Doctor Belisario Porras to the Secretary of State

My Dear Mr. Secretary: Agreeably to Your Excellency’s request, Doctor Alfaro, the Minister of Panama, has transmitted to me Your Excellency’s note of December 23rd in reply to Doctor Alfaro’s inquiry [Page 495] respecting the policy of the United States Government as to American supervision of the Panaman elections of 1928. I note from Your Excellency’s communication that it was also intended to serve as a reply to the letter and memorandum which I had the honor to hand to Your Excellency on December 15th wherein I asked the United States Government on behalf of that branch of the Liberal Party, which I represent, to give assurance and guarantee to the people of Panama free and fair elections in 1928.

It is with deep regret that I have to point out that Your Excellency, in his note to Señor Alfaro, did not see fit to meet the issues posed in my said letter and memorandum, except by a curt declaration that the United States “does not intend to supervise the elections in Panama.”

Your Excellency’s statement that “the primary duty to maintain order and to enforce election laws devolves upon Panama” is a matter of common understanding. It is, however, equally a matter of general knowledge that the United States Government has on four separate occasions considered that it shared with the Republic this duty. Irrefutable evidence adduced in my memorandum to show the actual existence of similar conditions to warrant such action on the part of the United States Government next year was entirely ignored in Your Excellency’s reply.

It is, naturally, to be supposed “that the United States will maintain absolute impartiality, and will not, directly or indirectly, lend support to any candidate for President or other office.” That the “United States will carry out its treaty obligation guaranteeing to maintain the independence of Panama, and will exercise the treaty right to maintain order in Panama, Colon and the territories and harbors adjacent thereto” is to be expected in view of the nature and logical implications of the international servitude imposed by the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty14 upon the Republic of Panama vis a vis the United States.

The expression by Your Excellency of an “earnest wish that there should be a free, fair and honest election” in Panama next year is most laudable, but, it is hardly more than a pious vow which might be appropriately formulated in respect to elections in free democracies everywhere. It is, I beg leave to say, Mr. Secretary, slightly less than the people of Panama feel they have a right to expect of the Nation which created the Republic of Panama and which exercise in respect of it, by virtue of treaty and the Panaman Constitution, the right of intervention whenever, in the judgment of the American authorities, such intervention appears indicated by the exigencies of American interests in the Canal Zone.

[Page 496]

The expression of the just mentioned wish, promptly qualified by the statement that the United States “cannot assume the primary obligation of supervising the election” lends itself only to the interpretation that the party in power in Panama is at liberty to disregard Your Excellency’s wish and conduct the elections exactly as it pleases and may find to its advantage. Possibly the United States might view with concern or regret a failure on the part of the Panaman Government to respect Your Excellency’s wish, but, it is significant that Your Excellency leaves no doubt that the holding of free, fair and honest elections in Panama is not a matter about which the United States Government is disposed to do more than express a wish.

This reserve in regard to the burning issue of the moment in Panama, and possibly a question of life and death for hundreds of people in that country, as a similar issue has proved in Nicaragua, is in striking contrast with the forthright words of President Roosevelt in his instruction to his Secretary of War, the Honorable William H. Taft:

“You are instructed to say to President Amador that the Government of the United States will consider any attempt at fraudulent methods and to refuse a large number of the people the opportunity of casting their votes in the presidential elections, as an act which constitutes disturbance of the public peace, which, according to the Constitution of Panama, calls for intervention, and that this Government will not allow the Government of Panama to pass into the hands of any one elected in such a manner.”

Coming down to more recent times one can only be struck by the marked dissonance in tone between the mere expression of a mild wish for fair elections in the Republic of Panama, over which the United States exercises the indubitable right of intervention, and the ringing pronouncements of His Excellency the President of the United States, and also of his Special Representative, Mr. Stimson, in respect of the obligation and determination of the United States to ensure fair elections in Nicaragua, even though it be with the aid of some 2500 Marines and at the cost of hundreds of lives. The contrast is all the more singular as American intervention in Nicaragua to insure fair elections is founded on no authorization of treaty right, or provision of either the American or Nicaraguan Constitutions. As a matter of fact, the express stipulations of either document would seem to inhibit the exercise of political sovereignty by military forces of the United States in Nicaragua in the manner now being followed, especially when one considers that there has been no declaration of war by the American Government, nor any act of Congress authorizing the use of the American forces for the pacification of Nicaragua. In the case of Panama, however, there is both Treaty and Constitutional authority, [Page 497] as well as numerous precedents for the American supervision of the elections in that country.

A careful analysis of Your Excellency’s note would seem to show that the United States Government now proposes to exercise its right of intervention in Panama only if and when public order in that country is disturbed in a manner to cause the appropriate American authorities to recommend such intervention. This means, that, should the elections be unfairly held, and fraudulent methods be used, and should Panaman citizens, victims of such practices, patiently accept the results and endure the conditions so imposed upon them, the United States Government will view the entire proceeding with equanimity and perceive therein no ground for its intervention. On the other hand, should such eventualities not be submissively tolerated, and should an outraged citizenry have recourse to the only means available to an oppressed people for the redress of their wrongs and their liberation from a tyrannous minority government founded only on force, the United States Government will only interest itself in the situation when and if conditions of positive disorder have arisen.

This has been more or less the course of American policy in the recent history of Nicaragua, where American intervention was only made after a long period of civil war and when one party was on the eve of triumph, whereupon the intervening force of the United States was used to stay the onward march of that party and sustain in power its adversary against the vigorous protest of Vice-President Sacasa, the head of the Liberal Party. It would seem, Mr. Secretary, that if American intervention has in the event of civil strife ultimately to be the end and portion of the Isthmian Republics, under President Coolidge’s newly announced policy of discouraging revolutions in these countries, that intervention might better be preventive and not merely corrective, or really, as it is in Nicaragua, punitive of a considerable element of the people. In other words, Mr. Secretary, it would appear that if the United States proposes not to allow the people in the Central American Republics in general and Panama in particular to right their political wrongs and resist intolerable abuses in the way that free peoples in all ages and climes have done, then the United States, especially in Panama, should take adequate measures to ensure fair elections, without which a democratic form of government cannot exist, and thereby remove the fundamental cause of such disorders.

May I respectfully submit, Mr. Secretary, that to tell the Panaman people that the United States Government is not responsible for the manner in which the Panaman Government conducts its elections, but, that the United States Government will not allow the Panaman people [Page 498] to resort to force to correct a situation which is not otherwise remediable, is tantamount to forcing an oppression on them whenever a regime in power in their country does not conform to the standards of free republican Government.

I hope, Mr. Secretary, that Your Excellency will believe me, when I assure you, that it is farthest from my desire to raise the specter of revolution for my country. I have undertaken merely to bring to the attention of Your Excellency’s Government through this note and my previous notes the inescapable logic of the political situation of my country in its peculiar relation to the United States. The question is not one for legalistic sophisms. The issues are vital, human problems, the solution of which can only be reached if the Government of the United States recognizes the obligation to guarantee to its ward, the Panaman Republic, what President Coolidge declared in his speech of last April the United States Government proposes to encourage in Central America, namely, the orderly succession of governments by means of fair elections.

The rights of the United States in and over Panama are indisputable and inevitable. We do not pretend to question them. We merely wish to assert that where there is a right there is an obligation; if not express, then implied; if not legal, then moral. The United States Government cannot assert a right to intervene in the political affairs of Panama and supervise its elections only when and as it may suit American convenience, without thereby assuming the moral obligation to see that political fair play and free elections are always observed by Panaman Governments. It was a due recognition of this moral obligation which unquestionably impelled President Roosevelt to lay down the doctrine set forth in the above extract from his instructions to Secretary of War Taft, which resulted in one of the most peaceful elections and satisfactory governments in the history of Panama. It now remains to be seen whether that lofty statement of policy by President Roosevelt is to be upheld by Your Excellency’s Government or repudiated. Moreover, as a matter of self-interest, Your Excellency’s Government should feel a vital concern over the maintenance of free republican institutions in Panama.

With the foregoing considerations in view, I desire again to invite your Excellency’s attention to my letter and memorandum above mentioned to the end that steps may be taken by the United States Government to ensure the holding of free and fair elections in Panama in 1928.

With great esteem, I am [etc.]

Belisario Porras
  1. Convention signed Nov. 18, 1903, by John Hay for the United States and Philippe Bunau Varilla for Panama, Foreign Relations, 1904, p. 543.