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History, The Arias Years

Accion Comunal, Arnulfo Arias Madrid, elite families, rig elections, Panamanians

In 1931 a secret nationalist organization, Accion Comunal (Common Action), carried out a coup and held new elections for president. A group of reformers, headed by Harmodio Arias Madrid, took control of the government and sought to make it more effective. In contrast to the elite families that had always ruled Panama, Arias and his family came from a modest rural background, and their success marked the rise of middle-class Panamanians into government leadership. Under Ariasís presidency (1932-1936) and those of his successors, the police force became stronger, the economy began to diversify, the university was established, and Panama took on a new sense of national pride. In 1936 the United States and Panama negotiated treaty changes that ended the U.S. right to intervene in Panamaís affairs and its right to appropriate more land. The treaty also increased the annual payments the United States made to Panama.

Ariasís younger brother, Arnulfo Arias Madrid, became president in 1940 and intensified policies to strengthen the nation and oppose U.S. power. He fostered a greater sense of nationalism among Panamanians, stating that Panama was more than a canal and had a national destiny beyond serving the United States. Arias insisted that the United States negotiate as an equal with Panama for new treaty concessions and resisted U.S. efforts to establish new military bases in Panama during World War II (1939-1945). Arias was sympathetic to some European fascist governments of that time. He also introduced a new constitution that gave him a longer term in office and revoked the citizenship of non-Hispanic immigrants.

Ariasís initial term in power was brief, however. Under his presidency, the National Police were given more weapons and a bigger role in politics. Ironically, the police deposed him in a coup in 1941, and in later years would overthrow him twice more and rig elections to defeat him. By the mid-1940s, the commander of the police had the power to choose and depose presidents as he wished.

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