Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 275 | Junio 2004



Martín Torrijos in the General’s Shadow

“I know that wherever he is, my father, Omar Torrijos, would be proud of what we’ve achieved here together,” said Martín Torrijos after being elected Panama’s President. But will the son follow in his father’s footsteps and promote his still relevant political legacy?

William Grigsby

Martín Torrijos was exultant the night of Sunday, May 2, when the president of Panama’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal phoned to inform him he had won the presidential elections. It was the confirmation of an electoral triumph built on tenacious work in all of Panama’s districts, municipalities and provinces. Upon hearing the news, he addressed hundreds of applauding Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) activists and leaders for a full eight minutes without ever mentioning his father, the legendary General Omar Torrijos Herrera.

That the President-elect did not do so was highly significant. Ten minutes later he spoke to the crowd gathered outside the PRD headquarters, which mainly consisted of young people from the capital’s poor and middle-class neighborhoods. This time he did mention his father, perhaps because his previous silence weighed heavily on him or because he had no alternative before so many jubilant young people clutching photos of the late general. The shadow of the general fell across both him and the isthmus. Martín’s voice cracked. His words echoed in the hearts of those gathered in that square or listening to him on radio and television. “I know that wherever he is, my father, Omar Torrijos, would be proud of what we’ve achieved here together.” The crowd burst into applause and called out the general’s name, frantically waving their portraits. It was as if Martín had recovered his soul.

How serious were his words? How aware is Martín of the significant part played in his electoral victory by the collective memory of his father’s positive achievements beyond the recovery of the Canal? Or has the development of his own ego made him forget his roots and renounce his political inheritance? Has his alliance with the Popular Party (PP), so hated by General Torrijos, proved more powerful than his father’s legacy?

A clear victory

The PRD victory was crushing. Enchanted by Martín Torrijos’ charisma, Panamanians went enthusiastically to the polling stations and gave him an indisputable mandate. Running against three other candidates, he won 47.4% of the presidential votes cast and his ticket ended up with 43 of the 78 Legislative Assembly representatives; 53 of the country’s 75 municipal governments, including the much-coveted capital city; 325 of the 619 district representatives and 9 of the 20 representatives to the discredited Central American Parliament (PARLACEN). In sum, his New Homeland Alliance took 54% of all the 800 posts being disputed.

The main rival, incumbent President Mireya Moscoso’s Arnulfista Party, named after the late Arnulfo Arias, obtained its worst result in 40 years, while another of the oligarchic parties, the Nationalist Republican Liberal Movement (MOLIRENA), almost vanished from the political map.

While the PRD alliance and runner-up Guillermo Endara’s Solidarity Party are separated by almost 17 percentage points, these apparently overwhelming results are a little deceiving. If we factor in the number of abstentions Torrijos only has the explicit support of a rather modest 35.58% of the total electorate.

These elections had the highest voter registration since 1948, although the number of abstentions and blank ballots means that over 24% of the electorate did not feel represented. Los Santos was the province with the highest turnout (90.96%), while the indigenous territory of Ngobe Bugle had the lowest (66.19%). In the capital city, 74.58% of the registered electorate voted.

Some 1,575 observers oversaw the elections, around 75 of whom were international observers, including an Organization of American States mission and several Latin American human rights ombudsmen. There were no significant incidents; the vote counting was above-board and the results were promptly announced. With the help of the Internet, the Electoral Tribunal disseminated the widely predicted results of the first 10% of the votes within minutes after the polling stations closed.

Few blank or voided ballots

The Arnulfistas suffered a calamitous collapse. Their Country Vision Alliance candidate, José Miguel Alemán, pulled only 163,162 votes, compared to Mireya Moscoso’s winning total of 367,865 in 1999 and her losing total of 211,780 in 1994. The PRD has moved in the opposite direction, getting 326,095 votes in 1994 when Ernesto “El Toro” Pérez Balladares successfully stood for President, 403,649 in 1999 when Torrijos lost to Moscoso, and 649,200 in 2004; in other words, almost doubling its votes in the last ten years.

There was also little joy for the Unified Grassroots Movement (MPU), which called on the electorate to cast blank ballots, or for SUNTRACS, the construction workers’ union, which told voters to spoil their ballots by writing in the name of Victoriano Lorenzo, a peasant leader executed by firing squad under US orders just before Panama’s independence. In the event, only 1.13% of voters cast blank votes and most of the 1.38% voided ballots were due to voter confusion, particularly in indigenous areas.

The MPU rejected all of the presidential candidates. In a document published in February it posed the question, “What essential difference is there between a candidate like Alemán, whose father chairs the board of directors of the country’s main bank; Endara, supported by Samuel Lewis Galindo, who is part of the same financial group; and Martín, whose vice-presidential candidate is Lewis Navarro, Galindo’s nephew?” SUNTRACS reached a similar conclusion, denouncing “the partyocracy, the patronage practices, the false promises, the corruption in the branches of state, the white-collar thieves, the foreign debt, the CEMIS case and the privatization of the CSS, among other national evils.”

The validation of polls and pollsters

A large proportion of Panamanians are formally registered in a political party. The last official figures (December 2003), show 1,053,886 citizens (52.71% of the electoral roll) belonging to either an established party or one that is being set up, with the PRD having the most members (434,599). Another six ogroupings not yet legally registered claim to have a total of 57,180 members.

With the voting intentions of almost half the electorate all but defined before the campaign even got underway, the battle concentrated on the remaining voters, who were potentially undecided or likely to be swayed by the different candidates or proposals. The aspiring parties could have used the opinion polls to guide them to an important degree, but for the most part they didn’t do so. Only the PRD, and to a much lesser degree the Arnulfista party, used the information supplied by the different polling firms to modify or orient their campaigns. The rest tended to downplay the results that periodically appeared in the media.

These elections have also helped validate and vindicate the work of the pollsters. For the first time they applied their statistical instruments with scientific rigor, without introducing disruptive elements, classifying the data according to subjective variables or simply bowing to their clients’ political interests. Their credibility had been shot through following their spectacular failure in the 1999 elections with Mireya Moscoso’s unexpected victory. This time most of them got both the finishing order and the vote percentages just about right.
In one of its editorials, the daily newspaper Panamá América pointed out that the polls throughout the electoral campaign “were always ridiculed and mocked by those they didn’t favor, although some, with greater judgment and maturity, preferred to stay quiet and keep on working.” After praising the work of all the firms, the editorialist concluded that “this was a victory for the serious opinion polls, because they anticipated the result with mathematical precision, and in doing so won the respect denied them by many ignorant people. In contrast, those that prostituted their profession and sacrificed their credibility to issue false results went down along with their promoters.”

The best performance came from the Ditcher & Neira LatiNetwork polls, contracted by La Prensa newspaper. Its last public opinion poll, conducted between April 16 and 18 and released two days later, showed Torrijos with 47%, Endara with 28%, Alemán with 19% and Martinelli with 6%. On May 1, a day before the elections, it leaked the results of another poll to the leaders of all the different parties and some journalists.
It gave Torrijos 47%, Endara 32%, Alemán 16% and Martinelli 5%, almost exactly matching the official election results.

No reason for US
interference this time

Some specialists think that the accuracy of the polls is linked to prior conditioning of the electorate’s perceptions. But while the most powerful media did line up against Torrijos in these elections, their opposition was not particularly strong. There were no fierce campaigns aimed at discrediting candidates, nor was destructive propaganda the order of the day.

Perhaps the key element was the low-profile role played by the United States. Contrary to its interventionist tradition, so rigorously applied to other electoral processes in Panama and the rest of Central America, the United States did not directly interfere this time. Juan Jované, one of the most outstanding intellectuals on the Panamanian Left, believes it didn’t need to given that all four candidates were establishment politicians and explicitly recognized market supremacy; thus none represented any kind of threat to American interests. He recounts that at the end of a “debate” between the presidential candidates, one private business representative was heard to comment that it had been very good because everyone had agreed that the market was the solution.

“It’s like going to the races and betting on all the horses,” explained Professor Jované. “You’re going to win whichever one comes in first. In such a situation, the United States obviously doesn’t have to take sides. All the candidates fell over themselves to say ‘I agree with any proposals that the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank.might put forward.’ There were no underlying differences among the candidates’ ideas for a national development plan. In fact, none of the proposals amount to anything more than receiving the directives of the international finance organizations.”

Journalist/political analyst/sociologist Raúl Leis shares Jované’s opinion. In an article by him published in November 2003, Leis complained that “no alternative force such as the Papa Egoró Movement in 1994 has appeared on the scene, or any leftwing force as in the 1984 elections.” He added that “the existing political proposals move within a highly pragmatic framework, with no far-reaching proposals for solving the big national problems having yet been revealed. Meanwhile, many voters are expressing their disappointment at what they feel to be a repetition of options that have already been tried out or are simply incorporating themselves into the electoral process in the framework of the patronage networks through which they hope to resolve or at least improve their economic situation.”

At the electoral crossroads
in extreme circumstances

According to Leis, “The citizenry is getting closer and closer to an electoral crossroads without being offered any in-depth proposals for resolving the tensions of a country that is more impoverished than poor, and a democracy that is somewhat asphyxiated by the limitations and vacuums of political leadership. With its destiny finally in its own hands, Panama is shackled by extreme situations generated by restrictive development models and global frameworks. The violence that never crossed its Central American border in the eighties, but exploded in dictatorship and invasion in the nineties, is now threateningly present on the border with Colombia, from which we have been separated for a hundred years.”

He went on to say that “the only candidate who might have aroused any suspicion in Washington was Martín Torrijos, not because of him and certainly never his party, but because of his father. But the Americans were reassured by many factors related to Martín himself, particularly his academic background.”

Moscoso’s “Age of lead”

If the four presidential candidates were so similar, why did Torrijos win? Or more to the point, why did the other three lose? The first factor was the Moscoso government’s continued acts of corruption. The second was that far from fulfilling its 1999 electoral promises to resolve some of the country’s most serious economic and social problems, it actually aggravated them.

Although Jované blames the neoliberal system applied by the successive teams of Endara, Pérez Balladares and Moscoso for those problems, he also believes that “the government has demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt its own extraordinarily low skills in the economic field.”
He points out that “even accepting the dubious assertion that the economy grew by 3% in 2003, the average economic growth rate over four years (2000-2003) was only 1.65%, which compared to the population growth rate implies deteriorated per-capita income. This of course amounts to what some economists like to call ‘an age of lead,’ due to limited dynamism in productivity, employment and, above all, generation of well-being for the population.”

Weak parties and lack of leadership

Raúl Leis describes the situation like this: “The country is experiencing an economic crisis that appears to be lifting slightly with this year’s GDP increase, but it has not had any significant impact on unemployment and underemployment. Bank assets are very low, while exports have fallen by 8% and industrial production by 23%. The agricultural sector is affected by politicized and erroneous agrarian management, resulting in a failure to revamp exports and in increased rural poverty. Insecurity is on the rise and crime has gone up 15%.”

The third factor behind Torrijos’ victory is the organizational weakness of the rightwing parties. This is particularly true of the Arnulfista party, which originally revolved around its caudillo Arnulfo Arias and then his widow Mireya Moscoso, following Arias’ death in 1988.

The fourth factor is the dearth of new charismatic leaders. This is such a problem that a politician like Endara, who left office in 1994 with very low popularity ratings, managed to single-handedly pull almost half a million votes, resuscitating a party on the verge of extinction.

From parliamentary “courtship”
to electoral “marriage”

The PRD, meanwhile, fully exploited its two advantages: its powerful party apparatus and the links between the general and his son. Martín knew how to use this legacy to appeal to different sectors of the public. His charisma and oratory skills made him particularly attractive to young people and women and those and other qualities neutralized any apprehension harbored by the media and conservative sectors about him being the general’s son.

The PRD also exploited its alliance with the Christian democratic Popular Party to minimize the fears of big capital and the United States. It really was a surprising alliance. Although it was originally hammered out in 2000 through the “META” pact, few would have predicted that the parliamentary “courtship” would end in electoral “marriage,” particularly as old-time Torrijos supporters have never forgotten that the PP’s main leader, Ricardo Arias Calderón, was one of the fiercest opponents of Omar Torrijos’ government. It is said that when the general died, Arias publicly commented that “Panama loses nothing with the death of that drunkard.”
Torrijos’ alliance extended beyond the political sphere to include the all-powerful Panamanian financial sector. One of Torrijos’ two running mates was Samuel Lewis Navarro, a major stakeholder in the nation’s banana and food packaging industries and one of Panama’s richest citizens. His uncle, Samuel Lewis Galindo, is one of the owners of BANPAÍS, was Panama’s ambassador to the United States during Omar Torrijos’ government and heads the Solidarity Party, which allied with the PRD during the 1999 elections. Lewis Navarro gave up his membership in that party to join the Torrijos ticket. Although he was publicly repudiated, blood and business ties are not so easy to break. Torrijos’ select teams of advisers also included a son of Banco General board president Federico Humbert. Both banking groups were careful to watch their backs, however, placing key figures in candidate Endara’s team as well.

“The Martín team”

Torrijos and his party ran an intelligent campaign. Following an idea rumored to have come from Torrijos’ wife, they focused on the “market” of under-thirties and women, particularly the 252,564 new voters. To attract this sector of the electorate they invented the “Martín Team,” whose rowdy but effective proselytism virtually took over the electoral rallies. In a country with such deep musical roots, even the campaign songs played an important part, competing with other hits for the ears of Panama’s youth. People of all ages could be heard humming the PRD’s campaign songs on buses or in the universities.

Torrijos was careful not to react to the insults of his adversaries, although they tried time and again to bait him. With few exceptions, he was able to dodge them, mindful that he was the front-runner. One example of such provocation came during the Solidarity Party’s end-of-campaign rally, when vice presidential candidate Guillermo Ford cried out at the top of his voice, “Martín, I’ve been working since I was 17, but you’ve been a layabout all your life!”

Episodes in Martín Torrijos’ life

Ford’s outburst didn’t actually correspond to reality. Although Martín certainly never went hungry and was a member of the most powerful political family in Panama during the seventies, his father did not raise and educate him in a gilded cage. Born on July 18, 1963, he went out to cut sugar cane during his adolescence, much to the annoyance of his mother and grandmother, and even fought in Nicaragua’s insurrection against Somoza.

In 1977, when he was just 14, his father sent Martín and his younger step-brother Omar José to Wisconsin in the United States, where he finished his secondary education at the exclusive St. John’s Military Academy. According to a brief biography published in La Prensa, “It was Omar José’s idea, because he had been at Stauton Military Academy and didn’t want to return to another academy on his own. So he asked his father to send Martín with him. The general started to think about whom he could entrust with his sons’ education in the United States. At that time, a man called Cirilo McSween happened to be in Panama. McSween was a Panamanian living in Chicago where he owned a chain of McDonald’s restaurants. He had met the general in the mid-seventies and was helping him obtain the votes needed in the US Senate to pass the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, while the negotiators were busy doing their part. One day the deneral asked Cirilo to join him on a tour of Santiago. There in a doorway he explained in private, ‘I have two sons and I’ve checked out a few schools. There’s one near Chicago and I’m going to send them there... I’d like you to think about being a father to my sons over there. What do you say?’ Although Cirilo hadn’t met either Martín or Omar José yet, he smiled slightly and said he’d do it. Two weeks later the general’s two sons were in St. John’s under his responsibility.”

Martín is one of six children the general had with four different women, and some say that he, the eldest son, was the favorite. La Prensa quotes Edén Pastora—a friend of Omar Torrijos before breaking with the Sandinistas—as rather egotistically remarking that Torrijos saw in his son “the qualities that would lead him to follow the same paths I took in my life.”

Only days after entering the Academy, Martín was in Washington to witness the most important event in Panama’s history: the signing of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties that gave Panama sovereignty over the canal running through its territory.

In revolutionary Nicaragua

In 1979, during the US summer vacation, Martín asked his father to let him fight in the insurrection against Somoza. For two months he was under the command of his uncle, “Charro” Espino, in the Panamanian brigade led by Dr. Hugo Spadafora, who was decapitated on Noriega’s orders six years later. Among others, Martín met Dionisio Marenco, currently the FSLN’s candidate for mayor of Managua. The day after celebrating his 16th birthday in Nicaragua, he was celebrating the triumph of its revolution. He then accompanied his father on his historic visit to Managua and Estelí, where the people cheered him. But these experiences aren’t something that Martín likes to talk about, limiting himself to saying, “It was a month, two months of my life. I was a young man with a lot of ideals and at the time was attracted to everything that was happening in Nicaragua.”

The death of his father

1981 was a key year for Martín. In June, the general traveled to Wisconsin to attend his sons’ graduation ceremony, then on July 31, his plane exploded between Penonomé and Coclesito, in Panama. Martín got the news at his mother’s house, where he had taken his former commander in the Southern Front, Edén Pastora, who had recently resigned his Sandinista government posts. Pastora says he never saw his friend cry, but Martín describes it as one of the three most painful moments in his life.

“After the general’s death,” says La Prensa, “he spent a year and a half thinking things over and deciding what to do with his life. He finally went to study at Texas A&M in the United States, where he got a Political Science degree in 1987 and another in Economics in 1988.” After his graduation, he helped his adoptive father Cirilo McSween administer his restaurant chain in Chicago before returning to his country in 1992. It was from the United States that he witnessed the pulverization of the state his father had built up and the ignominy of the US invasion of Panama.

From the PRD’s youth front
to its presidential candidate

Martín got involved with the PRD as soon as he returned to Panama and quickly became the leader of its youth front. He actively participated in the electoral campaign that swept “El Toro” Pérez Balladares to power and became a public figure when he was named deputy interior minister. According to his official biography, this involved “participating as a member of the Cabinet Committee and of the National Security Council, chairing the boards of directors of the Civil Aviation Department and the National Telecommunications Institute and presiding over the Penitentiary System Modernization Program. He played an important role in this program and earned the recognition of the United Nations and the Spanish Government.”

He later won the support of Pérez Balladares—whom he had first met when “El Toro” was finance minister in the Torrijos government—and was named the PRD’s presidential candidate in 1999. But he couldn’t defeat Mireya Moscoso, among other reasons because President Pérez Balladares had undermined the relative success of his first three years in office with a disastrous, corruption-stained performance during his last year, following the defeat of his 1998 referendum on a constitutional reform to allow presidential reelection.

After his defeat, Martín worked as economic adviser to several multinational communications, maritime, construction and agroexport companies, simultaneously dedicating his efforts to reorganizing the PRD from top to bottom. Together with his wife, publicist expert Vivian Fergo, he crisscrossed the country, introducing direct and secret elections for all the party structures and for the primary elections to select candidates for public posts. While he was at it, he firmly established himself as the party’s general secretary. Fergo also created a foundation, collected money from sympathetic businesspeople and devoted her time to implementing social works of limited scope but great social and political impact, which underpinned her husband’s candidacy.

From the country we have
to the country we want

There are no real novelties in the PRD’s government program. Torrijos himself summed it up as follows: “Panama needs a new country project to unite all of our compatriots in the urgent development tasks, a national project that can pull us out of our backwardness, inequity and poverty and into the first world in a relatively short space of time. We propose achieving this objective in several years’ time, but believe that the current generation must also enjoy the results of its efforts. We are the Latin American country with the best possibility of achieving this. This vision defines the fundamental priorities of our government program: sustainable human development, implemented through a policy of economic development, job creation and organized economic policies implemented directly in marginalized communities aimed at guaranteeing rapid improvement of the national infrastructure and the provision of basic services. The implementation of this strategy and the corresponding programs necessarily imply reforming the state to eradicate inefficiency and corruption as a way of operating.”

According to Torrijos, the program is based on “broad consultation with all sectors of society…aimed at gaining a much better understanding of the country that we have in order to provide the right conditions and better tools to build the country that we want.” He promises that “the community’s legitimate and urgent demands and offers will not fall on stony ground this time,” and that “our government’s main aim will be to eradicate poverty through economic growth and direct aid to the poorest sectors.”

He also offers a little charity as a palliative: “It will be temporary, but effective support that will allow citizens to be involved in the development process we’re going to initiate.”

At the same time, he pledges to adjust public spending: “We’re not going to tire society with new taxes or contributions or reforms without performing profound surgery on the squandering of taxpayers’ money.” And he goes on to explain that “we will reorient public spending with a marked preference for those sectors living in poverty or extreme poverty. Millions of balboas are currently going to sectors and individuals who have less need for them than the poorest, or who quite simply don’t need them at all.”

In a distant reference to the general’s philosophy, the PRD program states that the “comprehensive vision of development will never ignore the relationship between capital investment and transparency. Those who fail to link development with the moral fiber of the country commit the sin of ignorance. A sustainable development proposal can only be viable if productive investment is accompanied by honesty.”

The Torrijismo of old was also present in the following phrase: “Increased poverty suits nobody and no businessperson should trust a society in which around a million and half people—over a third of the population—have no buying power and distrust those who are responsible for governing and creating jobs.”

Straight out of the IMF’s book

Torrijos’s discourse, however, also contains concepts copied from a number of documents published by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and maybe even the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA). The following are just a few examples: “This is an integral and participatory program”; “It is the population’s social agenda and the community also has the responsibility to help implement it”; “Economic growth is achieved through the increase of capital, the generation of jobs and technological progress. Competition increases capital and productivity”; and “Commercial exchange generates wealth and well-being and Panama must select its trade partners to negotiate free trade agreements.” It does, on the other hand, mention that “we will not abandon any sector to its fate, although we will ask those sectors for a commitment to modernization and productivity.” And it warns that “it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that the adjustments required during a crisis are not perversely distributed; in other words against those who have the least tools to help them endure periods of recession.”

Promises abound and at times the program seems more like a letter to Santa Claus or a list of good intentions. It includes all kinds of special programs for the elderly, children, young people, indigenous people and women, and promises to improve the financial conditions of industrial and agricultural producers. In the same vein, it talks of “reforming our legal system with a view to creating a solid institutional framework, with legal security and an independent, quick and efficient judicial system,” and pledges that “all Panamanians will be assured access to basic services.”

But Panama needs a lot more than promises and good intentions to overcome its crisis. There is general consensus on the priorities: reduce unemployment (currently between 12% and 18%); reform the Constitution (Endara proposed a Constituent Assembly) to adapt the legal system to the new reality; eradicate the corruption from public administration; implementing a program to reduce criminal activities, particularly those linked to drug trafficking, but also to money laundering, a white-collar crime; and widen the canal with the construction of a third set of locks. The latter will imply deciding how to raise the money: increase the foreign debt, insist that the United States and Japan contribute or establish a special tariff for canal users.

Will President Torrijos
follow his father’s example?

When Martín Torrijos kicked off his electoral campaign on January 15, he said that a childhood friend had asked him not to change and to keep his feet planted firmly on the ground. He swore that he would and that if anything would change, it would be the presidency. “I won’t dig in my heels about leaving the presidency,” he said on that occasion. “When I finish my term in office, my greatest reward will be hearing Panamanians say, ‘I’ve got food, water, health, education, a house, a guaranteed pension and I’m not up to my ears in debt. And above all, I’ve got a future.’”

Some “ideological” Torrijistas are saying that Martín will not let them down; they predict that he will apply the same model of society his father wanted to build, neither on the left nor the right. Rómulo Escobar Bethancourt, a personal friend of Omar Torrijos and one of Panama’s most brilliant historians, tells of a conversation the general had with Lewis Galindo, when he was his ambassador in Washington. “Look, Gabriel,” said Torrijos, “I’m treading along the edge of a deadly precipice. If I stop, the wind will blow me towards the crags. If I lean to the left, I’ll fall despite my best intentions; and if I lean to the right, I could get entangled in the thicket and kill myself. So my only option is keep on going straight ahead.”

Omar Torrijos defined human beings as his government’s objective and used to repeat endlessly that the best way to discover the country’s situation was to talk to the poor. He said that “there’s no such thing as a bad people. Nobody wants to be bad. Nobody wants to be hungry; nobody wants to be so poor they can’t send their children to school; nobody wants not to work. Everybody wants hope, an opportunity, a chance. There are no bad peoples, just bad governments. Our people love their homeland. They are is just looking for a governor who feels the same profound affection for his homeland.” Maybe his son will end up following the general’s example. He at least deserves the benefit of the doubt.

William Grigsby Vado is a Nicaraguan journalist and envío's special reporter on Panama's elections.

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