IN LATE 1987, PANAMA'S political system was unable to respond to the problems confronting the nation. Protests over the role in the government played by the Panama Defense Forces (Fuerzas de Defensa de Panamá--FDP) and their commander, General Manuel Antonio Noriega Moreno, had produced economic disruption and the appearance of political instability and had contributed to serious strains in relations with the United States. With no immediate resolution of the conflict likely, Panama appeared to be in its most severe political crisis since the 1968 coup, which had made the military the dominant political force in the nation.
The October 1968 coup marked the third time that the military had ousted Arnulfo Arias Madrid from the presidency of Panama. It differed from previous coups, however, in that it installed a military regime that promoted a mixture of populist and nationalist policies, while at the same time assiduously courting international business. Led, until his death in 1981, by the charismatic General Omar Torrijos Herrera, the military used limited but effective repression to prevent civilian opposition groups from returning to power. Torrijos also created the Democratic Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Democrático--PRD), which became the official ruling party.
The death of Torrijos, in an airplane crash on July 31, 1981, precipitated a prolonged struggle for power. In a little more than four years Panama had three FDP commanders and five civilian presidents. At the same time, both domestic and international pressures for a return to civilian rule increased steadily. Constitutional revisions in 1983, followed by presidential and legislative elections in 1984, were supposed to promote this process. The elections, however, were tainted by widespread allegations of fraud. Whatever credibility the newly installed civilian government had was undermined further in September 1985, when President Nicolás Ardito Barletta Vallarino was forced out of office by General Noriega and the FDP. In the following two years, political tensions continued to increase, fueled by negative publicity abroad, by the murder of a prominent opposition political figure, Dr. hugo Spadatora, by the open break between General Noriega and his most prominent rival within the military, Colonel Roberto Díaz Herrera, and by serious economic problems, notably a major international debt burden and major capital flight.
The era of military rule had not been without its positive accomplishments. Most notable was the successful negotiation of the 1977 Panama Canal treaties with the United States. These treaties, which went into effect on October 1, 1979, ended the separate territorial status of the Panama Canal Zone and provided for Panama's full control over all canal operations at the end of the century. Under the military, Panama also had emerged as a major international banking center, had become a more prominent actor in world affairs, exemplified by its position as one of the original "Core Four" mediators (along with Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia) in the Contadora negotiating process seeking to mediate the conflicts in Central America, and had implemented numerous social reforms, raising the standard of living for many of its citizens. In late 1987, however, many of these accomplishments appeared jeopardized by the continuing crisis in civil-military relations and the inability of the Panamanian government to maintain a peaceful evolution toward a more open, democratic political system.
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