Torrijos Herrera, Omar (1929–1981)

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Torrijos Herrera, Omar (1929–1981)

Omar Torrijos Herrera (b. 13 February 1929; d. 31 July 1981), maximum leader and supreme chief of the Panamanian Revolution, chief of state, and commander in chief of the Panamanian National Guard (1968–1981). Born in Santiago de Veraguas, he entered a military academy in El Salvador after attending public schools in Panama.

A career military man, General Omar Torrijos Herrera rose through the ranks of the Panamanian National Guard, joining several other colonels in leading a coup on 11 October 1968 that removed President Arnulfo Arias Madrid after only ten days in office. Unsuccessful efforts by his colleagues to secure power left Torrijos as the sole leader of the guard.

Torrijos is most remembered for his successful campaign to establish Panamanian control and sovereignty over the canal, a popular cause in Panama, which represented the fulfillment of a longtime national ambition. The general skillfully orchestrated popular sentiment and focused world opinion through a meeting of the U.N. Security Council in March 1993. The Security Council met in the Legislative Palace in Panama City, very close to the frontier separating the Canal Zone from Panama. The Torrijos-Carter Treaty, signed 7 September 1977, established a gradual transition process, assuring U.S. operation of the canal until 31 December 1999 but guaranteeing Panamanian control of the canal on 1 January 2000, thus ending U.S. jurisdiction over Panama's economic resource. The treaty also eliminated the Canal Zone and its special privileges for U.S. citizens three years hence and brought Panama a dramatic increase in canal revenues.

Torrijos's contribution to Panamanian politics, however, was far more significant, for his revolution changed his nation's political institutions and extended political participation to previously excluded and ignored ethnic groups and social classes. A self-made man of the middle class, he focused on ending the dominance of the elite of Spanish ancestry and on opening the political system to the urban masses of laborers and the middle class, which consisted largely of mulattoes and blacks, groups that had previously been denied even citizenship, much less political participation. In this sense, Torrijos permanently changed the nation's politics by opening the system, increasing participation, and ending segregation—an achievement similar to that of neighboring Costa Rica in the 1948 revolution.

The guard represented the main avenue of advance for these classes, and hence led the way to changes placing them in the political mainstream. The Constitution of 1972, which institutionalized Torrijos's personal control of the state, also expanded the National Assembly to 505 members, theoretically making it more representative of the nation, though all key powers resided in the hands of the maximum leader.

Shifting the nation from import substitution to export-oriented economic growth, Torrijos focused on banking, services, and transportation. The Banking Law of 1970 removed all reserve requirements and all limits on the movement of funds into and out of the country, and allowed establishment of secret accounts while virtually eliminating taxation on bank transactions. These provisions made Panama the "Switzerland of Latin America" overnight, establishing it as an international financial center of convenience and leading to a vast expansion in the banking sector. Construction of new roads, a transisthmian oil pipeline, and a new international airport, as well as new container ports, made the nation a focal point of transportation and transfer that complemented the canal.

Torrijos's reforms included the Labor Code of 1972, which instituted a minimum wage; compulsory arbitration; and the principle of state control of the economy, theoretically establishing the state as the protector of the masses and further weakening the power of the oligarchy. A housing code established the principle of government-subsidized public housing and launched a massive housing and public works construction effort in the cities. Reaching out to the equally neglected peasant masses, he increased government spending for rural access roads and promoted peasant settlements through land acquisitions to increase grain production. Between 1969 and 1973, some 260 farm settlements were formed. Covering 540,000 acres, most were acquired through expropriation in return for long-term bonds or for payment of overdue back taxes.

A fervent nationalist, Torrijos restored pride to his nation by resisting U.S. pressures and joining the nonaligned movement as part of the resistance to the United States. He led the nation in confronting the age-old nemesis, the United Fruit Company, regarding taxes and land ownership; opposed the U.S. blockade of Fidel Castro's Cuba; and allowed the use of Panama as a conduit for Cuban arms supplied to the Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua. Yet he also cooperated with the United States in security matters, accepted compromises regarding the canal, sharing responsibilities for its defense, and provided shelter to the exiled Shah of Iran. His willingness to accept gradual change regarding canal jurisdiction ended an era of violent confrontations and enabled the peaceful settlement of a volatile dispute. Torrijos's death in an unexplained airplane crash cut his tenure and revolution short.

See alsoPanama; Panama Canal; United States-Latin American Relations.


Walter Lafeber, The Panama Canal: The Crisis in Historical Perspective (1979).

George Priestley, Military Government and Popular Participation in Panama: The Torrijos Regime, 1968–1975 (1986).

Additional Bibliography

Harding, Robert C. Military Foundations of Panamanian Politics. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2001.

León Jiménez, Elda Maúd de. Torrijos: Un camino por recorrer. Panama: Fundación Omar Torrijos, 1996.

Vargas, Dalys. Omar Torrijos Herrera y la patria internacional. Panama: Fundación Omar Torrijos, 2004.

Velásquez, Osvaldo. Historia de una dictadura: De Torrijos a Noriega. Panamá: Litho Editorial Chen, 1993.

                                           Kenneth J. Grieb