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History, The Torrijos Regime

Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Torrijos, Panamanians, president Jimmy Carter, land reform

The Torrijos era brought Panama a mixture of military rule, social and economic reforms, and a more vigorous, left-wing foreign policy. Torrijos suspended the constitution and eventually replaced it with one that gave him full powers as head of state for six years. Disbanding the National Assembly, he governed by decree, outlawed political parties, and used the National Guard to repress opposition. However, he won popularity for his social and economic policies and, more importantly, for confronting the United States over control of the canal. He also established ties with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and the rebel Sandinistas, who were fighting the dictator of Nicaragua.

Under Torrijos, the government intervened more strongly in the economy, introducing land reform and prolabor policies, and encouraging international banking to establish a base in Panama. Openly attacking the wealthy upper class of Panama, Torrijos recruited middle- and lower-middle-class citizens to staff the upper ranks of government. Because foreign banks were eager to lend money and Panama’s international banking industry was growing, Panama was able to borrow a great deal of money during the 1970s. Torrijos used it to create state-run industries and utilities; to expand social services, building schools, clinics, and housing; and to aid farmers. These measures, while popular, contributed to a large national debt, and economic growth slowed.

The hallmark of the Torrijos years was the negotiation of new treaties with the United States to replace the controversial 1903 canal agreement. The new treaties, signed by Torrijos and U.S. president Jimmy Carter in 1977, provided that the canal would be turned over to Panama on December 31, 1999. More than 60 percent of the canal zone was to be turned over to Panamanian control in 1979 under the treaty, but it allowed the United States to retain some military bases until 2000. The treaty also provided that more money from canal tolls would go to Panama. The agreements provoked opposition in both countries; some Panamanians objected that the treaties did not go far enough, while many Americans felt the canal was U.S. property that was being given away. However, both nations ratified the treaties, which took effect in 1979.

Once the treaties were signed, Torrijos stepped down as head of government and began to reinstate civilian rule in Panama. He formed the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), which provided backing for his civilian figurehead president. But Torrijos retained control of the National Guard and remained the dominant figure in Panama’s politics until he died in a plane crash in 1981.

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