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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 105 | Mayo 1990



The Monroe Doctrine and the End of Torrijismo

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Your majesty, in your vision you saw standing before you a giant statue, bright and shining, and terrifying to look at. Its head was made of the finest gold; its chest and arms were made of silver; its waist and hips of bronze, its legs of iron, and its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. While you were looking at it, a great stone broke loose from a cliff..., struck the iron and clay feet of the statue, and shattered them. At once the iron, clay, bronze, silver, and gold crumbled and became like the dust on a threshing place in summer.... You also saw that the feet and the toes were partly clay and partly iron. This means that it will be a divided empire… part of the empire will be strong and part of it weak.
—Daniel 2.31-42

Like the imposing statue in Nebuchadnezzar's dream, "Torrijismo" had feet of clay. In a sense, Torrijismo, too, was a dream, a facile dream of populism and nationalism told to the Panamanian people.

Omar Torrijos, the charismatic general who ran Panama from 1968 to 1981, was a populist, but not popular leader, because he never called upon the people to organize. He was a nationalist who negotiated the recovery of sovereignty over the Panama Canal by the year 2000. But he knew that the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, his major achievement, were only a result of the "art of the possible." Torrijos had to accept the US Senate's De Concini Amendment granting the United States a permanent right to intervene militarily any time it considered the canal's neutrality threatened. Torrijos' new Financial Center and the Colón Duty Free Zone were not examples of economic nationalism, and his agrarian reform with its peasant settlements never amounted to much.

Torrijos constructed homes, schools and clinics, legislated a Labor Cede very favorable to wage workers and opened a space for revolutionary Latin Americanism. This is where his dream was most real. According to his assistant and biographer Chuchú Martínez, Torrijos thought that "only through the Latin American revolution, like the last one invites to the table, can Panama make its revolution." But sanctuary for Latin American revolutionary movements did not suffice as the statue's "gold, silver and bronze." Above all, Torrijismo was anti-democratic. If his populism was the iron of the statue, his anti-democratic values were the clay.

Eight years after Torrijos' untimely death in a still unresolved helicopter crash, the dream was shattered by the US invasion on December 20, 1989. But, by then, nothing remained of Torrijismo. Without the economic boom of the 1970s, populist measures were unaffordable. The 1977 canal treaties, which gave the impression that Panama had reclaimed possession of the canal, left Noriega with no banner to arouse nationalism. In Noriega’s hands, Torrijos’ nationalism became a “clean flag hoisted by dirty hands.”

Nationalism, populism and democracy cannot be separated. According to sociologist Raúl Leis, this is the major lesson of Panama’s tragic events. In Latin America, if these three aspirations of the majority come apart or become meaningless, the people’s hearts and minds will be offered up to US imperialism.

Who welcomed the invaders and why?

As a consequence of Panama's socio-historical distortion—its birth as a state was the fruit of a US business deal—perhaps no other Latin American people, with the exception of Cubans and Nicaraguans, have shown greater nationalism than the Panamanians. Nevertheless, the great majority joyfully received the US occupying forces, practically as liberators.

Chuchú Martínez blames this degrading reception on the middle classes. “This filth is sprinkled throughout Latin America,” asserted this philosopher, mathematician, poet and military man. But Raúl Leis and others argue that the jubilant reception was even more massive; opinion polls registered 90% support for the invasion, once it had occurred.

Still others see this travesty of the popular identity as a consequence of the behavior of the Panamanian Defense Forces under Noriega. During the progressive economic decline of the 1980s, the police became repressive. In the poor neighborhoods, once a playground of the petty thievery of survival, excessive police brutality against small-time delinquents fostered grassroots disapproval. Corruption in the top ranks of the Defense Forces (drug trafficking and the huge bribes associated with it) flowed through all the military branches, right down to the famous “splash,” the bribe expected by the traffic police. In the prisons, particularly at Coiba Island, repression fed on political dissidents like Floyd Britton.

The massive electoral frauds of 1984 and 1989 doubly repressed people's political rights. In 1989, soldiers openly seized ballot boxes during the vote count, Nicolás González Revilla, Torrijos' foreign minister during the signing of the canal treaties, stated in 1986 that "Panamanians are on the edge of a precipice, not because of economic deterioration, but because of the continuous damage to the people's political dignity.”

The widespread looting, in which all classes participated, represented two things. First, the abdication of political responsibility; the task of struggling against the Noriega dictatorship was always someone else's job, ultimately the “gringos.” Second, the "Phoenician syndrome" of commerce, fed by the 1970s consumer boom based on the Financial Center and the Colón Free Zone, created the street wisdom “play hard and bet on the winner, justifying all means.” One consequence was the exaggeration of Noriega's evil, making him the scapegoat. His fall was a catharsis that signified purification.

Popular deterioration had worsened during the last year and a half. In June 1987, Torrijos' nephew, Colonel Roberto Díaz Herrera, presented his accusations against Noriega, provoking a three-day spontaneous mass protest. People took the streets, demanding "revolutionary” taxes from passing vehicles. The Defense Forces panicked, not daring to leave their barracks. Two years later, dignity succumbed to hunger, caused largely by the cynical US economic sanctions imposed to crush Noriega.

Dignity lost out also to corruption, particularity Noriega's use of the socially distorted sectors of society in the misnamed "Dignity Battalions." This phenomenon confirmed the view of those who, from the 1970's, saw Torrijismo as "Bonapartism" mediating between the social classes—none hegemonic and all kept in line by "lumpen" police.

Finally, the popular movement had also been co-opted. In Panama, it is not easy to organize a class-identified workers' movement, given the predominance of commerce and services and the overlapping of various types of economy (national and transnational, productive and speculative). There are notable exceptions: the National Workers' Confederation, and, in the public sector, the workers of the Institute of Hydroelectric and Energy Resources, the railroads and the ports. At one time or another the leaders of these unions were all co-opted by Noriega's nationalist appeal, but his disrespect for people's rights, even those protected by Torrijos' Labor Code, undermined their credibility and support.

Noriega claimed to be the heir of Torrijos, but rejected Torrijos' populist link to the people out of disdain and arrogance. His failure to expand the agrarian reform left peasant settlements isolated and with little economic power, and impeded the birth of a national peasant movement. He easily divided the leaders of indigenous movements. Compounding these setbacks, Panama's archdiocese stifled popular religious movements such as Christian Base Communities. The only significant leftist political force, the communist People's Party, joined in an uncritical alliance with Torrijismo, sustaining it in an opportunistic and suicidal form during the Noriega years.

Not everyone accepted indignity and submission. The sister Catholic churches of Colón, Kuna Yala and Darién issued a declaration on January 25, 1990. It denounced the neoliberal policy of the new government, the obstacles created to keep the human rights commissions from determining the truth about the number of deaths in the invasion and ensuing witch hunt, and the lack of interest in reconciliation. This message emphasized the importance of the struggles for agrarian reform, the indigenous areas, food production and political education. It recognized the existence in Panama of "small popular organizations... that continue to struggle for their rights and for the construction of a popular Panamanian project for life.” Union leaders have forecasted a struggle “if the government doesn't satisfy the people's demands for work and housing.”

An economy that changes little

Panama's traditional model of economic growth developing the service sector based on its geographic advantage—expanded in the 1970s with the introduction of the Financial Center and development of the Colón Free Zone. But the economic crisis began long before US sanctions brought it to the brink of ruin. In 1981, a year in which all productive indicators were negative (-2.5% in agricultural and industrial production, -7% in construction), national income grew by 4% in constant prices. This was due to an 8% increase in transport and communications and an 11% increase in commerce and financial operations. The drop in the productive sector indicates that the fleeting benefits of the expanding service sector were not trickling down to the domestic economy. The great majority of Panama's salaried workers, rural and urban, lacked organized links to the “dynamic” sectors of the economy. At the same time, Panama's foreign debt had become one of the largest per-capita debts in the Third World.
In 1979, the International Monetary Fund demanded that Torrijos end state agricultural subsidies. The economic plan proposed by President Nicolás Ardito Barletta in his 1984 campaign pointed to structural changes, and the World Bank, for which he had previously worked as an economist, wanted him to make even more drastic modifications in the Torrijos Labor Code. Noriega's austerity policies in the last years, which he justified demagogically by the restrictions imposed by US sanctions, in reality are compliance with IMF requirements.

Fundamentally, little will change in the Panamanian economy under the new government. As the opposition, it criticized corrupt management rather than economic orientation. A free market, the privatization of state businesses and services, a cut in social expenditures, reduction of the state payroll, payment of the foreign debt and the promotion of nontraditional exports are policies from the 1980s that will continue. The elimination of small businesses and consequent concentration of capital, the reduction of public services, the absence of plans to redistribute income or invest in agriculture, and the super exploitation of the work force will only become more intense, leading to greater popular dissatisfaction. In addition to the planning ministry, neoliberal Guillermo Ford controls housing, labor, health, foreign relations and, crucially important in Panama, management of the National Lottery.

There is some disagreement over the effect of the US sanctions, but it is not significant—for example, a 20% or 25% decline in the GDP, unemployment of 25% or 33%. According to the data, exports fell by 11.3% and imports by 35%, but these had already started dropping in 1981. Income from taxes fell by 44%, construction by 60% and commerce by 28.3%, showing a decline in the level of investment as well as in consumption. Capital flight is estimated at $24 billion, the majority from deposits in the Financial Center, which dropped from $41 billion to $19 billion. The reduction in domestic bank deposits was equally enormous. In a country whose poverty level never reached the Central American average, the percentage of the population living in poverty rose from 33% to 49.2%.

The United States froze $100 million in reserves of the National Bank of Panama held in US banks. Two hundred US businesses withheld payments to Panama totaling $400 million, including income due from their participation in the canal. The US suspended the 20,000-ton sugar quota, then announced a restriction against Panamanian-flagged ships entering US ports.

Political turbulence leading to the invasion

Barely four months before the May 1989 elections, the candidates for President and Vice President were announced, after failed mediation attempts between the government and opposition to create a situation that would lift US sanctions. The alliances were virtually the same as in 1984; only the names changed.

The ruling National Democratic Union became the Coalition of National Liberation (COLINA) and ran Carlos Duque, Ramón Sieiro and Aquilino Boyd. Evidence that capitalist domination of Panama did not change much under Torrijos is that COLINA’s candidates for President and second Vice President are members of the Panamanian oligarchy; Sieiro is Noriega's brother-in-law. The Democratic Opposition Alliance, created by Arnulfo Arias Madrid, the father of Panamanianism and four-time presidential candidate, added "Civic” to its 1984 name, becoming ADOC. By 1987, it had begun to mobilize the oligarchy and upper middle classes against Noriega; in 1989, its candidates were Guillerrno Endara (Arias Madrid's anointed successor), Ricardo Arias Calderón (of the Panamanian Christian Democratic Party) and Guillermo Ford (of the Liberal Movement for National Revolution). Of these, only Arias did not have known connections to powerful economic interest groups. A third trio of candidates, who also claimed to be successors of Arnulfo Arias, never gained support.

COLINA emphasized nationalism and blamed all evil on US sanctions, while ADOC stressed the illegitimacy and corruption of the ruling party. The four-month campaign was remarkable for its lavish spending in the midst of the country's serious impoverishment and for COLINA’s personal attacks on the opposition via its almost total control of the media. The government required mandatory attendance of public employees at COLINA gatherings, but the opposition rallies were far larger than the government expected, aided by an estimated US$10 million from the US National Endowment for Democracy.

The well-orchestrated US campaign was designed to discredit any result other than the defeat of the ruling party, but it was unnecessary. The opposition won by an estimated three-to-one margin. The most flagrant violation of electoral ethics was the theft of ballot boxes by the military on election day. Official election observers (including former US President Jimmy Carter) were not authorized to observe the vote count. While Carter's angry denunciation of the electoral fraud reeked of the arrogance of US "backyardism," no one challenges the content of his announcement. Three days after the elections, the Electoral Tribunal justified the annulment of the elections based on the US intervention and lack of internal civil conditions. After a few days of protest, in which the photograph of Guillermo Ford's bloody visage circulated around the world, life returned to the urgent necessities of survival.

For three months the Organization of American States tried vainly to mediate a negotiated solution between Panamanians; the intransigence of both parties was absolute. The main revelation in the many OAS sessions was the change in Mexico's traditional foreign policy of total opposition to intervention in the internal affairs of Latin American states, known as the Estrada Doctrine. Nicaragua was the only stalwart of non-interventionism, and did not stint in its support for the ruling party of Panama, or even for Noriega.

The term of caretaker-President Manuel Solís Palma ended on September 1, 1989, as did that of the US-recognized President, Erie Del Valle; Panama faced a legal power vacuum. Noriega's solution was to name Comptroller Francisco Rodríguez as provisional President. When all attempts to form a Legislative Commission with opposition participation failed, Noriega revived the Representative Assembly, Torrijos' old organ of semi-popular power, and stacked it with members of Torrijos' Revolutionary Democratic Party.

In October, events snowballed. An attempted coup against Noriega by the Defense Forces floundered on a series of miscommunications between the US Embassy, the Southern Command and the White House, and the coup's limited support allowed Noriega to recover control. Noriega went into a paroxysm of paranoia and force, reportedly executing several coup plotters by his own hand. He declared martial law, which imposed greater economic austerity, especially on state employees, his own supposed base of support. His new motto was: “Money for friends, bullets for enemies and clubs for the undecided."

Since September, the Southern Command had been conducting continuous military maneuvers, intimidating the population. By early December, Noriega seemed determined to provoke the United States. The Representative Assembly designated him Chief of Government and declared the country in a “state of war” with the United States. Noriega permitted incidents of intimidation against US military personnel.

President Bush, who had been strongly criticized by Congress for his indecision during the attempted coup, carefully measured probable reactions to military intervention in the United States and in Panama. The butchery began at dawn on December 20.

A seismograph at the University of Panama registered more than 400 explosions in 15 hours, some of them equal to 1.7 on the Richter scale. The Pentagon tested its enormously sophisticated new weaponry, including the Stealth bomber, capable of evading radar; "Apache" helicopters, created to replace the “Cobras” used in Vietnam; the HMMWV vehicle, more resistant and flexible than the old jeep. Military equipment and personnel were parachuted in from unheard-of altitudes. The US more than doubled the nearly 12,000 US military troops already in Panama. In these circumstances, Defense Force bases and barracks fell, overwhelmed by an extravagant quantity and quality of firepower; entire battalions were wiped out without knowing what hit them. The El Chorrillo neighborhood, in the area of the Defense Force High Command, disappeared.

Civilian victims, according to former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, number at least 1,500; the US says 202. In late March, the US Southern Command revised its figure for Panamanian military casualties from 314 to 50; were the other 264 actually civilians? In any case, civilian casualties were at least four times that of military casualties. The Conference of US Bishops refers to a total 3,000 victims. There are also 12,000 refugees in camps under US control.

Much is still unknown about this invasion. What is known is that it was designed to achieve its objectives in six hours, but armed resistance dragged on for three days. It was the fourteenth armed US intervention since Panama gained independence in 1903. Obsessed with the drug crisis and the buildup of anti-Noriega sentiment, 91% of North Americans polled approved of it, similar to the Panamanian percentage. When US soldiers temporarily abandoned the capital, looting began. Was it spontaneous popular resistance to create chaos, outbursts of the worst elements of the Panamanian people or just desperate and hungry people? These are questions for history. The looting justified the stationing of US troops in the city and throughout the country.

Nebuchadnezzar's statue definitively revealed its feet of clay. All of Noriega’s boastful calls to resist proved to be an immense bluff; first in hiding and later when he bought asylum in the Papal Nuncio, he abandoned his troops.

The situation in Panama remains extremely carious: a government that apparently won elections in May 1989 is tainted by having been sworn in on a military base in the Canal Zone. This new stage is beginning just as Panama's independence began, with distortion and illegitimacy produced by the intervention of a foreign power.

The Panamanian people now face the difficult task of recovering their identity and rescuing their nationalism from US bullying. They must also build a truly popular movement that will carry a sense of the nation’s history, so often violated by intervention, the egotism of its “rabiblanca” oligarchy (“white-tails” in a country of Blacks and Mestizo peasants) and the rightwing populism of Arnulfo Arias and leftwing populism of Torrijos.

Monroe Doctrine revisited

Ethically, the Panama adventure pushed the US over into bankruptcy. But, as always, the human cost of having advanced its worldwide interests is not counted in the United States. Panamanian dead are "less" dead, not only because their numbers are not recognized, but mostly because they mean little, and the tremendous economic destruction counts even less than the human destruction. Four months after the armed intervention, the Panamanian people are even more impoverished because the expected US aid has not materialized.

The damages produced by the invasion, as calculated by Panamanian business organizations, amount to $1.5 billion, about 28% of Panama's 1987 GDP. Another estimate, made jointly by Panama and the US, reduces this figure to $600 million, which still represents 11% of the same GDP. Over 10,000 jobs were lost, and another 5,000 left in an unstable situation.

By the end of March, the US had allocated only $42 million in aid to Panama. Minister of Planning and Second Vice President Guillermo Ford and Comptroller of the Republic Rubén Darío Carles have provoked a debate about the means of paying this and next year's debt service. Panama is $540 million in arrears, and $250 million more will fall due in 1991. Ford, the most neoliberal of the two, proposes using $130 million of the assets frozen by the US government, while economist Carles calls this form of payment “irresponsible.” In the midst of this debate, President Endara began a hunger strike “in solidarity with the poor of Panama,” dramatizing his despair with the stinginess of the Bush Administration. His request to the United States for boosting the Panamanian economy ranges from a minimum of $1.25 billion to a maximum of $10 billion.

Carles has said that even if Bush's request to Congress for $500 million—the result of Endara's gestures—is approved, “the biggest beneficiaries will be the Panamanian private sector that is ready to begin an intense program to re-supply primary materials and equipment from the United States and those domestic and foreign producers engaged in export of goods to the US market.” The state economy, in contrast, will receive a flow of funds “less than one would suppose.” In fact, the government has laid off more than 2,500 public employees, and seems ready to continue on this track.

Lt. Gen. Colin Powell, head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the international press several days after the invasion of a cable he had sent to be reproduced in poster form for the White House front door: “Here lives a superpower, no matter what the Soviets do, even if they withdraw from Eastern Europe.” Faced with the alternative of ending the Cold War, and with the dominant current in the US Congress demanding massive reductions in the military budget, the Pentagon wanted to demonstrate that US military might is still necessary to wage imperial wars in its sphere of influence. All resistance to military intervention collapsed in Congress and among the US and Panamanian population.

Another clear message was sent to Japan: the US intends to maintain absolute control over the Panama Canal and all that it means for world commerce. The Japanese are unlikely to continue pursuing their proposals to compete with US interests by investing in a similar inter-oceanic passage.

Meanwhile, Latin America remains resentful. Venezuela's ambassador is back in Panama on the de facto Panamanian government's promise that it will legitimize its right to govern with new elections or a plebiscite. After its recent meeting in Mexico, the Group of Eight remains the Group of Seven—Panama was not voted back in. US Vice President Dan Quayle's Latin America fence-mending tour in January covered only Honduras, Panama and Jamaica. In Jamaica, Prime Minister Michael Manley told him sternly of Latin America's opinion of US government arrogance.

The image of the kind of state the United States prefers in its Central American "backyard" also was clear: one with a weak army, equipped to exercise police and security functions, but dependent on US military forces to defend state sovereignty. One example of this kind of state is Costa Rica; Panama is now another. This model may be extended little by little in future negotiating processes in El Salvador and Guatemala, as well as in the new situation created in Nicaragua by the FSLN’s electoral defeat. With the Soviet Union having decided not to stretch its damaged economic capacity further by sending military aid far from its own borders, the US is left as a superpower unchallenged in the Western Hemisphere. However, the disappearance of armies is not so simple; it is possible, as General Marc Cisneros suggested, that the US only hoped to “change the ideology” of the Panamanian armed forces. Possible, but not likely enough to abandon the other hypothesis.

In dictator Ceaucescu's final hours, as he fought for his survival and massacred his people, the State Department suggested to Gorbachev that the US would welcome Soviet military intervention in Rumania. Gorbachev resisted this suggestion. The US then launched its military intervention in Panama. During those days in December, while the USSR used negotiation and maneuvered with extreme prudence regarding German reunification and Lithuanian secession, the US dared to remind the Soviet Union that the use of force in Lithuania would be disastrous for US-USSR relations. President Bush assured that the Panama invasion was an isolated act and would not be repeated. In fact, the Brezhnev Doctrine had become history, while the Monroe Doctrine remains an active policy.

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On the Verge of Peace, or Civil War?

Whither Central America? Coopted Negotiation or Participatory Democracy?

The Monroe Doctrine and the End of Torrijismo

Costa Rica
Showcase for Democracy and Economic Reformism?

Low Intensity War and Revolutionary Maneuvering

El Salvador
Forcing Negotiation

Neoliberalism Unopposed

Challenges to the Military Model

Final Reflections
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