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History, Increasing Unrest

Arnulfo Arias, Omar Torrijos Herrera, Panamanian flag, Panamanians, symbolic gesture

The culmination of increased police involvement in politics came in 1952. Police commander Jose Antonio Remon, after years of deciding who would hold the presidency, became convinced he could do a better job than the civilians. He ran for office and was elected honestly. Remon continued many of the policies of the Accion Comunal reformers. He pushed to diversify the economy, developing industry and agriculture to reduce Panama’s dependence on the canal. He further strengthened the police, making it more like a military force and renaming it the National Guard. New treaties were negotiated to give Panama more benefits from the canal. Remon also built a strong coalition of political parties. He was assassinated in 1955.

Relations with the United States deteriorated in the late 1950s. Panamanians grew increasingly frustrated over U.S. control of the canal zone and their country’s lagging development. They were inspired by the successful revolution in Cuba and events in 1956 in Egypt, where the government seized and nationalized the Suez Canal. Anti-American demonstrations increased, during which U.S. flags were torn down, U.S. agencies were stoned, and Panamanians clashed with canal zone troops. These protests led to a more serious confrontation in 1964 known as the flag riots, in which violence broke out over attempts to fly the Panamanian flag in the canal zone as a symbolic gesture. More than 20 people were killed, most of them Panamanians, and the United States and Panama temporarily broke off relations. The confrontation persuaded the United States to begin negotiations to replace the unpopular 1903 treaty, but the effort took 13 years to complete.

Public order declined during the mid-1960s, as the economy stagnated and government seemed incapable of administering the nation. Public frustration with the situation helped Arnulfo Arias win the 1968 election. When he threatened to dismiss some leading officers of the National Guard, they overthrew him after ten days in office. Two officers, Boris Martinez and Omar Torrijos Herrera, led the coup and formed a ruling council, or junta. By early 1969 Torrijos assumed full control of government and announced a revolutionary program.

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