Omar Torrijos (1929-1981) was not only Panama's most famous leader in that country's history but also one of Latin America's best-known figures of the 20th century. He achieved this distinction for one reason—Torrijos, a military man in a small republic whose civilian presidents had generally accommodated American wishes over the years, successfully negotiated new canal and defense treaties with the most powerful nation in the world.
Omar Torrijos (O-mar Toe-REE-hose) Herrera (Torrijos was Omar's father's family name; Herrera his mother's maiden name) was born on February 13, 1929, in the small town of Santiago, which is located about 100 miles southwest of Panama's capital, Panama City. (Panama runs east-west not north-south.) Omar's parents taught school but early on, apparently, he decided on a military career. He went to El Salvador's famous military school and took more training in the United States and Venezuela. He joined the Panamanian national guard as a second lieutenant in 1952.
He matured in the 1950s, when a generation of young Panamanians rankled over their small country's division into halves by the Canal Zone, which was virtually an American colony. In 1955 another Panamanian former guardsman, José Antonio "Chi Chi" Remón, got the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration to alter (but not repeal) the hated 1903 canal treaty—Panama had negotiated the first modification in the 1930s—to provide Panama with greater economic benefits from the canal. But Panamanians wanted more: they believed that the Canal Zone was Panamanian territory because the 1903 treaty clearly stated that the United States could act in the Zone "as if it were sovereign." On Panama's national independence day, November 3, 1959, a band of Panamanian nationalists stormed into the Zone determined to publicize Panama's claims by flying their flag in the zone.
Four years later, in January 1964, more destructive rioting broke out in the Canal Zone when Panamanian students tried to hoist the Panamanian banner in front of Balboa High School, where outraged American students, defying the Canal Zone governor's ban, had raised the American flag.
In the rioting that followed two dozen Panamanians died, and American and Panamanian diplomats had to work for almost a year to restore normal diplomatic relations. But out of this bloody confrontation came another series of canal treaties that for nationalistic reasons Panamanians rejected in 1967. One year later Lt. Col. Omar Torrijos ousted the civilian president, Arnulfo Arias, the American-educated doctor and political figure who had been tossed out of office twice before in his long and stormy career.
Military takeovers were not uncommon in Latin America, but in Panama the National Guard had rarely challenged civilian rule, so Torrijos was taking a gamble. His critics called him a "tinpot dictator" who enjoyed tweaking Uncle Sam and cozying up to Fidel Castro of Cuba. But Torrijos, though not an intellectual, was much more complex than the ordinary Latin American strongman. He travelled about Panama in his military fatigues, encouraging small villagers in their agricultural or craft enterprises about self-sufficiency, then denouncing the United States for its unjust canal policy that deprived Panama of its rightful economic benefits. He seemed to like most everything American except the American position on the canal. His flamboyant style and receptiveness to visitors made him a favorite with American reporters. Any man who could claim both Fidel Castro and John Wayne as friends had to possess considerable charm.
Torrijos had several international causes, but the canal was paramount. In the mid-1970s, when U.S.-Panamanian discussions over the canal were almost dead in the water, he carried Panama's case to the rest of Latin America. By the time Jimmy Carter was inaugurated in January 1977, most of the hemisphere had lined up behind Torrijos and Panama and against the United States on this volatile issue. When Torrijos finally got the Americans to accept new canal and neutrality treaties (which provided for total Panamanian control in the year 2000 but immediately ended the hated Canal Zone) he was condemned as a Marxist stooge in the United States and as Uncle Sam's puppet by critics in his own country.
When the canal treaties were finally ratified—after emotional debates in both countries—Torrijos relinquished the presidential chair to Aristides Royo, a civilian, but reappeared every so often to let people know he was still in charge. Despite the massive infusions of investment (largely in banking) in the 1970s, Panama's economy began to suffer, and Torrijos got blamed by the left for selling out to the capitalists. When Torrijos provided the shah of Iran with sanctuary in December 1979, there were riots that the National Guard quashed with clubs and fire hoses. Yet, in the preceding years, Torrijos had provided a safe haven for Sandinista rebels in their war against the Somoza government in Nicaragua.
When Torrijos died in a plane crash near Penonoméon August 1, 1981, Panama lost its most ardently nationalistic figure. In achieving the long-standing Panamanian goal of a new treaty and an end to the Canal Zone, Torrijos had gained for Panama, and for himself, a stature virtually unequalled by any other Latin American republic in modern times.
Further Reading on Omar Torrijos
Torrijos' importance in Panama's history is discussed in Walter LaFeber, The Panama Canal (1978); Graham Greene, Getting To Know the General (1984); David Farnsworth and James McKenney, U.S.-Panama Relations, 1903-1978 (1983); and Paul Ryan, The Panama Canal Controversy (1977).