Panama colonels jockey for power after Torrijos rites

By , Latin America correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Panama's immediate future, following the death of Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera, is in the hands of the colonels who run the country's National Guard. Jockeying for power is clearly under way. The colonels met in marathon sessions over the weekend and into the new week after the airplane crash July 31 that killed General Torrijos, Panama's strong man for the past 13 years.

Just who will emerge as his replacement is uncertain. The issue is complicated because General Torrijos made no plans for succession. At age 52, he fully intended to exercise behind-the-scenes control of Panama for a number of years to come.

Since 1978, General Torrijos has had no formal government, serving officially only as top commander of the country's National Guard. Panama's 9,000-member combined military and police force.

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The guard, however, is the major power structure in the country. Panama's next leader is certain to come from its ranks.

Two names most prominently being mentioned are Lt. Col. Manuel Noriega, head of military intelligence, and Col. Ruben Dario Paredes, deputy chief of staff.

For the time being, the guard is commanded by Col. Florencio Flores, who served as chief of staff at the same time of General Torrijos' passing.

But he is regarded as a figurehead -- a fact very evident at Panama City's Metropolitan Cathedral Aug. 3 when General Torrijos's casket was put on view. As mourners gathered around the casket, Colonel Flores was pushed out of the way by a security guard and left standing at the back of the crowd -- alone and without any aides.

Aristedes Royo, General Torrijos' handpicked choice as president, is also seen as a figurehead. He has virtually no power and there is speculation that the guard may soon stage a palace coup to remove him and make way for someone of its own choosing.

The guard has always had divisions, and General Torrijos's great ability to play off one group against another -- and to serve as something of a power broker -- leaves a vacuum in Panamanian politics.

The colonels are said to be discussing formation of their own interim government, perhaps tapping either former President Arnulfo Arias Madrid or current Vice-President Ricardo de la Espriella as president.

Selection of Mr. Arias would be ironic: It was his 11-day-old rule that Torrijos, then a colonel, overthrow on Oct. 11, 1968.

But Mr. Arias, whose popularity in Panama matches that of General Torrijos, has friends within the guard. His selection might well prove popular with Panama's 1.4 million people and provide a period of transition before one colonel or another steps forward to claim General Torrjos' mantle.

The colonels "have everything to gain from maintaining things as normal as possible for the time being," said Ricardo Arias, a distant cousin of former President Arias and leader of Panama's small but vocal Christian Democratic Party.

Moreover, naming Mr. Arias or someone with more political savvy than President Royo might also appeal to Panama's important business and banking community.

Neither the guard nor the business community particularly likes President Royo. In fact, guard commanders reportedly had been asking General Torrijos to fire the President, partly because they felt he was "arrogant" to assume he was really in charge of the government.

Meanwhile, the funeral for General Torrijos was marred slightly by Soviet charges that the United States was responsible for the crash of the general's plane. Nicaragua's delegates to the rites echoed those charges. The US sharply denied responsibility. Cuba's delegation did not pick up the charge.

US delegates included former Ambassador Sol M. Linowitz and Ellsworth Bunker, the US negotiators of the two new Panama Canal treaties, which provide for eventual Panamanian control over the waterway.

General Torrijos considered those treaties to be his greatest achievement. It was only after they were signed that he retired to a behind-the-scenes role.

That role included a variety of activities -- from support for Central American revolutionaries to bailing the US out of a difficult situation by offering the deposed Shah of Iran a hideaway exile during the Iranian hostage crisis.

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