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Panama: Uneasy Victory

3 minute read

Violence disturbs an election

It was to have been a chance to prove that after 16 years of military rule, Panamanians were ready to elect their next President. But scarcely 26 hours after the polls had closed, the electoral experiment began to slide into the kind of political violence and chaos that torments the rest of Central America. As the National Tabulating Board laboriously hand-tallied several hundred thousand votes and inexplicably delayed announcing even partial results, supporters of Arnulfo Arias Madrid, 82, took to the streets to protest what they claimed was a clumsy attempt by his opponents to steal the election.

Outside Panama City’s Legislative Palace, where votes were being counted, Arias’ backers clashed with supporters of Nicolás (“Nicky”) Ardito Barletta, 45, the candidate of the military-backed National Democratic Union. Throughout the night, roving gangs from both sides barricaded downtown streets, looting shops and burning debris. Several times they were scattered by sniper fire that erupted from nearby buildings. The toll in one night of rioting: one dead, 41 wounded.

Although the vote count was not final, by week’s end it appeared that Ardito Barletta, an economist who had served as a vice president of the World Bank until last February, would score a narrow victory over Arias, a Harvard-educated physician who leads the conservative Alliance of Democratic Opposition. But the real victor would most likely be the 12,000-man National Defense Forces, Panama’s only security force. Ostensibly the election was to be the first step toward removing the military from politics, under the provisions of the constitutional reforms approved by referendum in 1982. In fact, Ardito Barletta was hand-picked by the military because of his solid economic background. Drab and bureaucratic, he failed to arouse much passion during the campaign.

Arias proved to be a strong opponent despite some definite handicaps of age: he is nearly blind, walks with considerable difficulty and speaks in a barely audible, hoarse whisper. His legend, however, preceded him. He has been elected President three times (in 1940, 1949 and 1968) and overthrown by the military three times. Yet people remember him for having declared Spanish the official language of Panama and for originally giving women the vote in 1941. Arias’ campaign was unabashedly anti-Communist and pro-Reagan. Nonetheless, many Panamanians suspected that Arias might be overthrown again if he won.

Even with the support of the military, Ardito Barletta will face a difficult five-year term. He will have to deal with a stagnant economy, a foreign debt of $3.3 million and pressing social problems, such as unemployment and lack of adequate housing and medical care. To continue the return to civilian rule, he will gently have to nudge the military out of politics but without provoking his own overthrow. Said Ardito Barletta last week: “One must treat the military well so that the military will treat the government well.” He might soon be saying the same thing about Panamanian voters.

There was no such controversy last week in Ecuador, which held its second presidential election since the military gave up power in 1979. Conservative Businessman Leon Febres Cordero defeated his center-left opponent, Rodrigo Borja Cevallos, by fewer than 100,000 of the 2.9 million ballots cast, but the vote occurred without incident and the armed forces did not intervene. When the result was announced, outgoing President Osvaldo Hurtado Larrea, who had quietly favored Borja, declared, “Democracy is winning ground in Latin America.”

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