The New Nation
The first president of the new Republic of Panama was Dr. Manuel Amador Guerrero, an elderly, well-respected medical doctor from a prominent Panamanian family and the leader of the little band of revolutionaries. Panama was a kind of democracy, but leaders inevitably came from the wealthiest, whitest families.
One of the biggest challenges to the new republic was an independence movement among the Kunas of the San Blas Islands. The Kuna declared their independence from Panama in February of 1925 and announced the creation of their own country, the Republic of Tule. A brief war ensued that left about two dozen dead.
The United States intervened and presided over a peace treaty between Panama and the Kunas that gave the latter the semiautonomous status they retain to this day. The other indigenous peoples of Panama have slowly gained similar control over their ancestral lands over the years through the establishment of comarcas (reservations). Some are still fighting for comarca status.
A figure who loomed large in Panamanian politics through much of the 20th century was Arnulfo Arias Madrid, a Harvard Medical School graduate from a family of provincial farmers. Along with his brother, Harmodio Arias Madrid, he was a leading figure in a group called Acción Comunal that overthrew the president, Florencio Harmodio Arosemena, in a bloody assault on the presidential palace in 1931.
Note: Many of the major figures in Panamanian politics have similar names, including many who are not remotely related.
Arosemena was replaced by Ricardo J. Alfaro, a choice acceptable to Acción Comunal. The following year, Arnulfo’s brother was elected president. The United States decided not to intervene in any of this. It was the country’s first successful coup.
But it was hardly the last. Arnulfo Arias himself, ironically enough, endured them incessantly. He was elected president of Panama at least four times (voter fraud makes the official outcome in two elections hard to confirm) between 1940 and 1984. Each time he was either deposed or forbidden to take office by the Policía Nacional (National Police) or its successor, the Guardia Nacional (National Guard).
Arnulfo, as he is known in Panama, was a charismatic populist who espoused a vehement brand of nationalism known as panameñismo. He was also a fascist sympathizer during World War II who was determined not only to rid the isthmus of North Americans but also of fellow citizens he deemed undesirables. Nevertheless, he was beloved by many of Panama’s poor and disenfranchised, who saw him as a counterweight to the power of the oligarchy.
In 1941, at the beginning of his first aborted administration, he introduced a new constitution that replaced the one instituted in 1904. Among other things, it increased the presidential term of office to six years. But it’s most notorious for blatantly racist provisions that forbade the immigration of blacks from non-Spanish-speaking countries, as well as Chinese, Indians, and Arabs.
It also stripped those already in the country of their citizenship. It was replaced with yet another constitution five years later, after he was overthrown the first time. But Arias is also credited with establishing many of Panama’s most important institutions, such as the social security system, and expanding the rights of some of its citizens.
The Rise of the National Guard
The commander of the National Police, José Antonio Remón Cantera, militarized and increased the power of the force and served as kingmaker (and breaker) for several Panamanian presidents before running for president himself.
In a strange series of events, he first opposed and then installed Arnulfo Arias as president in 1949, declaring, without presenting evidence, that the election of the year before should have found Arias the victor. Arias’s second attempt at wielding power deteriorated rapidly, and demonstrations against him turned so violent he was forced to hole up in the presidential palace with his most loyal supporters.
Two officers of the National Police were shot dead on the steps of the palace under mysterious circumstances. The murders were to prove emblematic of the enmity that would exist for the rest of the century between the arnulfistas and the National Police, later the National Guard. Arias was removed from power a second time.
Remón decided it was time to become president himself. He was elected in 1952 and began a campaign of social and economic reforms that was cut short in 1955 when he was machine-gunned to death at a horse-racing track on the outskirts of Panama City. All kinds of conspiracy theories have been put forth about who was behind the assassination. One even points the finger at the American mobster “Lucky” Luciano. Panama City’s racetrack was renamed in Remón’s honor.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition