The National Guard in Ascendance


A temporary shift in power from the civilian aristocracy to the National Police occurred immediately after World War II. Between 1948 and 1952, National Police Commander José Antonio Remón installed and removed presidents with unencumbered ease. Among his behind-the-scenes manipulations were the denial to Arnulfo Arias of the presidency he apparently had won in 1948, the installation of Arias in the presidency in 1949, and the engineering of Arias's removal from office in 1951. Meanwhile, Remón increased salaries and fringe benefits for his forces and modernized training methods and equipment; in effect, he transformed the National Police from a police into a paramilitary force. In the spheres of security and public order, he achieved his long-sought goal by transforming the National Police into the National Guard in 1953 and introduced greater militarization into the country's only armed force. The missions and functions were little changed by the new title, but for Remón, this change was a step toward a national army.

From several preexisting parties and factions, Remón also organized the National Patriotic Coalition (Coalición Patriótico Nacional--CPN). He ran successfully as its candidate for the presidency in 1952. Remón followed national tradition by enriching himself through political office. He broke with tradition, however, by promoting social reform and economic development. His agricultural and industrial programs temporarily reduced the country's overwhelming economic dependence on the canal and the zone.

Remón's reformist regime was short-lived, however. In 1955 he was machine-gunned to death at the racetrack outside Panama City. The first vice president, José Ramón Guizado, was impeached for the crime and jailed, but he was never tried, and the motivation for his alleged act remained unclear. Some investigators believed that the impeachment of Guizado was a smokescreen to distract attention from others implicated in the assassination, including United States organized crime figure "Lucky" Luciano, dissident police officers, and both Arias families. The second vice president, Ricardo Arias (of the aristocratic Arias family), served out the remainder of the presidential term and dismantled many of Remón's reforms.

Remón did not live to see the culmination of the major treaty revision he initiated. In 1953 Remón had visited Washington to discuss basic revisions of the 1936 treaty. Among other things, Panamanian officials wanted a larger share of the canal tolls, and merchants continued to be unhappy with the competition from the nonprofit commissaries in the Canal Zone. Remón also demanded that the discriminatory wage differential in the zone, which favored United States citizens over Panamanians, be abolished.

After lengthy negotiations a Treaty of Mutual Understanding and Cooperation was signed on January 23, 1955. Under its provisions commercial activities not essential to the operation of the canal were to be cut back. The annuity was enlarged to US$1,930,000. The principle of "one basic wage scale for all . . . employees . . . in the Canal Zone" was accepted and implemented. Panama's request for the replacement of the "perpetuity" clause by a ninety-nine-year renewable lease was rejected, however, as was the proposal that its citizens accused of violations in the zone be tried by joint United States-Panamanian tribunals.


Panama's contribution to the 1955 treaty was its consent to the United States occupation of the bases outside of the Canal Zone that it had withheld a few years earlier. Approximately 8,000 hectares of the republic's territory were leased rent-free for 15 years for United States military maneuvers. The Río Hato base, a particularly important installation in defense planning, was thus regained for the United States Air Force. Because the revisions had the strong support of President Ricardo Arias, the National Assembly approved them with little hesitation.


Presented by CZBrats
November 18, 1998

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