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Central America, considerably more so than the rest of Latin America, has been a region of great political turmoil. In addition to its inherent instability, there has always been a pronounced foreign interest in the area. Central America is geopolitically important to the United States, who considers the area to be the center of her sphere of influence in Latin America. Of the five countries, the two that have been affected the most by U.S. interests throughout their history have undoubtedly been Panama and Nicaragua. Thus, perhaps because of this high level of involvement, dictators have emerged in the two countries whose regimes have been based on and greatly influenced by the United States. As well, political development in these two countries has been somewhat retarded by the fact that dictatorships were prevalent. However, with the fall of the dictators in each respective country, a wide range of political development has been enacted.
The programs of Anastasio Somoza Debayle of Nicaragua and Omar Torrijos of Panama exemplify the effects that a foreign power so intertwined in the internal affairs of a country may have on a dictator s regime. These two caudillos, both ruling in countries dominated by U.S. foreign policy, and both influenced greatly by the U.S. in their military schooling, surprisingly differed greatly in the way they handled U.S. intervention in their country and in their political programs. Because of this, the way in which the U.S. subsequently dealt with each country throughout different administrations was distinct as well. To understand why the downfall of each dictator was so different, and why Somoza s legacy is one of an oppressive dictator, while Torrijos was the dictator with a heart , it is necessary to understand the backgrounds of their respective countries, their personally distinct backgrounds, the programs they administered, their differing techniques when interacting with the U.S. and how the U.S. responded to such tactics.
Foreign dominance manifested itself throughout the early history of both Nicaragua and Panama, specifically because of their geographic importance as a trade route between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Both the United States and Great Britain played an extensive role in the early history of these countries, specifically in that they took it upon themselves to use the land as they saw fit, without consulting with any Central American authority before doing so.
Nicaragua s history tells a lot about the subsequent internal conflicts with in the country, as well as her relationship with the United States. At first, Nicaragua was a part of the Central American federation which broke away from Spain, but eventually attained her own independence in 1838. Disputes between Liberals and Conservatives plagued the country for most of its history, but specifically from 1824 until 1842. Finally in 1845 the Conservatives, led by Fruto Chamorro (great-grandfather of Pedro Juaqu n Chamorro), secured control of the country over Bernab Somoza (great-uncle of Anastasio Somoza Garc a), leader of the Liberals. Ironically, these names were to play a huge part in the politics of Nicaragua for years to come. Even back then, a Somoza was looking to the U.S. for monetary aid, as Robert Pastor points out, Bernab had requested aid from the United States, which denied it because he was considered a notorious bandit (Condemned to Repetition 18).
Shortly after this, U.S. and British involvement in the region increased significantly with the 1848 California gold rush. Nicaragua was used as a transisthmian transit route for both powers, and in 1850 they agreed on the Clayton-Bulwer treaty, which guaranteed equal access to the Isthmus for both powers. Any future railway or canal built would be jointly controlled and neutral. No Central American authority, including Nicaragua, was consulted about this plan. As a result, in 1851 Vanderbilt developed the first transit route across the isthmus.
The apparent presence of yankee imperialism became even more obvious with the Walker affair of 1855. William Walker, a firm believer in manifest destiny and a known U.S. filibuster (he had done the same thing in Mexico even though the U.S. repeatedly tried to discourage him) took advantage of the civil war between the Conservatives and the Liberals in Nicaragua and eventually made himself president of the country. The Liberals had invited him to help them defeat the Conservatives. Once he had done so, he allowed a Nicaraguan Liberal to rule as president for a short period of time until he declared himself president in 1856. As President, Walker took over Vanderbilt s transit company, legalized slavery and declared English to be the official language. Throughout the period the U.S. alternately gave or revoked recognition of Walker s government depending on public opinion at the time. This was one of the only times the Liberals and Conservatives, unified and consequently threw Walker out of the country with financial aid from Vanderbilt.
After this a period of relative peace ensued in a Nicaragua ruled by Conservatives. From 1857 until 1893, the Conservatives were able to stay in power because the party developed a system to rotate its leaders…forms of democracy were maintained. The opposition was ignored or suppressed, and elections were rigged. Still, these were years of relative peace (Pastor, Condemned to Repetition 19). There was much less foreign interference during this period of peace due to the Civil War in the U.S. and Great Britain losing many of her colonies in Africa. Liberals finally seized power with the election of Jos Santos Zelaya, and Nicaragua began to modernize.
At this point the U.S. began to play a more significant role in the internal affairs of Nicaragua. Just having finished the war with Spain, the U.S. turned her attention to the Caribbean and Central America with the need of excluding other powers from the area. Thus, the U.S. repealed the Clayton-Bulwer treaty, retaining all power in the area for herself and building a transisthmian canal. Though much deliberation went into where to put the canal, and although Nicaragua had been the main center of trade throughout the 19th century, the decision was finally made to build it in Panama. Meanwhile, with the notion of modernization, Zelaya was making plans to build an alternate canal through Nicaragua and initiated negotiations with Germany, Great Britain and Japan. Becoming aware of this, the U.S. financially aided the Conservatives in the overthrow of Zelaya s government in 1909 under the guise of the 1903 Roosevelt corollary to the Monroe Doctrine which justified U.S. intervention in the Caribbean. Because of the large investment the U.S. had made in building the canal, the U.S. was intimately concerned with Central American and Caribbean stability, thus installed a puppet government. As Pastor points out,
Whereas internal instability and cross-border intervention in the region was hardly noticed by the U.S. in the 19th century, it generated profound disquiet and occasionally direct military action by the U.S. in the 20th. The are had not changed; the reach and the investment of the U.S. had (Condemned to Repetition 20).
This was not only true of Nicaragua, but of all Central American countries at some point in their history.
After this first intervention in Nicaraguan politics, it was as though the U.S. was sucked into all internal affairs of the country. The U.S. essentially occupied Nicaragua from 1912 until 1933, installing a series of presidential puppets. During this time the U.S also created the Guardia Nacional , which was a non-partisan police force trained and equipped by the Marines to oversee Nicaragua, essentially trained and motivated to act as an occupation force within its own country.
Many Liberals at this point were rising up against the puppet conservative governments that the U.S. had installed, and perhaps the most notorious among the rebels was Augusto C sar Sandino. At first fighting along liberal lines, Sandino realized that the Liberals he was fighting for had also agreed to align themselves with the United States, basically selling out . Sandino and his Army for the Defense of National Sovereignty continued to fight against U.S. occupation and their marines, and even against Nicaragua s own Guardia Nacional, which was turned against him by liberal General Jos Maria Moncada who became president by aligning with the U.S. It is true that although there was never any possibility Sandino would overthrow the government, he did succeed in capturing the popular imagination as a national David- one of Latin America s first- struggling against the U.S. Goliath (Pastor, Condemned to Repetition 24). This image of Sandino would serve to haunt the Somoza dynasty for years to come.
Sandino agreed to stop his insurgency once the U.S. pulled out of Nicaragua, and the U.S. agreed to leave Nicaragua after the elections of 1932. Both sides did what they agreed to do, but the U.S. left the Guardia Nacional intact with the American trained Anastasio Somoza Garcia at its head– a Nicaraguan sure to look after the interests of the U.S. Juan Sacasa was elected president, but the real power lay in the hands of the head of the Guardia Nacional. Somoza used this power to kill Sandino in 1933, another action that would later serve to haunt his dynasty.
Panama s history, on the other hand, is linked in a much more direct fashion with the United States. Virtually since its independence, Panama has had to adhere to whatever restrictions or interference the U.S. decided to place on the country, because without the U.S. Panama might have never gained independence from Gran Colombia.
Independent from Spain in 1821, Panama decided to join Colombia as a member of La Gran Colombia. To Colombia Panama was relatively unimportant– but it was of obvious importance to countries that were engaged in mercantile endeavors. Panama was affected by the California gold rush of 1848 in the same manner that Nicaragua was, and this boom of trade and involvement in Panama lasted from 1849 until 1869. A transisthmian railroad was completed in Panama in 1856 which greatly aided in the transport of goods from one side of the continent to the other. Unlike the period of peace in Nicaragua while the U.S. and Great Britain were involved with their own affairs, the region of Panama was continuously at war with Gran Colombia, constantly trying to break away from the confederation, but did not have the power to do so.
The United States had first approached Colombia to negotiate a deal to build a canal through Panama. The U.S. proposed the Herran-Hay treaty which would give the U.S. permission to build the canal in exchange for 10 million dollars. Colombia would not agree to this, so the U.S. did what it knew how to do best: get involved in the internal politics of the country. Realizing that Panama had long been trying to gain its independence, the U.S., with Roosevelt s consent, offered to help the Panamanian independence movement if she agreed to the U.S. building the canal through her territory. Panama agreed, and on November 3, 1903, gained her independence.
Phillipe Bunau-Varilla, the man who had the equipment to build the canal, but was not Panamanian himself, was negotiating the treaty with the U.S. on behalf of the Panamanians. As a result, the treaty did not take into account the interests of the Panamanian community, and instead greatly favored the U.S.. Secretary of State John Hay, who was negotiating the treaty even realized this, and acknowledged it by stating that we have a very advantageous treaty for the U.S., and not so for Panama. You and I know very well how many points are in that treaty that every Panamanian patriot would object to. (Alfaro, 122-125).
The Hay-Bunau Varilla treaty of 1903 basically stated that the U.S. had permission to build the canal and have a 5 mile strip on either side of it that was governed by the U.S. It gave the U.S. rights over the canal as if it had sovereignty, and the canal would be governed by the U.S. in perpetuity, in other words, for an indefinite amount of time. The Platt Amendment was also built into the treaty, which stated that the U.S. had the right to intervene in the internal affairs of the country in order to secure its independence and its solvency. This was essentially to protect U.S. interests and allow the U.S. to legally intervene and mediate over any internal conflicts that may occur. This was mainly because the canal was the United State s biggest investment up until that point in history, and could not afford to lose control over it. Thus, in the case of Panama the U.S. really had no need to install a force such as the Guardia Nacional in Nicaragua because not only did the treaty give the U.S. legal rights to intervene, the stakes were too high. As Priestly points out:
The U.S. was unwilling to accept prolonged instability there. During the early part of the century, moreover, the American government preferred to use its own forces to control disorder in Panama rather than create an indigenous armed force that might itself threaten U.S. interests. Panama was too vital to risk U.S. dependence on a Somoza (11).
The U.S. couldn t risk having such an important investment be guarded by a non-partisan police force that was not American.
In fact, the U.S. used this legal right to intervene 12 times in Panama between 1906 and 1928. Because Panama was essentially the jugular vein of U.S. hemispheric defense, especially during both World Wars, the U.S. would not tolerate prolonged instability (Priestly, 10).
Panama was ruled by a series of oligarchical elites that rotated power . They had a very hard time appeasing the population s want of sovereignty, particularly because there was really no way for them to achieve it due to the choke-hold the United States placed on Panama. A series of crises resulted from this inability to obtain sovereignty for Panama, the first taking place between 1925 and 1932 (around the same time as Sandino in Nicaragua) and the second between 1947 and 1952. The first was instigated by the nationalist middle class mobilizing the popular classes to end oligarchical rule and U.S. intervention. The U.S. successfully intervened a number of times during this period and killed hundreds of Panamanians in the process. This resulted in a treaty in 1936 between Franklin Roosevelt and current president Harmodio Arias Madrid which abolished the U.S. right of intervention in internal affairs, yet still obligated Panama to ally with the U.S. in times of war (Priestly, 11).
The second crisis which began in 1947 was due to the extreme amount of intervention in Panama at the end of WWII and the beginning of the Cold War period. The Filos-Hines treaty was being negotiated to allow 130 military facilities that were used during the war to remain open. Student and teacher groups mobilized and the treaty was not ratified. Therefore, although the Panamanian oligarchy basically did whatever the U.S. wanted them to, popular movements in Panama had the ability to sway U.S. policy.
The background of these two Central American countries are very similar with regard to their importance as trade routes to Great Britain and the U.S. during the middle of the 19th century. Both were of geopolitical importance to the United States, but because of the large investment made in Panama, the U.S. was much more involved in every aspect of her internal affairs. Both also had nationalist uprisings against the U.S. intervention and both of these uprisings succeeded in the short term. However, the main difference is that the U.S. had much more to lose in Panama, thus was much more involved since Panama s independence. Such extensive involvement can be said to have been a determining factor in the development of Torrijos later tactics of balancing the interests of the Panamanian oligarchy with the demands of the popular classes, while embracing an anti-american stance in all foreign policy. Anthony Lake asserts that Washington was a midwife to the birth of the Somoza dynasty (10), thus in the same way that the U.S. influenced Torrijos, it can be said that U.S. involvement in Nicaragua, especially the U.S. creation of the National Guard, may have directly led to the rise of the Somoza dynasty.
To understand the differences between the regimes of Somoza and Torrijos in countries that are geographically and historically quite similar, it is essential to understand each of their backgrounds and their rise to power.
Anastasio Somoza Debayle s background is particularly important to understanding his rule, because without the events that preceded his rise to power and the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua, he may have never achieved the infamous place in Nicaraguan history that he has.
The first Somoza, Anastasio Garcia, commonly referred to as Tacho, basically manipulated his way into power. By appealing to U.S. authorities in Nicaragua he managed to become appointed to head the National Guard. He spoke English perhaps better than he spoke Spanish, and used U.S. involvement in Nicaragua to his advantage– to secure a place in power. Pastor makes an interesting observation when stating that Nicaraguans had become so accustomed to U.S. control that the psychology of their dependent relationship continued long after U.S. involvement ended. Somoza, having begun as an interpreter, proved most adept at manipulating the image of the relationship and made it appear that the U.S. condoned, approved or even instructed him (Condemned to Repetition 26). Thus Somoza used what was already inherent in Nicaraguan culture for decades, he exploited his people in the same manner that the U.S. had.
It seems that at first the U.S. wanted to block Somoza s attempt to take over Sacasa s government, but decided not to because of past criticism of U.S. intervention in Nicaragua. Thus, the U.S. not taking action, or her policy of non-interference, permitted Somoza to have a clear path to the presidency, and even made it seem as if the U.S. was rewarding Somoza for killing Sandino (Pastor, Condemned to Repetition, 27).
A significant amount of the Nicaraguan population was aware of the way Tacho had manipulated his power as head of the National Guard, and the opposition refused to participate in the 1936 election– an act of defiance that became common during the Somoza dynasty. Once in power, Tacho changed the constitution so that he could remain in power until 1947. He used the office of presidency for profit and power, amassing a huge fortune at the cost of the Nicaraguan population.
In the 1947 elections, Tacho appointed Leonardo Arguello as the presidential candidate. The election was rigged and Arguello won, but once in power he tried to force Tacho to resign as head of the National Guard. At that point Arguello was deposed and Somoza took power once again. The U.S. withheld recognition of Anastasio Garcia s government, but this pressure was not enough to make him give up his hold on Nicaragua. He was reelected again in 1951, and perhaps in a gesture of appeasing U.S. demands, he constitutionally guaranteed the opposition party a third of the seats in congress.
Tacho consistently tried to get the U.S. to back his regime, or at least make it seem like they were backing his regime, by getting aid. In 1952 to get military and financial aid, Tacho offered to help the U.S. with its plan to overthrow what they believed to be the communist Guatemalan government. Truman declined the offer, but as administrations changed, so did their policy towards Nicaragua. Eisenhower saw communism in Guatemala as a serious threat and appreciated the loyalty of Somoza– he didn t care that he was a dictator. According to Lake, In the Cold War setting, the Guardia was no longer seen as an embarrassing barrier to democracy. It was a bulwark against communism (16). Thus, he approved a military aid agreement in which the CIA would use Nicaraguan territory to train Guatemalan rebels. With the money the U.S. gave Nicaragua, Somoza plotted against Costa Rican president Figueres, who Somoza thought was in turn plotting against him in corroboration with Pedro Juaqu n Chamorro. However, the U.S. supported Figueres, and thus reduced aid to Nicaragua. In 1956, just as Tacho was nominated by his party to serve another term, he was shot by Nicaraguan poet Rigoberto Lopez Perez.
Tacho s rule was marked by the pretense of him being a U.S. surrogate, yet he learned to dodge and ignore U.S. pressures. At the same time he left behind a ravaged, bankrupt nation that his sons, Lu s and Anastasio, would have to deal with.
After Tacho s assassination, Lu s Somoza was chosen to complete his father s term. Both of Tacho s sons viewed the country as their estate since their father had accumulated such a huge amount of wealth and land from the country. At the time, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, or Tachito, was enrolled in West Point and had completed most of his schooling (except for 4 years) in the United States. When his brother came to power, Tachito was appointed head of the National Guard, and his first decision was to arrest hundreds of opposition leaders. Meanwhile, the U.S. had enlisted Nicaragua in their effort to overthrow Castro, and Lu s volunteered the coast to serve as a staging for the Bay of Pigs invasion. There was a period of unprecedented growth at this time in Nicaragua due to the Alliance for Progress as well as the Central American Common Market. In 1963 Lu s allowed another candidate, Rene Schick to run for the Liberal Party, but as usual, the Somozas retained the real power.
In 1967 Anastasio Somoza Debayle was nominated by the Liberal party and won the election. The opposition still claimed that the elections were not free as they had in his father s time. Tachito also maintained control of the National Guard while he was president, an action forbidden by the constitution. In 1967, Lu s Somoza, the only moderating influence on Tachito, died after suffering a heart attack.
Thus, Tachito rose to power directly due to his family s dynasty and control in Nicaraguan politics. He had the strong loyalty of the National Guard, and the U.S. requested the support of his brother and eventually of him, so there was essentially nothing the population could do to keep him from gaining power. The background of Omar Torrijos and rise to power of Omar Torrijos for the most part was quite different.
In 1968 in Panama there was a collapse of the civilian oligarchy– a crisis of hegemony. This ruling elite was morally and intellectually bankrupt, and could not secure the end of U.S. colonial presence in Panama, which was exactly what the population was looking for the government to do. This oligarchy had been in power for seven decades before the October revolution of 1968, which was essentially a coup d etat. Superficially, the development of Panama seemed to be improving: the GNP had doubled from 415.8 million in 1960 to 897 million in 1970. However, the wealth was not equally distributed, and was held by a very small percentage of the population. The popular movement was provoked by these economic conditions. Workers demanded better working conditions and the middle class stepped up their struggle for sovereignty of the canal zone. The oligarchy at the time could not make the needed reforms or secure decolonization, and top of all of this , the ruling elite were arguing amongst themselves.
Although the Panamanian army had been abolished by the U.S. in 1904, a National Guard was organized in 1953 by Antonio Remon Cantera. It was this institution that initiated the coup in 1968. This police force was quite different from its counterparts all over Latin America in that it was not set up as a tool of an intervening foreign power (such as the U.S.)– instead it was set up with the idea of eradicated such an interventionist force. The problem in 1968 was that the civilian oligarchy could not secure political dominance on its own– but at the same time could not achieve an alliance with this National Guard.
Torrijos attended a U.S. sponsored military training institution just as Somoza had, and just as Somoza had, Torrijos rose through the ranks of the National Guard to eventually become its head. Torrijos attended The School of the Americas, which at the time was located in the canal zone. According to Collazos, this institution had produced 34,000 graduates from the time of its founding in 1949 to the mid 1970 s. Of those, 3,500, or the fourth highest number, were from the Panamanian National Guard (34). The difference between the two dictators was that while Somoza perhaps achieved this because of his daddy , Torrijos actually got to where he was on his own.
With the aid of Major Manuel Noriega, Torrijos led the 1968 coup, reorganized the National Guard, and by 1970 was the undisputed leader of the National Guard and the country. To do this he got the middle sectors and students of society, who had been causing the oligarchy so many problems, on his side. His strategy of co-optation and assimilation worked. He abolished all traditional, liberal institutions, including the National Assembly and all political parties. He also constitutionally combined legislative and executive power into the hands of the military. Thus, while both Torrijos and Somoza can be considered military dictators, they rose to power in very different ways. An analysis of what they did once they were in power, including a description of their programs and their constituency, would further aid in understanding their distinct legacies.
As Tachito was coming to power in Nicaragua, Nixon was coming to power in the U.S. Both saw communism as a major threat in the hemisphere (Pastor, Condemned to Repetition, 36), therefore Tachito had the full support of the Nixon administration.
Tachito s constituency was basically made up of the same people who had supported his father. The upper classes, the landed oligarchy, the Liberal party, and of course, the National Guard all loyally supported him.
A turning point in Tachito s rule was the earthquake of 1972. This event brought to light how corrupt the Somoza regime actually was, if not to the Nicaraguan population itself (a majority of whom already realized this), then to the rest of the world. Eight to ten thousand died in the earthquake, while hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans were left homeless. Tachito, meanwhile, concentrated on turning his country s crisis into a personal gain. Because his family owned most of the means of production of Nicaragua, he was the one making money off of the restoration of Managua. He basically pocketed all the aid that was sent to Nicaragua to help the victims of the earthquake while doing little to actually help those who were suffering.
Because of this, those who were not already fed up with the Somozas were losing patience quickly. The business community s contempt for Tachito stemmed from his obvious exploitation of the earthquake. Because of this he lost the support of the middle and upper classes.
As the time of the elections were coming around again in 1974, Somoza once again rewrote the constitution in order to run again. The opposition, which was united with Pedro Juaqu n Chamorro, once again refused to take part in them. With the 74 election Tachito lost the support of church when the bishops and the opposition refused to be a part of his inauguration. At this point, Somoza was becoming aware of the strong opposition that had built up against him, and later confided to an aide that My single biggest mistake was running for reelection in 1974 (Pastor, Condemned to Repetition 37).
By this time the opposition had already consolidated against Somoza to form the FSLN, or Frente Sandinista de Liberaci n Nacional. Turning Sandino into a figure that was larger than life , even a martyr, the Sandinistas opposed the Somoza dynasty while constantly reminding the NIcaraguan people of the sin the first Somoza had committed: killing Sandino. In 1974 Tachito s government received a huge blow when the Sandinistas raided a Christmas party held in honor of a U.S. ambassador. They took many important hostages and demanded release of prominent political prisoners, a large sum of money, publication of their propaganda and radio time. Somoza conceded grudgingly to these demands, but as soon as he could he declared marshall law and authorized the National Guard to wipe out the Sandinistas, which they almost succeeded in doing.
As Carter came into office in the U.S., Tachito began to feel pressure not only from his opposition in Nicaragua, but the U.S. was for once making real demands on his regime. Carter s administration concentrated on the advancement of human rights and democratization mainly because they were free of the fear of communism. Carter s administration promoted human rights through the reduction or increase of foreign aid, depending on the improvement made within the country in question. Thus, the friendship that Somoza had built based on mutual fears of communism with past administrations was null and void with Carter s. Carter made this clear by stating that Being confident, we are now free of the inordinate fear of Communism, which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear (Pastor, Condemned to Repetition 50). Carter viewed the inherent continuismo in Nicaragua as the cause of instability, and thought the Sandinistas to be just the symptoms of a problem (Pastor, Condemned to Repetition 50).
Somoza knew he was in trouble with the Carter administration. He tried to change the human rights policy by hiring lobbyists in Washington and rallying the support of friends who had once been his classmates, but now held important positions in Washington. This was all to no avail. Eventually Somoza gave in, if only a little. He said that he would make sure that the National Guard would curb there violations of human rights and perhaps more important to his eventual overthrow, he ended censorship.
With censorship gone, the opposition could promote their views to a broader audience and gain more support. Pedro Juaqu n Chamorro, the leader of the middle class opposition began publishing criticism of the regime in La Prensa and the FSLN got more radio time. However, Tachito didn t seem to realize the implications of this. He counted on the Somoza dynasty continuing, in part because of his son, Anastasio Somoza Portocarrero, and believed that when a new administration came to power in the U.S. his power would be restored as well– he said that this was not the first time that chilly winds had blown down on the Somozas from the north, and he would do as his father and brother had done, crawl into his shell like an armadillo and wait for the wind to pass (Pastor, Condemned to Repetition 55). What Tachito didn t realize was that this time that tactic wouldn t work.
The spark that led to Tachito s downfall perhaps wasn t ignited by him, but it was certainly attributed to his regime, which is all that mattered. On January 10th, 1978, Pedro Juaqu n Chamorro, the descendant of two Nicaraguan presidents and most obvious leader of the opposition was assassinated. This action aligned the moderate opposition with the radical left, and in the process legitimized the FSLN. The shooting of Chamorro seemed to be a replay of the assassination of Sandino by Debayle s father almost 45 years before.
Thus it seems as though Tachito s program was quite simple and self centered. He was primarily an anti-communist, but perhaps this was only due to his clientalistic relationship with the United States. He militarized the country and extended the power and control of the National Guard. And of course, one cannot forget the essential component to his program: continuously altering the constitution in order to lengthen his stay in power.
Having analyzed the convoluted program of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, and his staunchly loyal constituency, the differences in Torrijos constituency and program will seem as different as night and day.
Torrijos was also a military dictator, and much of his constituency did stem from the National Guard, but instead of using it to oppress the people Torrijos created a populist alliance of the Panamanian military and people to legitimize his rule. He realized that if he was going to succeed where the past oligarchical leaders hadn t he would have to have a very different approach to governing the masses. Although he centralized power in the executive, he created structures in order for the people to participate in the government locally. He realized that he would need to incorporate the lower classes (workers, peasants and especially the students who had led all past anti-government movements) into the political system without losing control of the military or falling out of favor with the oligarchy. Unlike Somoza, he did not have the luxury of having a constituency ready made for him, he had to give people a reason to want him in power other the fact that his family had been in power as in the Somoza dynasty. He also couldn t count on the undying support of the military, although he was the head of it, because he already saw the factionalism that could develop within it.
Priestly describes Torrijos plan to appease all sectors of society as bonapartist, in other words, a leadership style in which the leader is able to rise above all classes and establish some autonomy for the state (4). This bonapartist approach can be seen as a revolution from above . It would include the modernization of society, and due to this modernization the bourgeoisie would exchange their political rights and power for the assurance of economic expansion. In this way, Torrijos would not be a captive of the ruling class.
He wanted to create popular participation for the working classes in the political system, while giving the private sector a role in production and distribution in combination with the state playing a significant role in the economy. He created a labor code which favored the interests of the workers, while introducing an economic strategy that was based on export oriented industrialization so that the economy would continue to prosper. In this way he thought he could appease the complaints of the working class and remediate at least some of the unequal distribution of wealth without upsetting the income of the oligarchy.
He did this by enhancing Panama s role as a transport hub and abandoning the policy of import substitution. Instead he stimulated agricultural exports without displacing the private sector. They went along with his economic proposals because they saw their chance to make money. He even convinced U.S. business men to invest by allowing the unrestricted movement of money in and out of the country. In a meeting with some investors, Torrijos told them that he would pursue a policy of expanding markets…favorable to international business and he promised an honest, modern and more responsible public administration (Priestly, 29). He even assured them stability in the Panamanian political arena. In this way he lobbied for foreign investment.
For the lower classes he promoted redistribution through public spending, initiated public sector employment, distributed both public and private lands for agricultural reform, provided social services as well as creating local health groups.
Thus, by creating institutions that would involve the popular classes in politics, and by creating an economic program that would give job opportunities to all Panamanians he included the lower sectors of society who had always been excluded from the government s services. Priestly makes an accurate observation comparing Torrijos regime to others in Central America:
They differed dramatically from the style of rule of other military regimes in Central America. Whereas Anastasio Somoza, for example, chose to close off channels of mass participation, Torrijos dared to open them up (2).
Along with the various reforms and help he gave the lower classes, this is one of the main reasons Torrijos is considered the dictator with a heart . In essence, as Collazos succinctly puts it, Torrijos shifted the locus of power from the traditional elite to a new coalition made up of a rural middle class and an urban middle and lower class (48).
Another important aspect Torrijos program was his extensive agricultural reforms. By tapping into the underutilized land and labor in Panama he fostered economic development. He aided in the coalition of the National Confederation of Peasants Settlements, or CONAC, with the National Guard, which was not an easy task. Even though in the past they had been enemies, he reminded them of their views on imperialism, both of which were anti-imperialist– even though at times CONAC was not willing to sacrifice socialist goals for nationalist ones.
In his agricultural reforms, Torrijos tried to include the peasantry in ways that would not disturb the oligarchy. He stressed non-confrontation and class cooperation among the groups. He had a clientalistic relationship with the peasant settlements and because he was a charismatic leader who set the boundaries of their relationship: he provided them with land, credit and political identity in return for their political support (Priestly 65).
Perhaps the most important aspect of Torrijos program was his foreign policy. In order to maintain the support of most of the Panamanian population he had to maintain a hard line, anti-imperialist, nationalistic and specifically anti-American stance. He was obviously not Washington s boy as Somoza had been, but in a way he was more respected for his efforts to regain the sovereignty of Panama.
In 1973, Torrijos invited the U.N. Security Council to hold their annual meeting in Panama. At this meeting Torrijos introduced a resolution (to the surprise of the U.S.) calling for new treaties regarding the Panama Canal. Embarrassed, the U.S. vetoed the resolution, but this had such a great impact that Ford agreed to negotiate a joint statement of principles regarding the canal in 1974. As the U.S. administration changed, the treaties were put on the back burner. Torrijos used this time to lobby his Latin American neighbors and wrote to president-elect Carter to make the treaties his top priority (Pastor, Whirlpool 7). He also lobbied Congress and enlisted characters such as John Wayne to support the treaties. The new Panama Canal treaties which would hand over power of the canal to Panama were finally ratified on March 16th, 1978 by one vote. Through the process Torrijos developed a close relationship with President Carter, and a much friendlier one than the one that existed between Carter and Somoza.
Thus, the constituencies and programs of Somoza and Torrijos are extremely different from one another. Perhaps this was because Somoza really didn t have to put any effort into obtaining his power. His constituency was already there, and he had a firm grasp on power due to the loyalty of the National Guard. In contrast, Torrijos needed to make sure he appeased all classes in order to maintain power, thus he formulated a complex, yet what resulted in an excellent program for Panama. Priestly observes that:
Caudillos such as Anastasio Somoza have been unable to meet the political demands for both stability and popular participation without fraud or repression, nor have they been able and willing to risk their economic preeminence by presiding over economic reforms sought by social groups inside and outside their countries…the reformist experiment of Omar Torrijos represented a significant exception to this regional rule (117).
This comparison of the two proves even more significant once the downfall of each dictator is examined.
Once Chamorro was killed in Nicaragua, the opposition consolidated, and the businessmen of Managua organized and issued a public demand for Somoza s resignation. At this point, Somoza was well aware of the growing power of the opposition and announced his intention to leave the presidency and the National Guard at the end of his term. Although the U.S. under Carter continued its policy of non-intervention, Carter made it clear that Somoza was not in good standing with the U.S..
On August 22, 1978 the FSLN captured the National Palace and demanded more rights– one of their most important demands was the call for the National Guard to rebel because they realized that there was no way for their movement to succeed unless the National Guard was disbanded. Even Torrijos wanted to take action to remove Somoza, and made this comment in 1978:
The crisis in Nicaragua can be described as a simple problem: a mentally deranged man [Anastasio Somoza] with an army of criminals is attacking a defenseless population…This is not a problem for the OAS; what we need is a psychiatrist (Pastor, Condemned to Repetition 76).
Finally, after months of mediation between Somoza, the opposition, and the U.S., Somoza finally resigned on July 17, 1979.
When all was said and done, according to Claribel Alegr a over 50,000 people had been killed, 80 percent of which were civilian, and Somoza had run up a foreign debt of 1.6 billion dollars through his habit of looting the country. The only impression he left behind, what one could call a legacy was the image of an American-made puppet, a corrupt, oppressive dictator, known for stealing millions from his country.
Omar Torrijos downfall was not quite as drastic, and his legacy certainly has a much more positive light in history. In 1972, Torrijos had created a new constitution which gave him emergency powers for 6 years. In those six years he accomplished a lot, including the signing of the new canal treaties. However, once these six years were up, Carter encouraged Torrijos to hold elections. Thus, Torrijos gave up presidential candidacy to Aristides Royo, a co-negotiator in the canal treaties. He permitted exiles to return to Panama, political parties to reorganize, and even allowed the Inter-American commission on human rights to review human rights in the country, but the truth was that Torrijos let Royo run most of the government, but Royo could not prevent Torrijos from making policy or from conducting his special operations, such as aiding the Sandinistas (Pastor, Whirlpool 14).
Thus, Torrijos downfall was much more subdued and his legacy much more positive than Anastasio Somoza Debayle s. His programs united Panamanian society and greatly improved Panama s economic situation. But as Pastor states, perhaps Torrijos s most significant legacy was that he proved that Latin Americans could achieve goals in the U.S. by understanding the way Washington works (Whirlpool 16).
After analyzing some of the most important aspects of each dictator s regimes we see that although there are some apparent similarities between the two as far as the historical backgrounds of their respective countries, the time period in which they ruled and U.S. administrations they had to deal with, the differences between the two are far greater. Their subsequent legacies serve to show that perhaps if one does what s best for his country, they will appear in the best light throughout history.
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