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How Panama almost forgot its decades of military dictatorship

Lest we forget: Omar Torrijos’s mausoleum. Hector Alcibiades via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

By Latin American standards, Panama’s years under a military regime are something of a mystery. While the world is well aware of how it ended, not many know how it began or what it entailed for the people who lived under it. And strangely enough, a similar sort of amnesia holds sway in Panama itself.

The military regime came to power in 1968, when the National Police lost patience with what they considered undue interference in their internal affairs by the newly elected president, Arnulfo Arias. On October 11 that year, Arias was unseated in a coup led by Major Boris Martínez and Lieutenant Colonel Omar Torrijos.

Once in control, Martinez and Torrijos discovered that they had no shared government project, and they could not agree on a date when they would turn over control to the civilian authorities – and yet the ensuing regime lasted for more than two decades. More than 100 people are thought to have been killed and disappeared during its reign, while countless more suffered torture and arbitrary detention.

There were two clear peaks of violent repression, one at the start of the regime and then another starting in the mid-1980s under Manuel Noriega. In its violent early years, the regime fought to eliminate the pro-Arias guerrillas in the provinces of Chiriqui and Cocle, and struggled with in-fighting inside the security forces.

After relative stability was achieved in the early 1970s, the regime managed to gradually co-opt a large part of the commercial elite. It won the sympathies of civil servants and government advisors, and with the help of subsidised housing and expansive government assistance programs, brought in parts of the lower and middle class too.

But whenever this incentive-based style of political control failed, selected opponents were arbitrarily detained or forcefully exiled. The regime returned to the business of raw repression around 1984, and its support duly eroded. It was only brought down on December 20 1989, when US troops finally invaded the country and removed Noriega from office.

Forgotten plight

Despite the work of a state-sanctioned truth commission, Panamanians themselves are largely unaware of the intricacies of the regime. Instead, a sort of amnesia has set in – and along with it, a sort of revisionist nostalgia. During my first visit in 2011, a cabbie told me that as many Panamanians see it, “Torrijos was a cool guy” – and in reference to Noriega, everybody’s favourite bad guy, “not like Pineapple Face.”

Because Panama’s military government made extensive use of carrots as well as sticks, it claimed relatively few victims compared to the juntas that controlled other Latin American countries. That, in turn, means that what victims there were are more easily forgotten. The regime also expanded the state’s role in the economy, becoming not only the largest employer in the country, but also the largest sponsor of social and development projects. To this day, many view the Torrijos era in particular as an era of progressive caudillismo, and regard its victims with suspicion.

Manuel Noriega after he surrendered to US forces in 1990.

The lack of interest in the past also owes something to the survival of the political party which the military founded in 1978 to safeguard its power, the Partido Democrático Revolucionario (PRD). Touting a logo of a circled white number 11, the day of the coup, the PRD has over the years tried to distance itself from Noriega and whitewash what it calls the “revolutionary process”.

Far from dealing with the regime’s legacy, several of Panama’s post-dictatorship administrations were forced to strike political pacts with the PRD just to be able to govern. And until the late 1990s, Panama only had two nationally viable political parties, both of which were associated with the regime era: on the one hand the PRD, and on the other the Partido Panameñista, heir to Arias’ deposed Partido Arnulfista.

The birth of the centre-right Cambio Democrático (Democratic Change) party in 1998 somewhat alleviated this situation, but despite a return to full democracy, a genuine examination of the country’s painful recent past has not yet been forthcoming.

Under pressure

Whatever small gains have been made since the dictatorship fell were not part of a commitment to address the past, but the result of spasmodic reactions by governments under pressure.

The truth commission was little more than a forced compromise for the president who established it, Mireya Moscoso. She knew that mounting a full judicial process to examine the dictatorship’s crimes would have been impossible, but the unearthing of human remains bearing visible signs of torture on the site of a former military base meant something had to be done.

Fraught with internal problems, the truth commission was underfunded and constantly harassed by the judiciary. In 2004, its first report was turned into a handbook to be included in the mandatory history curriculum, but once Torrijos’ son, Martin, was elected president that same year, the handbook promptly disappeared from the repositories of the Ministry of Education.

Yet funnily enough, the younger Torrijos also opened the door to meaningful forms of resolution. He appointed one of the legal advisors to the Truth Commission, Ana Matilde Gomez, to be his attorney general. Once in office, she appointed a Special Investigating Agent to follow up on cases of forced disappearance, and designed a policy that equated the crimes of the military regime to crimes against humanity.

A demonstration by victims of Panama’s dictatorship. Author provided

Still, as far as the victims’ rights are concerned, the most important work has been done outside Panama. In 2008, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights Court forced the state to apologise for the forced disappearance and extrajudicial execution of Heliodoro Portugal and typify the crime of enforced disappearance. In 2012, the family of Rita Irene Wald Jaramillo reached a friendly settlement with the state before the commission, and Panama has slowly been paying its dues to the surviving relatives.

And most recently, in April 2016, the commission took a historic step and declared a petition by victims of the military dictatorship admissible after almost 13 years of campaigning. The original document asked that the state acknowledge that, among other things, their rights to life, liberty and personal security had been violated, along with their rights to due process. Given that 109 of the regime’s victims were included in this package, this means a lot to many Panamanians.

Many surviving relatives are unlikely to see their cases legally resolved inside Panama because of their old age and the difficulty of obtaining evidence. Yet, as they have both been involved in negotiations with the representatives of the victims, the Martinelli and, more recently, Varela administrations seem to be taking real steps towards acknowledging the suffering caused by the regime.

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