sentences under house arrest.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition