Courtesy Reuters

Panama: Disaster or Democracy

Shortly after the ratification of the Torrijos-Carter treaties on the Panama Canal in 1978, I visited an academic friend in the United States who follows U.S. policy on Latin America and raised with him the issue of Panama’s continued military regime and the need for democratization. He responded quite candidly and bluntly: "From the point of view of U.S. political leaders, Panama’s problems are solved. The fight over ratification has been costly. They won’t spend more political resources on Panama." Nine years later, early this year, I raised the same issue with a high State Department official in Washington; his response was a diplomatic but forceful put-off: "Do the people of Panama really reject military rule?" In both cases, Panama’s democratization was not perceived as an issue, at least not an urgent one.

Since June I have talked again to both of these persons, this time in Panama. Neither could possibly have repeated their previous remarks, nor did they. The very fact of their visits indicated changed perceptions. They were in Panama precisely because its regime and the need for democratization had exploded into a major national commotion, which the international news media could not ignore and the world community could no longer disregard.

Since early June Panama has been shaken by an unending succession of public demonstrations, both small and large, including on several occasions very effective general strikes. These demonstrations have covered the metropolitan area, especially the financial center, as well as the outskirts of the capital and the most important provincial cities, and have encompassed every major component of Panamanian civilian society.

The national unrest was triggered by the accusations of Colonel Roberto Díaz Herrera, who was retired in late May. A first cousin of the late General Omar Torrijos, he had been the second in command of the Panamanian Defense Forces and was considered to be the guardian of orthodox torrijismo, a version of national security ideology, wrapped in populism and

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