As the 1920s drew to a close and the worldwide depression loomed, the Panamanian nation approached a critical juncture in its brief history. Since independence in 1903, Panama’s ruling elite, mostly urban landlords and wealthy merchants, had unsuccessfully attempted to establish a cohesive front that could effectively govern the new nation. Instead, throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, competing political projects had seriously divided Panamanian society in general, rendering its various components—as has been said about another society at another time —“fragmented and incapable of unified political action other than resistance, violence, defiance, and terrorism.”1

When their attempts to control the political system failed, successive regimes relied increasingly on a combination of police force, political chicanery, and foreign intervention to stifle opposition and contain unrest. In the short run, this rather informal means of ruling compensated for the elite’s lack of a viable political front; it also perpetuated the status quo against increasingly unfavorable odds.2 The combination of the Panama Canal project. World War I, and the economically difficult 1920s, however, caused a marked increase in social and political fragmentation on the Isthmus. The surge in fragmentation translated into escalating political mobilization from 1903 to 1931, when “all sorts of social forces [became] engaged directly in general politics.”3

The divisive fissures caused by this sweeping social and political realignment reached their widest with the outbreak of the depression. In Panama’s predominantly service economy, the world’s financial difficulties in late 1930 and throughout 1931 caused a severe financial recession and a marked rise in unemployment. They imposed further constraints on the distribution of government jobs and contracts. In a nation already splintered into competing interest groups and beleaguered with a severely distended federal bureaucracy, these factors fueled increased political agitation, which, in the early morning hours of January 2, 1931, culminated in the nation’s first armed coup. Disgruntled activists belonging to the moderately nationalist group Acción Comunal (Community Action) took up arms and forcibly ousted the elite regime of Florencio Arosemena.

Declaring their actions “moved by the purest sentiment of patriotism” (see  appendix), the insurgents appeared initially to have achieved unprecedented political unity while gaining access to profitable jobs and contracts previously beyond their reach. As the change in government unfolded, however, the rebels fought among themselves, undermining their relatively unified front. Within months of the revolt, the dissidents had divided into various opposition groups whose agendas often clashed and whose members sometimes even took up arms to oppose their former allies.

In the end, the same nationalist insurgents who had declared themselves “moved by the purest sentiments of patriotism” further divided Panamanian society, using the police to supplant their own inability to govern the nation. By relying on the police in this fashion, Panamanian presidents in the 1930s transformed the police force into an institution capable of dominating isthmian politics the way foreign troops had in decades past. In the process, they established a precedent for the future military regimes of José Remón Cantera, Omar Torrijos, and Manuel Noriega.

This post-coup splintering proved decisive in the formation of the modern Panamanian state. Somewhat like what occurred in the Populist movement in the United States in the late nineteenth century, the activists’ common disdain for the status quo failed to supplant their important differences. In the final analysis, the schisms that occurred in Panamanian politics in the 1930s actually transcended those that had developed during the formative era from 1903 to 1931, extending even to the ranks of the police. There, several disgruntled officers exhibited their divided allegiance in the months following the revolt when they joined in an attempted countercoup, an effort that quickly failed. A second countercoup was attempted in July 1935; this one purportedly involved several prominent members of the National Police, including José Remón. Remón lost his job as a result, only to be rehired in November 1940 by president-elect Arnulfo Arias. Although both attempts failed, moreover, they again accentuated the severity of the divisions that epitomized Panamanian society during the depression.4

The 1931 coup therefore provides a focus through which to explore how the upheaval and its protagonists changed Panama, particularly the increasing role of the police in the nation’s political affairs. A close look at this putsch will underscore the depth and breadth of the fissures that divided Panama socially and politically at the time.

Historian Mario Esteban Carranza has noted that when a “crisis in hegemony” occurs in a government, a “state of exception” ensues, and the military assumes a more prominent role in civil society. Political scientist George Priestly argues further that Panama reached this “crisis in hegemony” in the 1960s. This essay will contend, however, that the crisis occurred much earlier. The research for this study establishes that while Panama’s newly appointed junta survived the two countercoup attempts following the 1931 putsch and punished the perpetrators, the nation’s squalid urban shantytowns continued to overflow with laborers living in the most desperate circumstances. This incendiary combination of middle-class fragmentation and working-class instability placed a premium on the president’s ability to control the police, the sole armed branch of the government (or, in Samuel P, Huntington’s words, the nation’s only “distinct class of specialists in the management of violence”).5 Consequently, a “crisis in hegemony” produced a “state of exception” that triggered “a progressive assumption of political power by the [nation’s] soldiery” in the 1940s, not the 1960s.6

With their governing capacity jeopardized by these problems, the Panamanian presidents of the 1930s organized paramilitary activist groups from the ranks of their own civilian supporters to subdue would-be opponents. Often, the four presidents simply merged these private armies with the police corps, bolstering the police ranks while subduing conflicting allegiances within the officer corps. In this way, presidents from the nationalist Generation of 31 fended off their political enemies despite the escalating anti-administration sentiment of that decade. They also made the police the decisive force in isthmian politics.

The Coup and the Rise of Acción Comunal

While the nation’s ruling elite struggled for political unity at the end of the 1920s, many ordinary Panamanians found themselves struggling to survive. The nation’s growing population of impoverished urban laborers had organized various strikes in the years after World War I in an attempt to improve their living and working conditions. From 1920 to 1924 the country endured a recession. The national budget constricted, and successive regimes compensated for the lack of funds by trimming back hiring and public contracts (see figures 14). As they did so, the more militant components of the middle class increasingly agitated against the government leadership.7

Various activist groups emerged from the tumultuous 1920s and collectively formed what Panamanian scholar Jorge Conte-Porras has dubhed the Generation of ’31.8 In addition to activist elements within extant political parties, the Generation of ‘31 included new groups that emerged in the wake of World War I, such as the Federación Obrera de la República de Panamá (Federation of Panamanian Workers), the Sindicato General de Trabajadores (General Syndicate of Workers), the Liga de Inquilinos (Renters’ League), the Communist and Socialist Parties, and many others, most notably a moderately nationalist, middle-class civic organization called Acción Comunal.

Ricaurte Soler points out that at its founding in 1923, Acción Comunal’s membership consisted largely of engineers, lawyers, doctors, and various bureaucrats.9 Of all the activist groups to emerge during Panama’s formative years, only Acción Comunal achieved sufficient solidarity actually to upend the nation’s status quo—all the more remarkable for a group that at the end of the 1920s still consisted primarily of urban landlords and affluent merchants who had successfully tapped into the Canal Zone bonanza.10

Formed largely in response to difficulties caused by the recession, Acción Comunal gave voice to the more moderate elements of Panama’s expanding middle class. From its inception. Acción Comunal denounced Panama’s ruling elite and its compliance with the United States, promulgating instead a “regeneration” of Panamanian nationality and culture based on “patriotism, action, equity, and discipline.”11 Its platform hinged on seven basic tenets that its members declared would “exalt national values” and revitalize Panama from years of dishonest government, which they blamed on the nation’s pro-U.S. status quo. These tenets were the following:

  1. Teach your children to love the country.

  2. Teach your children to respect the flag.

  3. Speak correct Castilian Spanish.

  4. Address foreigners in Spanish.

  5. Ask for Panamanian currency [the Balboa] and count in Balboas.

  6. Do not make purchases in stores that advertise in English.

  7. Do not make purchases in stores that do not employ Panamanians.12

Armed with these objectives, members of Acción Comunal encountered their first big test in 1925 when they helped organize a successful tenants’ strike among residents of Panama City’s impoverished arrabal (shantytown). There, deplorable living conditions made life nearly unbearable for thousands of employees of the Canal Commission, The railroad and canal projects had overwhelmed working-class neighborhoods in Panama City and Colón. As demonstrated by the data in tables 1 and 2 and figures 5 and 6, these realities triggered massive outmigration in the early 1920s, as people fled urban hardships for the countryside. Later, when the depression began, the pattern would reverse itself as thousands returned to the cities from the nation’s devastated agricultural sector. This flood of returning migrants would magnify crime and other effects of poverty in the arrabal.13

In his study of urban poverty, Alejandro Portes has identified the demands for housing and land ownership as the two most common reasons for political agitation among Latin America’s urban poor. Portes’ findings suggest, furthermore, a tendency among other groups, including middle-class observers, to try to incite “vicarious rebellion’’ among residents of urban slums.14 Portes’ observations clearly apply to the circumstances surrounding Panama’s urban poor in the mid-1920s; and after creating their own organization in 1923, Acción Comunais leaders saw the wretched condition of the poor as an opportunity. By inciting the strike and then helping organize it, Harmodio Arias and other Comunalistas couched their own disdain for the elite administration of President Rodolfo Chiari in popular terms the government could not ignore. The plan worked: the protest stymied the Chiari administration and forced it to call in U.S. Marines to quell the uprising.15

Following this success, the Comunalistas went underground to avoid persecution from the Chiari administration, but they did not remain there long. In 1926 the governments of Panama and the United States concluded negotiations on the Kellogg-Alfaro Treaty, which they intended to become the linchpin of relations between the two countries. Acción Comunal, however, had already achieved a viable presence in Congress through Harmodio Arias, a brilliant lawyer and strident patriot. Fired by this nationalist presence, Panama’s legislature rejected the Kellogg-Alfaro Treaty, arguing in an unprecedented decision that the accord failed to “restore to our Republic the essential attributes of independence and autonomy.”16

From 1926 to 1930, Acción Comunal’s modest membership continued to agitate against the ruling elite’s alleged complicity with North American imperialists. Nevertheless, until 1929 its numbers remained sparse and, with the exception of the successes of 1925 and 1926, its influence minimal. Then, as Panama’s economy continued to constrict and the fiscal crisis of 1929-30 approached, membership suddenly increased from several dozen to more than three hundred. Most of this growth occurred from July to December 1930, a leap precisely in proportion to the nation’s worsening fiscal and political fortunes.

Acción Comunal s numbers now included several prominent members of Panama City’s rapidly expanding middle class, including future presidents Harmodio Arias, his younger brother Arnulfo (who joined on November 19, 1930), and Enrique A. Jiménez. These prominent professionals provided leadership experience and finesse well beyond that achieved by other quarters of the activist Generation of ’31; and by late 1930, the organization had reached its zenith in terms of size, sophistication, and solidarity.

With Acción Comunal leading the way, opposition to the regime of Florencio H. Arosemena continued to mount as the nation’s economic and social conditions declined. Nationalists accused both the Chiari and Arosemena administrations of defending capitalism at the expense of workers, of being antidemocratic, of repeatedly violating Panamanian citizens’ right to congregate, of dishonest use of public funds, and of destroying the institution of democracy based on popular suffrage.17 Finally, just after midnight on the morning of January 2, 1931, several dozen Comunalistas decided to act on their dislike. They split up into three regiments, each with a different assignment related to the group’s overall objective of toppling the government.18

Armed with only about a dozen shotguns and approximately 20 pistols, the insurgents cut Panama City’s telephone lines and then moved on to accomplish their assignments. The first group, a dozen men under the direction of Roberto Clement, set out to capture the police cavalry division substation in the Las Sabanas neighborhood. Quietly arriving at their destination, several of the men went inside and falsely reported an accident in nearby Rio Abajo, which they claimed required the immediate attention of the three or four officers on duty. With the phone lines cut, the officers could not corroborate the claim without actually going to the scene. Once they were lured outside, Clement and his men took control of the building with only minimal resistance.

Simultaneously, a group directed by Homero Ayala P. assaulted the cuartel central (police headquarters). In a longer, bloodier battle, Ayala and his colleagues stormed the cuartel, where they confronted much better equipped and better trained police officers. Despite the disadvantage, the insurgents fought with unflinching conviction, finally capturing the building and jailing those police who survived the onslaught.

The principal objective of the Clement and Ayala groups was to cripple the government’s ability to respond to the coup. A third group, directed by Acción Comunal’s charismatic leader, Arnulfo Arias, launched a feverish assault on the presidential palace. Invoking his status as a physician and friend of the administration, Arias gained access to the palace by asserting that the president needed medical assistance. Once inside, he let in his fellow conspirators, who then launched an all-out attack on the unsuspecting presidential guard. The bloody fight lasted several hours. Finally, as daybreak approached, a small rebel detachment reached the president’s personal living quarters on the palace’s third floor. There, after killing one of the guards, Arnulfo Arias personally captured President Arosemena.19

This three-pronged attack worked quite well. With only minimal arms and training, these rebels daringly engaged government forces for several hours. As morning came, dozens of bystanders offered their support for the coup and helped snuff out the last vestiges of resistance and guard prisoners. Having carried out their attack, the insurgents and their growing crowd of supporters secured control of the presidential palace, took various political prisoners, and forced the resignation of Arosemena and his cabinet.

In all, ten people died and five were wounded during the assault. Under the direction of Manuel Quintero, a disciple of Arosemena’s archrival, Belisario Porras, this small band of dissidents next issued a proclamation “To the Panamanian Nation” denouncing preceding administrations for “compromising the nation politically, economically, and morally” (see  appendix). After explaining why they had overthrown the Arosemena regime, Quintero and his associates then disclosed what they intended to accomplish in the wake of their successful rebellion. They promised to instate “a regime of constitution and law” while reestablishing “the effectivity of republican institutions.” 20 In a move aimed largely at legitimating the coup in Washington’s eyes, the insurgents then appointed Arosemena’s vice president, former foreign minister Ricardo Alfaro, as interim president of the republic.21

This coup marked a critical juncture for several reasons. First, as eventually demonstrated by the administration of Harmodio Arias (1932-36), it gave the activist component of Panama’s middle class control of the presidency and, consequently, access to the government jobs and Canal Zone dollars denied them by earlier administrations. It ended 30 years of elite domination of the government and ushered in a decade of rule by members of the Generation of ‘31.

Second, the 1931 coup accentuated a significant shift in U.S. policy toward Panama. Rather than intervening and squelching the putsch, U.S. soldiers waited for assurances from the insurgents that the rebels would not impinge on the canal’s function or security. Having received (and accepted) those reassurances from Arnulfo Arias and his colleagues, the U.S. troops opted not to enter the city, remaining instead in the Canal Zone on the premise of President Herbert Hoover’s proclivity for noninterventionist diplomacy.

Finally, and most important, the uprising redefined Panama’s political status quo by incorporating middle-class nationalists into the group of Panamanian politicians who, once in office, used the threat of armed force augmented by U.S. assistance to keep the remainder of the nation’s population at bay.

Codifying the Coup: The Interim Regime of Ricardo Alfaro

Although the 1931 revolt toppled the Arosemena administration, it failed to dislodge the elite’s structural hegemony, a condition that severely limited the new regime’s effectiveness. Before Arosemena’s ouster, followers of former president Chiari, Arosemena’s wealthy patron, controlled both the National Police and the electoral board. After the uprising, the Chiaristas still wielded considerable influence among the police and commanded a majority of votes on the electoral board. This placed the Chiaristas, including members of the ousted Arosemena government, in a position to tamper with the results of the next election, possibly even reversing the coup. It also left the new government in a particularly precarious position; the revolutionaries had to confront severe unrest without the political and institutional endorsements, constitutional or informal, that had sustained governments during Panama’s first three decades as an independent republic.22

In redressing this disadvantage, Ricardo Alfaro proved a willing, capable accomplice. Serving as interim president furthered Alfaro’s own political aspirations; in 1940 he would run for president on his own. One of his first steps was to effect a structural change that would more fully institutionalize the revolution and thwart Chiarista control. To accomplish this objective, he moved to gain control of the police. The insurgents had begun this process immediately following the coup when they appointed a number of new officers to replace the ousted Chiarista elements in the officers’ corps that had fought openly against the revolt. Eventually these new officers would include José Remón, future first commander of the National Police and president of the republic.

In addition, on August 17, 1932, Alfaro issued Decree 142, which incorporated an organized group of his own armed supporters into the National Police force. The merger of this pro-administration paramilitary unit gave government officials—known as administration liberals to distinguish them from the urban elite—sufficient leverage in the police ranks to counter Chiarista influence.23 The merger also established a precedent for Panamanian presidents throughout the 1930s: capitalizing on the noninterventionist policies of Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, nationalist administrations relied extensively on paramilitary groups to sustain their governments in lieu of asking U.S. troops to intervene.

Three of the four presidents from the Generation of ‘31 formed their own praetorianesque paramilitary organizations to hold the opposition in check and to help arbitrate the nation’s affairs. Alfaro’s group of 1932 became La Reserva Nacionalista (Nationalist Reserve). In 1936, Harmodio Arias incorporated his own three-hundred-man Guardia Cívica (Civic Guard) into the National Police. In 1940, the presidential election pitted Arnulfo Arias against Alfaro; this time, Alfaro reorganized his armed followers into La Guardia Cívica Nacionalista (Nationalist Civic Guard) to challenge the Arias candidacy.24

As the 1932 election approached and Alfaro’s interim tenure drew to its conclusion, administration liberals took additional steps to consolidate their power. Having neutralized Chiarista influence in the police force, they moved to counter the opposition’s domination of the electoral board. To prevent Chiari’s followers from voting more than once, the Alfaro administration requested U.S. assistance in devising a plan to prevent multiple voting. The United States provided the government with an indelible red dye to stamp voters’ hands once they had cast their ballots.25

The voting results underscored the extent to which the insurgents now controlled the nation’s election machinery. Although the Chiaristas figured out how to erase the ink and vote more than once, nationalist candidate Harmodio Arias won the election over Francisco Arias by the surprisingly large margin of 39,533 to 29,282.26

“El Candidato de los Pobres”

Harmodio Arias came to the presidency in 1932 as the most visible leader of Acción Comunal. Depicted by his followers and in the pages of his own powerful newspaper as the poor people’s candidate, Arias ran on the promise of “an absolutely republican government” based on “rights which are inherent in the citizens of the republic” (see  appendix). His earlier involvement with Acción Comunal had gained him the support of the nation’s large West Indian community; combined with his moderate liberal (that is, nationalist) backing, that endorsement made him the first Panamanian president whose constituency transcended both race and class lines. With the possible exception of Belisario Porras’ 1912 campaign, no Panamanian president had ever commanded such widespread backing.

Certainly, much of Arias’ appeal as a candidate stemmed from the economic crisis caused by the depression. He promised relief for the nation’s farmers, new jobs and higher pay for the country’s work force, and increased autonomy from the United States.27 Despite his initial charm, however, Arias soon confronted a growing opposition front. Roosevelt’s noninterventionist Good Neighbor Policy, furthermore, made it impossible for Arias to call on U.S. troops to save his presidency, as Porras had done in 1921. Caught between mounting domestic opposition and the absence of U.S. military support, Arias responded by relying more than ever on the National Police to settle his political disputes.

As Michael Conniff has pointed out, Arias’ victory in 1932 stemmed from his ability to dovetail his nationalist backing with his West Indian support. In 1925 he had gained prominence as an organizer of the working-class renters’ strike; in the late 1920s, he had expanded his ties to Panama City’s West Indian workers by serving as their lawyer when the Chiari family tried to prohibit them from voting in Panama’s elections.28 Arias’ successful representation of the West Indian community in the late 1920s marked the culmination of the nationalists’ efforts since 1925 to ingratiate themselves with Panama City’s large population of black voters. The West Indians expressed their gratitude by voting for Arias in the 1932 presidential election, thwarting upper-class efforts to reverse the 1931 coup and giving Arias an unprecedented broad base of support.29

Yet as Arias’ administration took shape, it began to resemble the administrations of Panama’s earlier elite presidents. Instead of the “absolutely republican government” Arias had promised his supporters, his government appeared more like a family reunion—similar in structure and composition to those of his predecessors, whom he had denounced for undermining democracy with nepotism. He placed relatives and close friends in key positions that gave him extraordinary control of the nation’s police force, which he used to manipulate his political opponents. He also used the presidency to politicize more fully the nation’s youth, astutely assimilating many of them into his own nationalist crusade.

His appointments included Arnulfo Arias, his younger brother, the Harvard-educated physician who had masterminded the 1931 revolt. Arnulfo became head of Panama City’s Santo Tomás Hospital, director of the Sanitation Bureau, and director of the Lucha Anti-Tuberculosa campaign. These programs received extensive governmental appropriations and did not fall under the fiscal supervision of the comptroller general.

Tomás Guardia, Harmodio’s brother-in-law, served as director of the Central Roads Board. Although appointed by Arias’ predecessor, he continued to hold the position during his brother-in-law’s administration. The board received funds directly from the road tax each citizen paid, which varied from $3 to $25 annually, and from a 4ȼ tax on each gallon of gasoline sold in the republic. The director answered directly to the president and also was not accountable to the comptroller general’s office.

Arias appointed another of his brothers-in-law, Aurelio Guardia Vieto, comandante primer jefe del cuerpo de policía nacional (national police chief—he served in this capacity from 1933 to 1935) and inspector general de las fuerzas públicas (national police inspector—he filled this position from 1936 to 1939). This appointment placed the nation’s police force and its weapons directly under the supervision of the president and his family during Arias’ administration (and that of his successor) and gave Arias another way to counter Chiarista influence in the police force.

A third brother-in-law, Octavio Méndez Pereira, became director of the National Institute, giving the president a powerful advocate with the nation’s politically active youth. In addition to the National University, which Arias created in 1935, his appointment of Méndez secured for him the invaluable support of high school students in Panama City. Arias thereby became known as an advocate of the student cause, and this helped integrate Panama City students more fully into the nationalist movement. Finally, Arias appointed yet another brother-in-law to the position of solicitor general.

Much like Rodolfo Chiari’s use of the executive office in the 1920s to secure his family’s monopoly on the nation’s beef industry, Harmodio Arias used his position to secure lucrative contracts for friends and family.30 One of the most flagrant cases of fiscal abuse during his administration involved one of his younger brothers, who received a major government contract to build schools in the nation’s interior. None of these relatives’ contracts required them to report to the General Accounting Office. This same type of budget manipulation had seriously compromised Panama’s fiscal situation throughout the 1920s. By granting contracts (sometimes multiple contracts of disproportionately large sums) to family members, Arias perpetuated the serious budgetary problems of the previous decade (see figures 1, 3, and 4).31

Expanding on Alfaro’s paramilitary Reserva Nacionalista, created to check resistance in the nation’s police force, Arias’ Guardia Cívica gave him his own personal army with which to curb opposition, a group of “armed patriots” that increased his leverage against his political opponents. Its members worked in conjunction with Arias’ brother-in-law Aurelio Guardia Vieto, the current national police chief.

Having solidified his control of the police, Arias then began a program of modernization aimed at making that organization a more effective armed regiment that could fill the void created by the Good Neighbor Policy. First, he reaffirmed Panama’s sovereign right to enforce its own laws by rearming the police with high-powered rifles, which the United States had confiscated in 1916.32 Then he constructed modern police installations throughout the republic, including the new cuartel central in the Panama City suburb of El Chorillo (which served until it was destroyed during the U.S. invasion of December 1989). Finally, beginning with José Remón in 1932, Arias started hiring native Panamanian graduates of foreign military schools to fill pivotal positions in the police force, many of which had remained vacant since the 1931 coup.

Hired initially as a captain and assigned to police headquarters in Panama City, Remón in his eventful career cemented an abiding loyalty among his fellow officers. From time to time, for example, Remón successfully lobbied for both an expansion of the police force and an increase in its salaries—moves that proved particularly popular both during the depression and in the mid-1940s at the height of the war, when jobs in Panama City were scarce.33 As his superiors promoted him through the ranks of the officers’ corps, furthermore, Remón did not forget his colleagues: he granted vacation leaves to his men and established a police commissary to supply officers with basic commodities at reduced prices. It is significant that when Remón hired new officers, he frequently did so from among members of Panama City’s working class, including blacks. Notably, as first commander, Remón displayed considerable racial acumen when he promoted a black officer, Saturnino Flores, to the lofty position of third commander of the National Police.34

Beyond assuring Remón’s prominence, these steps not only enhanced the professional caliber of Panama’s law enforcement agency but also permanently altered its function.35 In addition to providing social mobility for a select few of Panama’s urban poor, the “new-look” police gave its commanding officers considerable leverage in civilian decision-making circles. Under Harmodio Arias, the National Police began to emerge as an alternative to the presidency in the quest for wealth and power on the Isthmus. The change would reach full fruition in the late 1940s, when First Commander Remón appointed and removed presidents at will.36

The Splintered Generation

Harmodio Arias’ manipulation of the National Police quickly set the tone for the way he administered the nation’s affairs, particularly when his base of support began splintering into myriad factions. The president’s distribution of political favors alienated some of his middle-class colleagues, who soon began organizing in opposition to his regime. These fissures deepened as the country’s economic circumstances worsened. In 1932 the administration was forced to pay its upper-echelon employees only 90 percent of their salaries in cash, with the other 10 percent paid in non-interest-bearing treasury certificates.37 The elite faction displaced by the 1931 revolt, moreover, was intent on regaining power, and the threat of a countercoup remained very real throughout the early 1930s.38 Meanwhile, tens of thousands of urban workers continued to endure life in Panama City’s unfit arrabal, and strikes by the poor required the administration’s constant vigilance.

This turmoil reached a climax in 1932. For many Panamanians, the first indication of the depression had been the nation’s slumping sugar, coconut, and banana industries in the late 1920s; now a diseased banana crop in the northern region of Bocas del Toro aggravated the situation. Thousands of workers fled to the cities, where their presence further complicated life for the nation’s already distended population of urban poor. Meanwhile, as figure 2 demonstrates, the market closures around the world since late 1929 had sharply reduced the number of ships using the canal and, consequently, had commensurately decreased the jobs, taxes, and capital flow generated by canal traffic.39

The shantytowns along the canal still had the nation’s most deplorable living conditions—circumstances against which Harmodio Arias had agitated in 1925. As demonstrated by the data in tables 1 and 2 and figure 5, the arrabal was overrun by the latest wave of returning migrants. As table 2 shows, only the provinces of Panama and Chiriquí experienced significant population increases in the 1930s. This increase can be attributed to people who fled severe crop problems in Bocas del Toro, many apparently going to David; and those who fled the interior generally, ending up in the arrabal.

Along with this population surge, the standard of living among the urban poor deteriorated even further. Unemployment rates increased as canal traffic dropped off markedly. The hardships triggered by the loss of jobs expressed themselves in a number of measurable sociological phenomena. Figure 6 shows, for example, that after a downward trend of several years in illegitimacy, the working-class Santa Ana parish in Panama City experienced a resurgence in illegitimate births. Meanwhile, as crime rates nationwide actually decreased, in working-class neighborhoods along the canal they increased.40

With their working and living situations exacerbated by thousands of new arrivals, workers in Panama City and Colón began a tenement strike in July 1932 reminiscent of the 1925 crusade that Harmodio Arias himself had helped organize. As Socialist leader Demetrio Porras incisively argued at the time, however, the president now had little vested interest in the success of a working-class protest. As a landowner who had ascended to the presidency, Arias could hardly be expected to resolve the controversy in favor of the renters.41

This time, therefore, Arias did not side with the strikers. Instead, after piecemeal negotiations failed, he sent in the refurbished National Police, now officially augmented with interim president Alfaro’s former Reserva Nacionalista. In addition, he suspended the strikers’ constitutional rights and had their leaders arrested.42

Arias’ use of violence to end this strike, combined with the widespread knowledge of his political favors to friends and family, caused many of his followers to distance themselves from the president. Victor F. Goytía, who had helped organize Acción Comunal to “terminate the succession of dishonest governments in Panama” and to “find an honest man of outstanding ability, who was not a politician, as a candidate for the presidency,” now denounced the 1931 uprising and the Arias administration. He was particularly critical of Arias’ use of force against the poor.

There was just a change of power and of men but not of policies. The reigning families continued to reign while the woes of the common people failed to find any remedy whatsoever.43

In the wake of the renters’ strike, other individuals soon followed Goytía into the opposition camps that were cropping up among disaffected members of the middle class. Correa García, Carlos López, and several other nationalist legislators, all formerly influential components of the Arias group, merged their protests into a new opposition front. This group united several estranged moderate factions of the Liberal Party, including the Panchistas, followers of Francisco Arias, the man Harmodio had defeated in the 1932 election. Also involved were the Independent Liberals (Belisario Porras and his devotees) and the ousted Chiaristas. At least twice during Arias’ administration, this opposition front attempted to overturn the presidency, in the failed counterrevolution of 1932 and again in 1935. The latter attempt possibly involved hostile members of the National Police, many of whose leaders, including José Remón, fell out of favor and were demoted or fired for their complicity.

Thus, as his tenure in office unfolded, Arias faced increasing levels of opposition from various sources. He held a precariously small majority in the Assembly (18 to 14). His opponents leveled increasingly acerbic charges of abandoning the poor and of nepotism, practices contrary to his promise of a democracy unfettered by executive favoritism.

Arias’ Rhetoric: Panama as Victim

The forcible subjugation of political opponents in Panama did not begin with Harmodio Arias or any other member of the nationalist Generation of ‘31. Presidents from 1931 to 1941 merely adapted this elite practice to a different set of circumstances, particularly the Good Neighbor Policy, to perpetuate their regimes following the 1931 revolt. The 1931 uprising and Alfaro’s interim administration challenged elite domination of the presidency. But it was Arias who engaged Panama’s national psyche by couching the change of government in broader terms that all Panamanians could relate to. By rhetorically positioning his own government in a framework of nationalism—including such issues as the fatherland under attack, imperial arrogance, and the emotional value of land, ethnicity, and culture—Arias neutralized much of the opposition that might otherwise have undermined his administration.44

One of the vehicles Arias used to do this was education. When he took office in 1932, high school and college students already constituted a very active component of national politics. In 1921, for example, students had organized their own resistance to the U.S. intervention in the province of Chiriquí, and they communicated regularly with their peers in Cuba, Peru, Argentina, and Mexico.45 Student leaders continued to protest North American imperialism throughout the 1920s, and in the 1930s they became increasingly involved in politics through the Communist and Socialist parties and the Alianza Revolucionaria de la Juventud Unida, or ARJU, the Panamanian offshoot of Peru’s Aprista campaign.46

Thus, by the 1930s, the youth already had an active voice in Panama’s political affairs. To tap this vigorous source of political energy, Arias established the National University of Panama in 1935 to “preserve the Panamanian nationality.” This move drew support from the Socialist and Communist wings of the Liberal bloc and gave a much-needed infusion to the president’s badly divided constituency.47

Earlier, Arias’ appointment of his brother-in-law Octavio Méndez Pereira as director of the National Institute in Panama City had given the president significant leverage with the youth of the capital. Méndez Pereira encouraged his students to maintain a state of “constant rebelliousness” to check the spread of imperialism — and ostensibly not to check the administration’s activities in relation to government contracts, the poor, and other conditions. Beyond what it accomplished for the president, this taunting nationalism secured for Méndez Pereira the unswerving loyalty of many students. In a January 1947 survey conducted among high school students in Panama City, respondents ranked Méndez Pereira as the third-greatest living Panamanian. This response underscored President Arias’ overarching efforts to paint the nation’s misfortunes in patriotic rhetoric the youth could relate to—rhetoric that blamed the United States for the nation’s hardships.48

Arias’ militant following among capital city students gained particular significance after 1941, when a U.S.-backed coup returned the urban elite to power and forcibly isolated the presidency from the nationalist component of the middle class. With much of the nation’s opposition to the status quo politically blackballed, students played an increasingly visible role in isthmian politics. They rallied support for the opposition cause and contributed significantly to the rejection of the Filós-Hines Treaty in December 1947. Rejection of that accord ultimately forced the United States to downsize its military presence in Panama, brought about a decisive showdown between nationalists and government officials, and elevated the police to a ruling role in Panamanian politics.

Arias also used economic nationalism to check opposition to his administration. Since independence, Panama’s economy had relied heavily on the $250,000 annuity the United States paid for use of the canal and its surrounding territory. This sum, however, had failed to offset the nation’s economic hardships, and Panama had been forced to take out several large loans in the United States to help underwrite the expenses of government. These loans, totaling nearly $15 million, required monthly service payments of $182,500, a nearly impossible sum for the nation’s depressed economy in the early 1930s.49

Caught between the threat of financial collapse and mounting opposition, Arias proved particularly astute in his use of the canal annuity issue to elaborate his anti-U.S. rhetoric. On October 10, 1933, Arias met with Roosevelt at the White House to discuss the whole question of Panamanian-American relations. The two agreed to renew negotiations to resolve differences between the two governments, including the subject of canal annuity payments; then they turned the negotiations over to their respective diplomatic corps.50 The negotiations reached an impasse in 1934, however, when the United States asked Panama to continue accepting the sum of $250,000 as payment for use of the canal.51 The Arias administration rejected this proposal, Washington refused to increase its payments, and for the next five years Panama refused to accept the annuity.52

Although rejection of the canal annuity further depressed an already stagnant economy, Arias again succeeded in rhetorically identifying the United States as the nation’s enemy and, implicitly, the source of its economic and social problems. The president’s affront to U.S. policy provided a patriotic focal point for much of the agitation that was dividing the nation; and in this way, Arias ingeniously perpetuated his administration despite the nation’s dire economic circumstances.53

After much deliberation, representatives from the two nations signed the Hull-Alfaro Treaty on March 2, 1936. This new pact accomplished two important things for Panama. First, once approved by the legislatures of both countries, it promised to raise the amount of the annual canal annuity from $250,000 to $430,000. Second, although historians dubbed the pending increase illusory because it merely compensated for Roosevelt’s 1934 devaluation of the dollar, it also provided the Arias administration with the political currency to help counter opposition. Regardless of its true significance (or insignificance), the 1936 treaty decreased the pressure on Arias and permitted him to finish his term in office.54

Beyond Populist Appeal: The Presidency of Juan Demóstenes Arosemena

As the 1936 election approached, Arias sought to avoid a repeat of the conditions of 1932, when opposition control of the electoral board had jeopardized the success of the 1931 coup. Besides making the National Police his own armed deterrent, Arias used his influence as president to dominate the board himself. This gave him an autocratic control over the nation’s political system reminiscent of the Chiaristas in the late 1920s.

As the 1936 presidential campaign unfolded, the breadth of Arias’ control became apparent. Instead of supporting the candidate of his own Partido Liberal Doctrinario, the president supported Juan Demóstenes Arosemena, his minister of foreign relations. This move was a transparent effort on Arias’ part to perpetuate his own hold on power. It, too, bore a striking resemblance to the Chiarista coalition that had controlled the presidency in the late 1920s and had ultimately fallen to the 1931 revolt. Arosemena, a wealthy landowner like Panama’s earlier politicians, was, moreover, particularly unpopular among disaffected nationalists who had fled the ranks of Arias supporters to form part of the opposition front.55

In response to Arias’ brazen inflexibility regarding his choice, the National Electoral Board twice voted 4 to 3 to block Arosemena’s candidacy. Cornered by widespread opposition to the president’s well-publicized betrayal of his own political loyalists, members of the electoral board based their opposition on Article 72 of Law 28 of 1930, which prohibited the election of any person who had held public office within six months before an election. Arosemena continued to function as part of the administration throughout his campaign. With President Arias as his political patron, Arosemena stuck to his controversial (and unconstitutional) candidacy.

On election day, the administration distributed duplicate cédulas (voter registration cards), destroyed ballot boxes, detained opposing members of the electoral board, and concocted el paquetazo de Veraguas (ghost votes from the rural province of Veraguas). The result was a high voter turnout that exceeded all predictions—and possibilities — and brought Arosemena to the presidency despite his constitutional ineligibility. The president of the National Electoral Board, Rosendo Jurado, protested by resigning his post, contending that the opposition candidate, Domingo Díaz Arosemena, had won the election. Nevertheless, Arias had the weapons to enforce his selection, and he had decisively manipulated the electoral board to substantiate it. With Arias’ blessing, Juan Demóstenes Arosemena became Panama’s next president.56

On January 28, 1937, Arosemena formally expressed his gratitude to the nation’s armed forces and his affinity for a strong public force when he declared, through Law 28, the Día del Policía (National Police Day).57 The following year, the National Assembly granted his administration one million dollars beyond its regularly appointed budget to “acquire goods relating to national defense.” Thus the Arosemena presidency furthered modernization of the police on the Isthmus, and because of these largely partisan gestures, the National Police inched nearer to center stage in Panamanian politics.58

One pivotal issue confronted the Arosemena administration as it closed out the 1930s. The U.S. Senate delayed its vote on the Hull-Alfaro Treaty until August 1939, and Arosemena had to deal with the popular resentment triggered by the delay. Final U.S. approval hinged on Panama’s acquiescence to several key premises written into the original 1936 pact. Desperate for an agreement, Arosemena’s administration negotiated away any real benefits the original accord had garnered for Panama.

To achieve ratification, Panama conceded to Washington three items: the right of eminent domain over lands and waters outside the Canal Zone for purposes of defending the canal; the right to intervene unilaterally in the cities of Panama and Colón to preserve order and offset any threat to these vital ports; and the general guarantee of Panamanian independence.59

Although this treaty may have achieved some real gains for Panama, as well as the political refuge it provided the Arias administration after the start of negotiations in 1933, it ultimately led to renewed North American intervention. It established a legal basis for the U.S. position later in the Filós-Hines debate, when U.S. troops occupied an additional 134 bases throughout the republic under the guise of protecting the waterway. Although it temporarily assuaged opposition to Arias, the Hull-Alfaro Treaty set Panamanian nationalists and pro-U.S. factions on a collision course as World War II approached and Washington became increasingly alarmed by events in Europe and the Pacific. Meanwhile, the problem of control of the canal tempered Washington’s enthusiastic regard for diplomatic good neighborliness based on “the rights of others.”60

The Hull-Alfaro Treaty ended Panama’s protectorate status, liberating Panamanians the way similar “good neighbor” diplomacy had emancipated Cubans and Haitians. Officials in Washington, however, refused to concede their own liberty to intervene militarily in Panama to protect the canal. The concessions they exacted from Panamanian officials in 1939 to that effect reflected the limits of the Good Neighbor Policy in Panama.

As Secretary of State Cordell Hull had pointed out in Montevideo in 1933, President Roosevelt did not intend to leave U.S. interests vulnerable to foreign aggression. Outside the sovereign borders of the United States, the U.S. government and the U.S. business community had no larger or more strategic foreign interest than the Panama Canal, and their presence made for a singular application of the Good Neighbor Policy. While U.S. soldiers abandoned other countries in the region and Roosevelt heralded the dawn of a collective U.S. pact of respect for the sovereignty of other American nations, more than 30,000 U.S. troops, along with 20,000 U.S. civilians, remained in Panama to operate, administer, and protect the Panama Canal. Rooseveltian good neighborliness clearly had definite limits.61

In December 1939 President Arosemena died, and his replacement was none other than former Conservative presidential candidate Augusto Boyd. Boyd continued Arosemena’s policy of cooperation with the United States and further alienated the nationalist element of Panama’s Liberal Party. Ironically, then, as Panama’s decade of “the purest sentiment of patriotism” drew to a close, it ended the way it had begun—under an elite, pro-U.S. regime.


In Panama the formative period from 1903 to 1931 proved to be a volatile one. It produced various activist groups, whose competing political projects impaired the government’s ability to rule. Successive administrations survived this early instability by employing a combination of police intimidation, political chicanery, and foreign intervention to counter political opposition and offset general unrest.

In the short run, this three-tiered strategy enabled elite regimes to dominate the presidency during Panama’s formative years. Over the long term, however, informal governance failed to ameliorate the profound divisions that arose in isthmian politics and society. As the depression approached and the nation’s economic situation grew critical, that fragmentation culminated in Acción Comunal’s coup, which overthrew the government and installed a revolutionary junta aimed at “regenerating” democracy on the Isthmus.

Despite its initial success, the reactionary Generation of ‘ 31 soon splintered into various civic and political action groups whose programs often clashed. The middle class itself was divided into myriad competing interest groups, and tens of thousands of working-class Panamanians were clamoring for change. This fragmentation left a power vacuum in which the police were soon catapulted to unequaled prominence in isthmian politics, a position previously reserved for foreign troops. Now, in lieu of intervening soldiers, Panama’s presidents needed capital, technology, and hardware to develop and maintain their own armed detachments and to fend off growing anti-administration activity. This 1930s “crisis of hegemony” established a precedent for the police dictatorships that would dominate life on the Isthmus from 1968 to 1989.

Panama’s 1930s social and political crises culminated in the controversial election of Arnulfo Arias to the presidency. By the time he assumed office in 1941, the nation’s commercial and landowning elite had been out of power for a decade, and their opposition to and disdain for the Generation of ‘31 had intensified. U.S. officials were gravely concerned about Arias’ strident nationalism, and his election provided the elite with a perfect opportunity to mount a powerful antinationalist campaign that had Washington’s tacit approval. Their bid to recapture the presidency ended successfully the same year, when several powerful Panama City landowners and merchants, working in conjunction with the United States and with numerous disgruntled police officers, ousted Arias and installed a pro-U.S. interim regime reminiscent of the pre-1931 administrations.62

Arias’ ouster proved to be a harbinger of future events in Panama, most notably the 1989 U.S. invasion. In both instances, Washington helped seat a pro-U.S. interim administration following the ouster of a nationalist president. In each case, moreover, the interim regime’s ties to Washington seriously undermined its legitimacy in the mind of the Panamanian electorate. And in each instance — as that electorate more recently demonstrated when it shocked observers by returning to power the party of Generals Torrijos and Noriega—close ties to Washington stirred renewed nationalist fervor and resentment for the merchant and landowning elite.

The author gratefully acknowledges the interest and encouragement he received at various stages of this project from Robert H. Jackson, Oakah L. Jones, Steve Stein, Robert M. Levine, Steve Ropp, Michael Conniff, Frederick Nunn, Thomas Cowger, Mark Grandstaff, Mark D. Szuchman, and the anonymous reviewers of the HAHR. This paper derives from a larger project on civil-military relations in Panama.


To the Panamanian Nation

Moved by the purest sentiment of patriotism and desirous of having the country return to a regime of constitution and law and reestablish the effectivity of republican institutions the present regenerative movement commands the respect and the support of all the citizens of the country. In taking this action we have not been moved by any desire for personal profit or the least trait of ambition. The republic has been governed by rulers who have not respected civic rights, who have made a farce of and scorned the franchise and who have placed the country on the border of disaster and have compromised it politically, economically, and morally. It is impossible that a situation such as this should last any longer. In circumstances such as the present, citizens who love their country have no other recourse but to take action in the manner in which we have done. This determined gesture of the Panamanian citizenry must be maintained within the greatest order and the greatest composure. We hasten to repudiate any gesture or action revealing intentions other than those herein stated which are the very soul of this regenerative movement. It is impossible that the Panamanian people should continue to be a victim of exploitation and of the outrages which have characterized the action of the regime existing in the country up to the present. It is our aspiration to conduct the nation through new paths having as a base an absolutely republican government which will guarantee life and property and by a shield for the defense of those rights which are inherent in the citizens of the republic. We stand guarantors before the world and we shall respect the rights and prerogatives of the citizens up to the present ignored, and we shall give the country a just and equitable election law which will assure the absolute liberty of suffrage.

We declare that we will recognize all engagements acquired by the governments of the country and that we shall respect all obligations of an international character which the Panamanian nation may have with other nations of the world. To our fellow citizens we shall recommend the greatest calm and composure. In an attitude characterized by order, disinterestedness and patriotism shall depend the success of this valiant gesture of our noble people anxious for guarantees and liberty.

Panama, January 2nd, 1931


Amos Perlmutter, “Arafat’s Police State,” Foreign Affairs 74 (July-Aug. 1994), 9.


Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations (New York: Vintage Books, 1964), 86.


On increased political participation spawned by worsening social fragmentation, see Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1968), 194–97. See also Morris Janowitz, Military Institutions and Coercion in the Developing Nations (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1977), esp. preface and part 1, “Paramilitary Forces in the Developing Nations.” For more on Panama’s political and economic elite in the late 1920s, see Ricaurte Soler, Panamá: nación y oligarquía, 1925–1975 (Panama City: Ediciones de la Revista Tareas, 1976), 31–36.


Some scholars have argued that Arnulfo rehired Remón to spite his older brother, former president Harmodio Arias. Regardless of the motive, Remón’s rehiring dramatically altered the course of Panamanian history. See Larry L. Pippin, The Remón Era: An Analysis of a Decade of Events in Panama, 1947–1957 (Stanford: Institute of Hispanic American and Luso-Brazilian Studies, 1964), 1–3; and Concha Peña, José Antonio Remón Cantera: ensayo de biografía con notas de mi cuaderno de periodista (Panama City: Imprenta La Nación, 1955). 4–5. See also Major Dimas Arturo López V., comp., Las fuerzas armadas de la República de Panamá, período 1903–1973 (Panama City: n.p., 1973), 99.


Huntington. Soldier and the State, 84.


Mario Esteban Carranza, Fuerzas armadas y estados de excepción en América Latina (Mexico City: Siglo Veintiuno, 1978), 68–72 and 236–37; and George Priestly, Military Government and Popular Participation in Panama: The Torrijos Regime, 1968–1975 (Boulder: West-view Press, 1986), 2–5. On the military’s progressive assumption of political power, see Amos Perlmutter and Valerie Plave Bennett, The Political Influence of the Military: A Comparative Reader (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1980), 199.


On Panama’s financial circumstances in the 1920s, see George F. Roberts, Investigación económica de la República de Panamá (Panama City: n.p., 1932), esp. 25–28, 324–30.


Jorge Conte-Porras, Panameños ilustres (Panama City: Litho-Impresora Panamá, 1978), 204–15.


Soler, Panamá, 31. These groups, especially Acción Comunal, also included significant elements of the rural middle class, most notably the Arias brothers.


For additional comment on Panama’s political elite in the late 1920s. see Jorge Conte-Porras, Arnulfo Arias Madrid (Panama City: Litho-Impresora Panamá, 1980), 244–46.


Isidro A. Reluche Mora, Acción Comunal: surgimiento y estructuración del nacionalismo panameño (Panama City: Condor, 1981), 37.


This platform appears in several different publications, including Beluche’s commemorative work, ibid., 33–44; and Conte-Porras, Arnulfo Arias Madrid, 68–69. Translation by the author.


On crime rates in the 1920s. see República de Panamá, Contraloría General de la Nación, Dirección de Estadística y Censo, Boletín de estadística, var. vols, and years. On a quarterly, semiannual, and annual basis, the Panamanian government produced in the Boletín a report, “Resumen de infracciones reportadas por la Policía de la República,” which divided crimes into various classifications, including type, profession, and nationality of the perpetrator and province where the crime occurred. In the 1930s the government renamed the Boletín Estadística Panameña.


Alejandro Portes, “The Politics of Urban Poverty,” in Urban Latin America: The Political Condition from Above and Below, ed. Portes and John Walton (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1976), 70–110.


Alexander Cuevas, “El movimiento inquilinario de 1925.” Revista Latería (Panama City) 213 (Oct.-Nov. 1973), 133–61.


República de Panamá, Secretario del Estado, “Memoria que el Secretario de Estado hace en despacho de relaciones exteriores presenta a la Asamblea Nacional en sus sesiones ordinarias de 1936 (Panama City: Imprenta Nacional, 1936), 11. Translation by the author. This document contains a summary of the 1926 treaty and the reasons for its rejection. For additional comment on the Kellogg-Alfaro negotiations, see John Major, Prize Possession: The United States and the Panama Canal, 1903-1979 (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993), 110-15.


Conte-Porras, Arnulfo Arias Madrid, 82.


Beluche, Acción Comunal, 36-37.


The preceding description is taken from the account of Victor F. Goytía, an Acción Comunal organizer, told a few years later to Robert P. Joyce, third secretary of the American Legation to Panama. Joyce to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Sept. 25, 1934, National Archives (NA), Record Group (RG) 59, State Dept. Decimal File 819.00-General Conditions/84, U.S. Legation to Panama. Goytía stated that Arias entered the palace “as a medical adviser and friend of the then-president and would open the gates to the plotters.” Goytía also said he “saw Arnulfo injecting stimulating drugs into the arms of the plotters before the uprising took place.” See also the eyewitness account of Isidro A. Beluche Mora, Acción Comunal, esp. 66-81.


Memorandum, William Dawson to Walter Thurston, Jan. 2, 1931, NA, RG 59, State Dept. Decimal File 819.00-Revolutions/32, Division of Latin American Affairs.


Walter LaFeber, The Panama Canal: The Crisis in Historical Perspective (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978), 79-83.


See Roy T. Davis, U.S. Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary, to Secretary of State Henry Stimson, Mar. 23, 1931, NA, RG 59, State Dept. Decimal File 819.00/1552, U.S. Leg. to Panama.


Alfaro considered asking the United States for arms in 1932 but apparently did not do so. See Almon R. Wright’s report, United States, Dept. of State, “The United States and Panama, 1933-1949,” Top Secret Research Project 499, Aug. 1952, pp. 14-17.


On these paramilitary units see, e.g., “Notas editoriales,” El Panamá América (Panama City), May 22, 1940, p. 4. This article recounts Alfaro’s creation of the Reserva Nacionalista in 1932 and compares it to the Guardia Cívica Nacionalista of 1940. See also Janowitz, Military Institutions. For a distinction between militaries that “arbitrate” and those that “rule,” see Amos Perlmutter, The Military and Politics in modern Times: On Professionals, Praetorians, and Revolutionaries (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1977), 103.


For more on the 1932 presidential campaign and election, see Davis to State, July 12, 1932, NA, RG 59, State Dept. Decimal File 819.00-General Conditions/84, U.S. Leg. to Panama; and “Political Situation in Panama,” Apr. 16, 1936, NA, RG 59, Lot 55 D 216, Records of the Office of American Republic Affairs, 1918-1947, Memoranda on Panama, vol. 1 (Jan. 1936-July 1939).


Davis to Secretary of State Hull, June 17, 1932, NA, RG 59, State Dept. Decimal File 819.00-General Conditions/83, U.S. Leg. to Panama.


“President Arias Outlines Panama’s Economic Program,” The Panama American (Panama City), Feb. 8, 1933, p. 1; and “Una audiencia presidencial inolvidable,” El Panamá América (July 14, 1933), 1. See also Pantaleón García, “The Good Neighbor Policy in Panama: The Alfaro-Hull Treaty” (Master’s thesis, Univ. of Miami, 1990), 24-26.


Michael Conniff, Black Labor on a White Canal: Panama, 1904-1981 (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1985), 80-83. On more recent developments, see Sharon Phillips Collazos, Labor and Politics in Panama: The Torrijos Years (Boulder: West-view Press, 1991).




On the Chiari empire, see Marco Gandásegui, ed., Las clases sociales en Panamá: grupos humanos, clases medias, elites y oligarquía (Panama City: CELA, 1993), 156-58.


Joyce to Hull, Sept. 25, 1934. While nepotism was not unique to the Arias administration, it is nonetheless significant for understanding Panama in the 1930s. On economic subterfuge in the 1920s, see Roberts, Investigación económica, 327-34. For more on Roberts’ report and the problems it identified, see Conté-Porras, Panameños ilustres, 173-84.


Mélida Ruth Sepúlveda, Harmodio Arias Madrid: el hombre, el estadista, y el periodista (Panama City: Editorial Universitaria, 1983), 183; and Ricaurte Soler, Panamá: historia de una crisis (Mexico City: Siglo Veintiuno, 1989), 42.


Peña, José Antonio Remón Cantera, 1-5.


López V., Las fuerzas armadas, 19-21, 44. Since its publication (ordered by Torrijos), each of Panama’s recent governments—including those of Torrijos, Noriega, Endara, and Pérez Balladares—has relied extensively on this compilation for salary information and general police and military guidelines.


On the military’s changing role throughout Latin America following World War I, see Lyle N. McAlister, “The Military,” in Continuity and Change in Latin America, ed. John J. Johnson (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1964), 136-60; and Brian Loveman and Thomas M. Davies, eds., The Politics of Antipolitics, 2d ed. (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1989), 89-159. For a good general discussion of the military’s changing role in world politics, see S. F. Finer, The Man on Horseback: The Role of the Military in Politics, 2d ed. (Boulder: West-view Press, 1988).


Jorge Conte-Porras, Requiem por la revolución (San José, Costa Rica: Litografía y Imprenta LIL, 1990), 161-70.


Warden Wilson to Edwin C. Wilson, Sept. 19, 1932, NA, RG 59, State Dept. Decimal File 819.51/713, U.S. Leg. to Panama.


Davis to Hull, Jan. 22, 1932, NA, RG 59, State Dept. Decimal File 819.00-Revolutions, U.S. Leg. to Panama. Davis reported that officials in Panama City had confiscated a few handguns purportedly belonging to would-be counterrevolutionaries, and that ex-president Chiari was meeting clandestinely with members of the police force to plan a counterrevolt.


For data on demographic changes in Panama during the late 1920s and early 1930s, see, e.g., Estadística Panameña 7:6 (June 1950), 1-4. For economic figures for the same period see, e.g., ibid. 11:6 (June 1952), 54. See also Roberts, Investigación económica, 474.


Illegitimacy rates were used to gauge fluctuations in the standard of living by region and social class. Whereas the Panamanian government has published only general data, local information can be found in parochial records, available on microfilm through the Family History program of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. See, e.g., the registros parroquiales from the parishes of San José, David (LDS films 760741-47); San Juan Batista, Aguadulce (films 1809803-4); Santa Ana, Panama City, a working-class parish (films 1091673-75); La Merced, Panama City, an elite parish (films 1094125 and 1094128); Santa Librada, Las Tablas (film 1089178); and San Juan Batista, Chitré (films 1089485-846).


Demetrio Porras, “El movimiento inquilinario,” in Cuevas, Tomlinson, and Porras, Alcances e interpretaciones, 169-98; Marco Gandásegui et al., Las luchas obreras en Panamá, 1850-1978 (Panama City: Talleres Diálogo, 1980), 46-47; Conniff, Black Labor; and Armando Muñoz Pinzón, La huelga inquilinaria de 1932 (Panama City: Editorial Universitaria, 1974), 37.


See Muñóz Pinzón, La huelga inquilinaria.


Quoted in Joyce to Hull, Sept. 25, 1934. Goytía had left Acción Comunal on the evening of Jan. 1, 1931—only hours before the coup—to express his objection to the manner in which the protest had taken shape under Amulfo Arias. See also Conte-Porras, Arnulfo Arias Madrid, 71.


Raul Leis, “The Cousins’ Republic,” NACLA Report of the Americas 4 (July-Aug. 1988), 26.


See Carlos Cuestas Gómez, Soldados americanos en Chiriquí (Panama City: Litografía Enan, 1990), esp. 307-24.


Jorge Conte-Porras, La rebelión de las esfinges: historia del movimiento estudiantil Panameño (Panama City: Litho-Impresora Panamá, 1978), 14-18. For further discussion of students and APRA, see Steve Stein, Populism in Peru: The Emergence of the Masses and the Politics of Social Control (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1980), 132-46; and Ruth Berins Collier and David Collier, Shaping the Political Arena: Critical Junctures, the Labor Movement, and Regime Dynamics in Latin America (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1991), 150-53.


Sepúlveda, Harmodio Arias Madrid, 155. For the text of Arias’ speech, Oct. 7, 1935, inaugurating the National University, see 155-59.


Conte-Porras, Rebelión de las esfinges, 17. For the 1947 survey, see John and Mavis Biesanz, The People of Panama (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1955), 155. For additional comment on Méndez Pereira and the development of a national consciousness among Panama’s youth, see Conte-Porras, Panameños ilustres.


Wright, “United States and Panama,” 14-17; and FRUS [Foreign Relations of the United States] (Washington, D.C.: Dept, of State) 4 (1935), 890. On Panama’s financial situation in mid-1931, see Davis to Hull, July 14, 1931, NA, RG 59, State Dept. Decimal File 819.00-General Conditions/77, U.S. Leg. to Panama. Here Davis reported, “at the present moment it is planned to dismiss 1,200 men employed by the Central Roads Board who will further increase the precarious situation of the country.”


República de Panamá, Secretario del Estado, “Memoria que hace el Secretario de Estado en el despacho de relaciones exteriores presenta a la Asamblea Nacional en sus sesiones ordinarias de 1936” (Panama City, 1936); and “Joint Statement,” Sept. 2, 1937, NA, RG 59, Lot 55 D 216, Records of the Office of American Republic Affairs, 1918-1947, Memoranda on Panama, box 54, vol. 1 (Jan. 1936-July 1939). On economic nationalism in Latin America and the U.S. response thereto, see Michael L. Krenn, U.S. Policy Toward Economic Nationalism in Latin America, 1917-1929 (Wilmington: SR Books, 1990), 21-37.


Thurston to White, Mar. 30, 1931, NA, RG 59, State Dept. Decimal File 819.00-Revolutions/48, U.S. Leg. to Panama.


See letters dated Feb. 17, 1937, and Mar. 9, 1937, no authors’ names, NA, RG 59, Lot 55 D 216, Records of the Office of American Republic Affairs, 1918-1947, Memoranda on Panama, box 54, vol. 1 (Jan. 1936-July, 1939).


Letter of Feb. 17, 1937.


LaFeber, Panama Canal, 86-88.


For a ten-page overview of the 1936 election, including all parties and their candidates, see “Political Situation in Panama,” Apr. 16, 1936, NA, RG 59, Lot 55 D 216, Records of the Office of American Republic Affairs, Memoranda on Panama, box 54, vol. 1 (Jan. 1936-July 1939).


Conte-Porras, Requiem por la revolución, 172-74; idem, Amulfo Arias Madrid, 85.


Anónimo [anonymous], “La oligarquía Panameña en el banquillo de los acusados,” in Virgilio Araúz, Cinco ensayos (Panama City: n.p., n.d.), 8-9; and López V., Las fuerzas armadas, 171.


Law 25, Oct. 19, 1938, as cited in López V., Las fuerzas armadas, 172-75.


Almon R. Wright, “Defense Sites Negotiations Between the United States and Panama, 1936-1948,” Department of State Bulletin 27:685 (Aug. 11, 1952), 212-19. On the concessions, see David N. Farnsworth and James W. McKenney, U. S.-Panama Relations, 1903-1978: A Study in Linkage Politics (Boulder: West-view Press, 1983), 26-28.


Bryce Wood, The Dismantling of the Good Neighbor Policy (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1985), x.


Philip Bonsal to Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, Dec. 10, 1942, NA, RG 59, Lot 55 D 216, Records of the Office of American Republic Affairs, 1918-1947, Memoranda on Panama, box 55, vol. 4 (Sept. 1941-Jan. 1943).


On problems between the Arias brothers during Amulfo’s brief presidency, see the military attaché report dated Dec. 28, 1940, NA, RG 165, Records of the War Dept. General and Special Staffs, Military Intelligence Division Correspondence, 1917-1941, report no. 5,192, file 2657-M-290.