Arnulfo Arias (1901-1988), thrice elected president of Panama and thrice removed before the end of his term, was an outspoken and popular political figure in his country from the 1930s through the mid-1980s.
Arnulfo Arias was born in Penonomé, Coclé Province, Colombia, August 15, 1901, more than two years before the American-backed revolt made Panama an independent country in November 1903. He went to high school in Binghamton, New York, and then attended the University of Chicago and Harvard University which awarded him a medical degree. After interning at Boston City Hospital, he returned to Panama in 1925.
The Arias family is one of several Panamanian middle-class families prominent in isthmian politics. In the 1930s Arnulfo entered into politics. He criticized the old Panamanian political establishment for being too agreeable to the United States, especially on matters related to the Panama Canal. In 1936, when Arnulfo was representing Panama in various diplomatic posts in Europe, his brother, Harmodio, president of Panama since 1932, negotiated a new canal treaty with the United States. This treaty did not replace the hated 1903 canal arrangement, but at least Panama obtained greater benefits in the Canal Zone. In 1940, after the new treaty was approved, Arnulfo became president of Panama.
Arnulfo took power just as the American military began pressing for greater territorial concessions from Panama to build defense installations to protect the Panama Canal. As a price for these concessions, Arnulfo demanded greater economic concessions from the United States. He championed the Spanish language and excited a generation of panameños with his nationalistic rhetoric. Irritated by this outburst of criticism, the U.S. government resisted Arias' demands. In Washington, American officials accused him of being pro-German, but in truth Arias (like Omar Torrijos several decades later) was really expressing the longstanding resistance by Panamanians against American domination of their country. After Arias was tossed out by a palace revolt in October 1941 the United States quickly obtained the defense sites agreement it wanted.
In 1948 Arias ran again, was elected, but had to wait 18 months before taking power. But once more he so frightened the old families and the national guard with his prolabor policies and anti-American rhetoric that the military kicked him out.
In 1964 Arias ran for a third time, in the months after a bloody confrontation between Americans and Panamanians in January 1964. But once again he was deprived of power by an apparent electoral fraud that gave the executive power in Panama to Marco Robles. Four years later Arnulfo, now aged noticeable but still a vigorous campaigner, ran again. He won a disproportionate victory, but less than two weeks after his inaugural on October 1, 1968, the national guard, under Omar Torrijos, kicked him out.
Arias went to Miami and waited until 1977 to return to Panama. Torrijos was still in power but the Panamanian economy was in trouble. Arias came back to Panama City to a tumultuous welcome from 100,000 enthusiastic followers. Though an old man, he had lost none of his hold on the Panamanian people. "It's the fourth coming," said one of his supporters. True to form, Arias criticized the economic situation, Torrijos and the "cult of personality," and especially the new canal treaties Torrijos signed with the Jimmy Carter administration in Washington.
Torrijos held on to power until his death in a helicopter crash in 1981, but Arias showed that he still had a powerful appeal to the ordinary Panamanians. Age had not mellowed him. He still criticized his followers. "The Panamanian people are like oxen," he once said, "you have to keep prodding them with a stick to keep them moving." On another occasion he said, "Panama is like a village, what it needs is a mayor, not a president."
In 1984, at 82 and nearly blind, Arias ran yet another time for Panamanian president and narrowly lost to Nicolas Ardito Barleta. Many panameños still remembered that Arias made Spanish the official language of Panama and gave women the vote in his first term in 1940-1941. Yet he remained a vigorous anti-communist. It probably did not matter that he lost, some of his supporters said, because the national guard would probably have kicked him out had he won. Arias died in 1988.
For more on Arnulfo Arias consult John and Mavis Biesanz, The People of Panama (1955); Walter LeFeber, The Panama Canal (1978); and David Farnsworth and James W. McKenney, U.S.-Panama Relations 1903-1978 (1983). □