Unlike their neighbors elsewhere in the region, Panamanian voters have not yet fallen under the spell of the rising populist tide. The incumbent president Laurentino Cortizo maintains Panama’s trajectory on a neoliberal economic model with special emphasis on economic liberalization, privatization, free trade, and reductions in government spending. Yet, because the country has one of the highest levels of inequality and the lowest levels of social spending on the continent, it has not been entirely free of populist spasms. The year 2019 in particular saw a series of repeat popular demonstrations by university students and workers.
Located in Central America, Panama, officially the Republic of Panama, is a country of striking tropical beauty where one can see the sunrise over the Atlantic and set beyond the Pacific. The country is best known for the engineering marvel, the Panama Canal – and lately, for the millions of leaked documents known as the “Panama Papers.” Although Panama occasionally experienced the rise of populist, anti-establishment movements in the early 20th century, Panamanian politics was dominated by traditional elites during the first decades of independence.
Panama’s first experience with populism dates back to the mid-1920s and the formation of Acción Comunal (Patriotic Communal Action), a nationalist and Anti-American political movement. In 1925, Arnulfo Arias Madrid assumed the movement’s presidency and led a successful coup attempt against President Florencio Harmodio Arosemena in 1931. A year later, his brother, Harmodio Arias Madrid, assumed the presidency, and together they established the Panameñista Party in 1932. In the 1940 election, (Arnulfo) Arias Madrid became president after securing some ninety-seven percent of total votes under an electoral coalition composed of five political parties. The sweeping electoral victory was buoyed by his support of a highly nationalist program emphasizing the perceived foreign threats to the country – primarily, the United States and the West Indian and Chinese minorities (Panama: Election Factbook, 1968). Although he began implementing several radical reforms after assuming the presidency, including enacting a new constitution, he was overthrown in a coup by the national police in October 1941.
In 1948, Arias ran again for the presidency. Although he lost to his rival Domingo Díaz Arosemena, Arias was declared victor by the National Assembly a year later. Assuming the presidency for the second time in November 1949, Arias was once again removed from office by a coup, in May 1951.
Running once again in the 1968 election, Arias managed to secure some 54 percent of total votes and became president for the third time. Several months into his presidency, he was overthrown by the National Guard, led by Major Boris Martínez. Although he was never able to complete any of his presidential terms in the office, Arias and his brother became symbols of the ordinary people challenging the traditional, liberal oligarchs (Sanchez, 2008). The traditional elites sought power in wealth; Arias sought legitimacy through his personal, populist leadership that appealed to the masses and their sense of nationalism. To emphasize his membership of the middle class and to dissociate himself from the established elites, he opened up his party to ordinary people such as teachers, shop owners, workers, and to the aforementioned Accion Comunal (Blackman 1985, 13).
When Arias was removed from power in 1968, the era of Omar Torrijos, the Commander of the Panamanian National Guard, began. Until his death in an airplane crash in 1981, General Torrijos set out to establish a regime in which the lower and middle classes were included – at least to a certain extent – at the expense of traditional political parties and elite families (Thedora, 1987). With the help of his control over the military, he adopted populist rhetoric backed by a nationalist agenda that included a limited reaction against United States control over Panama and the Panama Canal (Thedora, 1987). Throughout the early 1970s, the Torrijos regime worked on the formation of a populist alliance composed of the National Guard, students, the working class and rural sector, and some of the other neglected segments of society. Wide-scale purges replaced disloyal figures with loyal Torrijos supporters, many of whom were later rewarded with increased salaries and political positions (Meditz, Hanratty, 1987).
A new constitution that was enacted in 1972 distributed hundreds of thousands of hectares of land to thousands of families across the country (Meditz, Hanratty, 1987). Torrijos also implemented a set of far-reaching reforms to enhance the national education systems and social security for workers. The Torrijos regime was strongly populist. At the same time, it was smart enough not to be openly hostile toward the U.S. and the international money markets. Throughout the late 60s and 70s, the Torrijos regime had been economically supported by Washington, often in exchange for U.S. military presence in the country. During the same era, Panama also enjoyed significant profits from the free market in dollars, while the country became a hub for the banking sector due to “ultraliberal laws” that catalyzed the circulation of funds (Rouquié, 1987). In simpler words, while Torrijos made use of a populist agenda to build popular support to achieve his political goals, he also managed to secure economic support through the U.S. and international agencies. This is not to deny that Torrijos pursued a strong agenda for Panamanian sovereignty throughout his political career. To that end, he managed to get U.S. President Jimmy Carter to sign two treaties in 1977 that enabled the full withdrawal of the U.S. government, gradually handing over control of the Canal to Panama.
After Torrijos died in a plane crash in 1981, Panama was led by the unstable dictatorship of Manuel Noriega. Noriega’s eight-year-long dictatorship was characterized by heavy repression of media outlets, a crackdown on civil and political rights, and the military’s full control of civilian politics. Noriega also had a strange and often complicated relationship with Washington. The Noriega regime eventually ended when the United States military invaded Panama in 1989. He was arrested and extradited to the States, where he was tried and sentenced to 40 years in prison over several crimes, including drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering (Rother, 1992).
Panama was taken over by populist politics once more when Mireya Elisa Moscoso Rodríguez de Arias become president in 1999. After entering office, Moscoso, widow of the aforementioned Arias Madrid, set out to implement a group of tax and educational reforms that aimed at favoring disadvantaged groups, women in particular. Despite her populist reforms, however, income disparity and budged deficits hit record highs during her presidency, while corruption became rampant at all levels of government (Skard 2014, 221). In less than four years, her approval rating plunged lower than any other democratically elected president in Panama’s history (Skard 2014, 221).
Moscoso presidency was ended following the 2004 election, won by another populist, Martín Torrijos, the son of the aforementioned military ruler Omar Torrijos. Campaigning on populist rhetoric, Torrijos emphasized his fight against “poverty, corruption, and despair,” while pledging to adopt a national effort to tackle unemployment and underdevelopment (Robles, 2004). One of his greatest achievements while in power was enacting a plan to double the Canal’s capacity. The plan was approved in an October 2006 referendum, with 78 percent voting in favor. The Torrijos government also implemented a set of judicial reforms to fight corruption and high crime rates. The government’s agenda also included judicial, penal, and anti-corruption reforms, as well as an economic development strategy to target poverty and unemployment. The government implemented a new penal code in May 2008 that took a tougher stance on crime by increasing sentences on serious crimes and other measures.
The 2009 election ended the relative era of populist politics, as a businessman and former government minister, Ricardo Martinelli, assumed the presidency. Within six months of taking office, Martinelli pushed through Congress reforms that raised taxes. The tax increases led to several major street protests in Panama City, with protestors often clashing with riot police, which ended in physical injuries and arrests (Mattson, 2010). During his time in office, he pursued pro-business policies with the goal of turning Panama into an international transport and financial hub.
As of 2020, unlike their neighbors elsewhere in the region, Panamanian voters have not yet fallen under the spell of the rising populist tide. The incumbent president Laurentino Cortizo maintains Panama’s trajectory on a neoliberal economic model with a special emphasis on economic liberalization, privatization, free trade, and reductions in government spending. The main reason for the social peace and the relative lack of appeal to populist politics is Panama’s high economic growth rates, with an average annual per capita growth rate of five percent from the late 2000s to 2020. Yet, because the country has one of the highest levels of inequality (Newsroom Panama, 2019) and the lowest levels of social spending on the continent (E&N, 2015), it has not been entirely free of populist waves. The year 2019 in particular saw a series of repeat popular demonstrations by university students and workers. These protests were mainly about people’s long-lasting exhaustion with corruption, the elite-dominated nature of politics, and deep economic inequality.
October 4, 2020.
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