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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 212 | Marzo 1999



On the Eve of Great Change

In May, presidential elections. In September, a new President. On December 31, in compliance with the Carter-Torrijos Treaty, the Panama Canal in Panama's hands. This is how Panama will cross the threshold into the 21st Century. Will it finally, from that point forward, begin to forge its true independence?

Jorge Turner Morales and Alexis Rodríguez Mójica

On December 31, 1999, the last day of the 20th Century, Panama will run head-on into a situation whose resolution will quite literally determine, both now and in years to come, whether the nation will achieve political independence at long last or, conversely, will shamefully adhere to its present colonized condition. According to the Carter-Torrijos Treaty, Panama is to take full possession and administrative control of the Panama Canal that day. That, together with preparing the population for this new role, will provide Panama the key to gain its own economic advantage from its geographic position. That same day armed Panamanian troops are supposed to assume responsibility for the inter-oceanic passageway, replacing the US armed forces that have essentially been ruling the country since the end of the 19th Century.

There is no valid reason within the framework of international law for not complying with this agreed-upon transfer of control over the Canal, even though Panama's army was dissolved as a consequence of the 1989 US invasion, and an irresponsible constitutional agreement prohibits Panama from having its own military forces. Two of the many questions that complying with the Treaty raises are thus: What kind of national military body will be put in charge of supervising the Canal in the following years and how will the military areas previously occupied by the US Southern Command be used.

"The people's religion"

Panama is one of the seven Latin American countries with the greatest number of US military interventions over its brief history. As "potential thoroughfares" between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Nicaragua and Panama have suffered inordinate degradation at the hands of the great powers.

Omar Torrijos came to power in 1968, following the overthrow of Arnulfo Arias' eleven-day regime. After a violently repressive stage in which the leaderships of organizations sustained for over four decades of political and social struggle were eliminated, Torrijos attempted to stabilize his government by appealing to what he called "the people's religion." He was referring to the fervent desire to revoke the 1903 Treaty granting the United States in perpetuity an extended strip of Panamanian territory for the purpose of building a canal.

Torrijos focused his efforts on negotiating a canal treaty that would respect Panama's territorial integrity, based on his idea of national unity, strongly squelching dissidents of both the left and the right, essentially forcing them out of the arena. The negotiations took a long time, during which he sought a wide range of international support for his project. To gain domestic support, he promoted the idea of multi-class national unity.

The Canal Treaties, consisting of the Carter-Torrijos Treaty and the Neutrality Treaty, were both approved in 1977. The substance of the Carter-Torrijos Treaty is the agreement to dissolve the colonial enclave and abolish the cession of perpetual rights to the canal zone, establishing December 31, 1999 as the date when "The Republic of Panama alone will govern the Canal and will maintain armed forces, defense sites and military installations within its sovereign boundaries." The treaty was a major feat, even though Panama agreed at the same time to explore with the United States the possibility of building a new canal through the isthmus, and acknowledged that the United States, according to a partial interpretation of the Neutrality Treaty, reserves the unilateral right to intervene in the country should it consider the security of the inter-oceanic passageway to be in danger.

Profile of the PRD

In 1978, after the treaties were signed and before the famous 1981 plane "crash" that ended his life, Torrijos founded the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) as a multi-class organization with strong ties to the military.
From an orthodox perspective, the PRD is no longer the same party that ran the country when Torrijos was alive. It is not even the one that lost its hegemony between 1984 and 1989. Nevertheless, it continues to carry its own weight in the electoral arena with between 25% and 35% of the vote in recent elections.

Torrijos was concerned with creating a political party that would give continuity to his ideas. But he failed to recognize the need to establish firm underpinnings for creating a new party-based system. This lack of foresight left room to resurrect the old system of political intrigues and oligarchic favoritism. Neither Torrijos nor "torrijismo" had anticipated a future where both control of the state and social democratic hegemony might cease to exist. To some extent— only some—the crisis of the 1990s, which was characterized by an altered political line and a regrouping of the social forces supporting the PRD, had its origins in the dichotomy of being the state party on the one hand and an expression of middle-class organizational forms on the other. This contradiction on which the PRD's programmatic experience is based allowed both the PRD's rising electoral consensus and the almost total erosion of democratic projects and spaces for popular participation.

The rise of Rubén Darío Paredes to the head of the armed forces rerouted the course of "torrijism" until Manuel Antonio Noriega got rid of him. After the crisis that culminated with the US invasion and the humiliating period of the Endara government (1990-1994), the PRD candidate, economist Ernesto Pérez Balladares, won the 1994 elections with a little over 30% of the vote.

Despite all these ups and downs, including the dissolution of the armed institution that was supposed to assume control over the Canal, the treaties remained intact and in effect. In practice, this must indicate that the canal need not be in the custody of a military force, but it will require compliance with both its contractual neutrality and its active neutralization by the government authorities at the proper time.

Who will protect the Canal?

The Pérez Balladares government has followed a neoliberal economic course, putting all its efforts into attracting foreign investors and none into social policy. It introduced hostile reforms into the Labor Code and privatized public enterprises. Under this model, where the only real beneficiaries have been the banks, Panamanian living standards have deteriorated to the point where 50% of the population currently lives below the poverty line.

To calm people's fears about the consequences that the resolution not to have an army might have on the Canal Treaties, Pérez Balladares pointed out that a kind of military industrial police force could be developed to assume responsibility for canal security in 1999. The silence that followed does not change the fact that this is one of the tasks facing the Pérez Balladares administration in what remains of its term. Another important task is to decide the future of the land returned to Panama by virtue of the Carter-Torrijos Treaty, which so far has been assigned an elitist future as a university or tourist attraction.

The Multilateral Anti-Drug Center

During the Pérez Balladares administration there were negotiations with the United States over establishing a Multinational Anti-drug Center (CMA) in Panama. The virtuous idea of combining forces to combat drugs was nothing more than a pretext for replacing the US troops fated to leave the country at the end of 1999 with another US controlled military force that would also play an occupying role.

The negotiations fell apart, but not before producing passionate national protests, praiseworthy allegations by former President Jorge Illueca and others, and diplomatic prudence on the part of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia. The fight against the CMA was a moment for reorganizing the democratic, nationalist and popular sectors, amid a complex process of forging unity through practice.

Fortunately, the Panamanian and US diplomats ended the negotiations on September 24, 1998 "by mutual agreement," indicating that what had happened would not alter the transfer of power over the canal on the date set. The Panamanian side revealed that the talks essentially broke down when the United States insisted that its soldiers be allowed to engage in missions other than the fight against drugs. It was highly symptomatic that the traditional oligarchic parties, with their innately conservative political practice and constant criticism, made only the most timid comments during the course of the CMA talks, showing their fear of falling out of favor with the giant to the North. All of the criticism came from civil society, especially the democratic and nationalist organizations grouped together in MONADESO, which had headed up the protests, and from individual members of the academic world.

On August 30, shortly before canceling the talks, the government called for a referendum to amend the Constitution, a vote that would decide whether or not Pérez Balladares could run for re-election. A strong 64% of the Panamanian people voted NO. These results were at least partly because continuismo was inherently unpopular, but even more because Panamanians have been impoverished by the application of his government's neoliberal policies. One must also wonder just how many votes were cast against a government who would put forth this referendum at the very moment it was engaged in negotiations with the United States to set up the Multilateral Anti-Drug Center.

The upcoming May elections will probably not be a direct reflection of the August 1998 referendum's outcome, mainly because it only offered voters two options: yes or no. The May elections, in contrast, will offer a number of presidential candidates, thanks to blind ambition and lack of self-control on the part of different oligarchic factions. This will be fatal for them in a political climate where the PRD appears to be the strongest party, and the popular sectors are without any viable alternative.

Need for a lofty debate on the new agendas

Panama will enter the new millennium after going through a complex political situation. In May 1999, the presidential elections. In September, the inauguration of the newly elected leader. And on December 31, fulfillment of the Carter-Torrijos Treaty. All this will signal the formal termination, in the batting of an eye, of a whole set of longstanding agendas: the national one, the democratic one and the military one. The grassroots sectors have the right to make tactical proposals for the reworking of each of these agendas in a manner that befits the 21st century, once they reach unity about the forms of expression and areas for their own participation that they themselves should develop.

The multiple failed attempts at reaching national consensus over the past several years, combined with the emerging panorama, create a dilemma for the popular organizations. How do they respond to the new events without losing either their capacity to mobilize or the participatory spaces they've already won? And how best can they hold on to the ability to work as a united front as they did in MONADESO?
The old national agenda is being rendered obsolete by Panama's recovery of undisputed sovereignty over its entire territory. The democratic agenda seems to be mysteriously vanishing amid the possibility of electorally altering who holds power and the consolidation of institutions like the Electoral Court, the People's Defender and the Regulatory Entity. These institutions are indirectly adjusting Panama's Liberal-based democracy to the historic objective of assuring forms of state and private control over the population. The military agenda is also slowly dissolving with the staged withdrawal of US troops and the adjustments this implies for official control over the population. These are being made through the tacit and strategic reforms of the state promoted by political and economic sectors looking to extend their influence over judicial and security institutions beyond the term in office of their party.

The issues that will be coming up over the course of 1999 will require wide and serious debate about what is occurring now and what will take place in the coming years. The present situation demands not only joint patriotic agreements among the presidential candidates, but also a very careful selection of those candidates—both male and female—to assure that they are the most committed and tuned into the nation's future.

The electoral panorama

This is not what is happening in today's electoral scene. It is the stage for blindly and parochially promoting all sorts of tiny and strictly social issues of Christian Democracy's platform, or for parading the more attractive indicators of the PRD's neoliberal policies. But one and all are sidestepping the canal theme.

The candidate with the best chance of winning is Martín Torrijos, son of General Omar Torrijos and winner, by a wide margin, of the PRD's internal primary elections. His candidacy came about as an effort to maintain party cohesion.

There are doubts about his political personality in the context he will be required to move in, particularly since he will be representing a party that, programmatically speaking, is not the same one his father founded two decades ago. Torrijos' vacillations between uncertainty and necessity express the contradiction between his father's political legacy and his own personal formation—which, not so incidentally, includes completing high school and university studies in the United States. He was also the administrative head of the McDonald's Corporation in Chicago between 1988 and 1992. How will he react when, due to various circumstances, national interests will come into conflict with US interests in the 21st century?
There is not much to say about opposition candidates Alberto Vallarino and Mireya Moscoso. Desire for power is their sole motivation, while nationalist sentiments and any history of struggle to change Panama are noticeably lacking. The Papá Egoró Movement (MPE), which in the last presidential elections aroused certain hopes by organizing youth on the basis of politics with principals, appears on its deathbed. One part of the reason is that its main leader, singer Rubén Blades, is busy with his musical commitments in the United States; the other is the style of management, control and participation this collective has practiced in the country's political life. The MPE is no longer even a platform for debate, much less an option for state power.

Surveys: The Latino Barometer

A series of surveys conducted by Latinbarómetro offer interesting observations about national sentiments. In the article "Political Culture in Panama," Raúl Leis presents certain conclusions based on important surveys done in 1996. These surveys reveal a widespread spirit of solidarity with the poor, an accentuated pride in being Panamanian and little or no faith in political parties among the majority of the population.

Interpreting the population's opinion, political parties ought to make room for candidates who are outstanding representatives of civil society rather than appropriate exclusive national representation for themselves. They should also propose legislative reforms to make independent candidacies viable. The surveys also show that the parties should hammer out basic agreements on a state policy, or, put in other words, on a single way of collectively dealing with some of the fundamental problems that await Panama in the new century.

The Canal: Two alternatives

After May's presidential elections are behind it, Panama will have to face December 31, 1999 and what it represents, knowing that the United States, having no desire to leave Panama, will come up with last-minute excuses for not leaving.

It must also be conscious of the fact that international maritime trade will continue expanding in the 21st Century, so Panama needs to begin to plan and decide on an alternative, before the present Canal is rendered totally obsolete by the growing demand. There are only two: either Panama, with ample financing, builds larger, higher-level locks with greater capacity, or it begins to carve out a new sea-level canal with unlimited capacity. It is a dilemma that grows out of making Panama's control of its canal a reality.

The future of returned lands

Another problem will be the future of areas that have been or will be returned to Panama's jurisdiction. It is essential that they be put to economic use according to what is good for the country, rather than what is good for political groups on the economic rise. Taking advantage of Panama's geographic position starts with appropriate use of the Canal and its adjacent areas— which are exorbitantly expensive in today's market—but it will also have to do with the Panamanian people's ability to take on the challenges presented by the age of communications.

As has been stated repeatedly, the guiding premise for Panama's economic development should be that civilian use of the areas adjacent to the Canal is more productive than use of these areas by a foreign army. Juan Jované points out in Cinco tesis sobre las bases militares norteamericanos en Panamá (Five Theses on the US Military Bases in Panama) that "the idea of national development based on the labor-maqiladora-military base triangle, in addition to compromising our sovereignty, does not go beyond offering a most mediocre perspective for the Panamanian population." And remember that in 1993 the military bases accounted for a mere 0.64% of the workforce employed nationally.

Challenges of the 21st Century

The goal is sovereignty and national independence without US military bases, a patriotic solution for the issues related to the canal, and an economic development that includes an equitable sharing of the national wealth. Add to these the revising of economic, social and political structures without forgetting the essential link between city and the countryside supported by an agrarian reform.

They are not easy goals. Despite technical development, finance capital's hunger for rising profits is taking us back to the 19th Century in terms of social welfare: rising unemployment, ten- to twelve-hour work days and the legal eradication of historical economic gains and compensations such as the extra-month Christmas bonus, paid vacations and restitution for unfair firings.

Anything is possible. We are not naïve. We know already that we'll be running right into US narrow-mindedness and the prevailing interests of banking, large commercial groups and national latifundistas connected to the United States. Meanwhile the middle and popular classes will be confused by an environment of economic frivolity, disinformation and ideological immaturity as they try to deal with the challenge of 21st Century. But we also know that all roads have their pitfalls. And if the road is a long one, you need to get an early start.

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