Sunday, January 29 2006 @ 04:32 PM EST
Contributed by: Don Winner
He had reached the rank of lieutenant colonel by 1966 and in 1968 he and colonel Boris Martínez led a successful coup d'etat against the democratically-elected president, Arnulfo Arias (Arias himself had led a coup in 1931). In the internal power struggle that followed Torrijos emerged victorious - he exiled Martínez in 1969, made himself a brigadier general and survived an attempted coup from his junior officers. Torrijos further consolidated his power by taking authoritarian measures such as persecuting leaders of student and labor groups, dissolving all political parties and the legislature, closing down independent media outlets, and conducting a ruthless anti-guerrilla campaign in Western Panama. Under these conditions, the regime called for controlled election of an assembly with a single opposition member, which approved a Constitution that granted Torrijos absolute civil and military powers in 1972.
Torrijos was regarded by his supporters as the first Panamanian leader to represent the majority population of Panama, which is poor, Spanish-speaking, and of mixed heritage (of indigenous, Hispanic, and African descent) -- as opposed to the light-skinned social elite, often referred to as rabiblancos ("white-tails"), who dominated the commerce and political life of Panama. Torrijos instituted a range of social and economic reforms to improve the lot of the poor, redistributed agricultural land and persecuted the richest and most powerful families in the country, as well as independent student and labor leaders. The reforms were accompanied by an ambitious public works program, financed by foreign banks, and plagued by corruption and nepotism, which turned Panama into one of the countries with highest per capita public indebtedness. He was intolerant of political opposition, however, and many opponents were imprisoned, exiled or even killed. One such well-publicized incident was the 1971 kidnapping and disappearance of Héctor Gallegos, a populist Catholic priest.
President Carter shakes hands with President Torrijos of Panama after signing the Panama Canal Treaty.He also negotiated the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, signed on September 7, 1977. These treaties gave Panamanians sovereignty over the canal zone, with a gradual increase in their control over it, leading to complete control after the year 2000. The United States however, retained the permanent right to protect the neutrality of the canal. In 1997, General Manuel Noriega revealed in his book, America's Prisoner, that Torrijos planned to sabotage the canal, in the event that the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the treaties. The contingency plan was code-named "Huele a Quemado" (Literal translation: "It smells like something's burning.") According to Noriega, Panamanian military specialists, including explosives experts and frogmen, infiltrated the U.S. security cordon and lived for two months, posing as peasants and fishermen. They prepared to assault the canal and the Panama-Colón railway with explosives and rocket launchers upon Torrijos' signal, to be broadcast as a coded message over Radio Liberty on the program of popular radio personality Danilo Caballero. When the news came that the treaty had been ratified by the U.S. Senate, the message to stand down -- "Boleros de Ayer has been cancelled" -- was broadcast.
In 1978 when his term as Chief of Government ended he did not seek its extension but retired and planned for a return of full civil authority by 1984. He remained commander of the powerful National Guard while his follower Aristides Royo was a figurehead president. When Torrijos was killed in a plane crash, he was succeeded by Florencio Flores Aguilar who assumed command of the National Guard but he was soon replaced by Rubén Darío Paredes.
Mausoleum of Omar Torrijos on Amador, Panama City in the former Canal Zone.Torrijos' death generated charges and speculation that he was the victim of an assassination plot. For instance, in pre-trial hearings in Miami May, 1991 Noriega's attorney Frank Rubino was quoted as saying "General Noriega has in his possession documents showing attempts to assassinate General Noriega and Mr. Torrijos by agencies of the United States." Those documents were not allowed as evidence in trial, because the presiding judge agreed with the government's claim that their public mention would violate the Classified Information Procedures Act. More recently, former businessman John Perkins , alleges in his book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, that Torrijos was assassinated by American interests, who had a bomb planted aboard his aircraft. The alleged motive is that some American business leaders and politicians strongly opposed the negotiations between Torrijos and a group of Japanese businessmen led by Shigeo Nagano, who were promoting the idea of a new, larger, sea-level canal for Panama. Manuel Noriega, in America's Prisoner, confirms that these negotiations had evoked an extremely unfavorable response from American circles. Torrijos died just months after Ecuadorian president Jaime Roldós Aguilera, in strikingly similar circumstances.
Omar Torrijos is well known in Panama for his famous quotes. Here are some examples:
"I don't like Communism because it hands out wealth through rationing books.”
"Regarding the Panama Canal Treaty negotiations, they will find us standing up or dead, but never on our knees; NEVER!”
"I don't want to go into history; I want to go into the Canal Zone.”
"If I fall, pick up the flag, kiss it, and keep on going.”
"Those that consult more, make less mistakes"
En español: http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omar_Torrijos
1978 REPORT ON THE SITUATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN PANAMA by Inter-American Commission on Human Rights describes human rights violations by the Torrijos regime
An assessment of the career of Omar Torrijos in the context of Panamanian history
Austin American Statesman, May 1, 1991, "U.S. agencies tried to slay Noriega, lawyer tells court." Perkins, John. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2004. See pages 156-157 regarding Roldós's alleged assassination.
Retrieved from "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omar_Torrijos"
Torrijos Herrera, Omar (ōmär' tōrē'hōs ārā'rä) , 1929–81, military leader, dictator of Panama (1968–78). As a lieutenant colonel, he led, together with Col. Boris Martínez, the coup (1968) that ousted President Arnulfo Arias. In 1969, he exiled Martínez, and promoted himself to brigadier general. Later that year, following a coup attempt by younger officers, he tightened his grip on the country. He instituted wide-ranging economic and social reforms, espousing birth control, expropriating land, and attacking Panama's powerful families. In Sept., 1972, an elected assembly granted Torrijos full civil and military powers for six years. He successfully negotiated new Panama Canal treaties (1977) with U.S. President Jimmy Carter that transferred the Canal Zone and ultimately the canal to Panamanian control. In 1978, he chose not to run for president, though he remained as commander of the National Guard. He died in a plane crash.