Panama: political vacuum after Torrijos passing

Omar Torrijos Herrera so dominated and controlled Panamanian political life for more than a decade that his death in an airplane crash opens a dangerous vacuum for his isthmian nation.

It also leaves a big void in the hemisphere, for General Torrijos often seemed bigger than life and frequently played a role much larger than any Panamanian before him.

In fact, few Panamanians have had so marked an effect on their country. In modern times, only former President Arnulfo Arias Madrid, who General Torrijos ousted in 1968, was as influential and popular.

But Mr. Arias has largely withdrawn from the political scene -- thus Panama faces a most uncertain future as it gropes for new leadership.

Whether Panama's top officials -- aristides Royo, General Torrijos' hand-picked choice for the presidency, and Col. Florescio Flores, the new National Guard commander -- can work together remains to be seen.

It is unclear whether Mr. Royo on his own can maintain support for his two-year old presidency. At the same time, the National Guard, out of which General Torrijos emerged, is factionalized. Colonel Flores may have to struggle to remain as head of the guard. The tough, 15,000-member army-and-police unit has long controlled Panama.

General Torrijos was a master of political maneuvering. He controlled Panama's political and military affairs, and won begrudging allegiance of the nation's business community.

He also brought Panama close to control of the US-built-and-operated Panama Canal, a waterway that is Panama's principle asset.

After long and protracted negotiations with the US, General Torrijos in mid- 1977 concluded two treaties that provide for gradual Panamization of the Canal until the year 2000, when the waterway becomes fully Panamanian. Joint operation of the canal began Oct. 1, 1979, and has proven to be a workable arrangement.

After charting the course for canal Panamization, which was his biggest goal, General Torrijos gradually turned day-to-day operation of government functions over to others and retired to his mountain home at Coclesito in Panama's interior, although he retained command of the National Guard.

He was never far from power, however, and indeed remained Panama's strong man until July 31 when his airp lane crashed in bad weather.

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