The Minister in Panama ( Davis ) to the Secretary of State
[Received January 10.]
Sir: Referring to cablegrams from this Legation relative to the recent political disturbances in this Republic, I have the honor to submit the following detailed report:
At approximately three o’clock on the morning of January 2 I was awakened by a servant who announced that Mr. Jorge Arias wished to see me. Arias rushed into my bedroom and informed [me] that he had just escaped from the Central Police Station, which had been captured by revolutionists, and that an attack was being made upon the President’s Palace. The Panama telephone central had been captured by revolutionists, but through the Canal Zone telephone system I succeeded in getting in touch with Acting Governor Schley of the Panama Canal and General Brown, in Command of the Panama Canal Department, and requested them to come to my office for a [Page 895] conference. It was understood that General Brown would bring only his personal guard. They arrived about four A.M. In the meantime, I could hear continuous firing throughout the city, especially in the vicinity of the Palace.
I ascertained that the armed movement was being carried out under the general direction of the “Acción Comunal”, an organization which had been formed largely for the purpose of supporting a political program opposed to that of the Government. The members of the “Acción Comunal” come largely from the younger element and include some people of semi-radical tendencies. It is not, however, in any way connected with the International Communist movement. So far as I can ascertain, none of the local Communist leaders took part in the armed movement, nor was any one of these leaders active in planning the attack on the Government.
While conferring with Acting Governor Schley and General Brown, several responsible and representative Panamanians who have consistently opposed the political group in control in Panama arrived at the Legation, greatly disturbed. While it is possible that some of these men knew that the younger element had been planning an armed attack on the Government, it appears probable that few, if any of them, knew that the attack was to be carried out at this time.
They appeared to fear that those actively engaged in the armed movement would carry it to excess. On the other hand, they did not encourage intervention by armed forces from the Canal Zone. They attempted to induce me to instruct them to get in touch with the leaders of the armed movement and offer some compromise. I took the position that I could not enter into negotiations with the revolutionists, but I took advantage of the opportunity to express the opinion that, if they continued to shed blood, it would be most difficult for any one to treat with them, and that they would certainly defeat the ideals for which they claimed they were fighting. I made my remarks as forceful as possible, in the hope that they would be carried to those leading the armed forces. I have been informed that two or three of the more responsible leaders of the Opposition did then get in touch with the revolutionists and that their activities were curtailed. In the meantime, however, they had captured the President’s Palace, after a pitched battle with the Palace guard.
While considering the question of policy to be followed in this emergency, two incidents occurred which tended to complicate the situation,—the wounding of an American citizen, Mr. Hartwell F. Ayers; and the request of the Governor of Colon for a train to transport armed police forces from Colon to Panama.
When Ayers was mortally wounded one of the responsible Opposition leaders who had been pleading against intervention of armed [Page 896] forces came to me, greatly disturbed, and expressed the belief that the revolution would turn into a riot and counseled armed intervention. I decided, however, not to take action until I could ascertain the conditions under which Ayers was wounded, and soon ascertained that he had entered the zone where fighting was taking place, with a full knowledge of the danger he was incurring.
The request for a train to transport an armed police force also offered complications, because a refusal to grant the request might have been interpreted as indicating that the Government of the United States was supporting the revolutionists. To have granted the request would probably have resulted in a pitched battle along the Canal Zone boundary and directly in front of the Tivoli Hotel. The suggestion that the situation could be met by bringing in American troops was considered and discarded.
After careful consideration it did not appear advisable to call troops or take any action until I could ascertain the conditions existing in the city and at the Palace. At daybreak I announced my intention to visit the Palace. Some of the more responsible leaders of the Opposition wished to accompany me, but I insisted on making the visit alone. I was not disturbed when I passed through the lines of revolutionists surrounding the building. I was conducted to the President’s quarters by the chief of the revolutionists in chargé of the Palace, which was filled with revolutionists, some carrying dynamite bombs, and some toying with machine guns and other firearms.
I briefly discussed the situation with President Arosemena, who requested armed intervention, but did not insist upon it.
The survey I made of the situation on the trip to the President’s Palace caused me to reach the definite conclusion that it would be inadvisable to move American troops into Panama for the following reasons:
- Because I doubted the advisability of injecting the United States into a problem which had to do with political policies in Panama.
- Because it was apparent that, if American troops should enter Panama, there would have been a bloody skirmish with considerable loss of life. Bitter feelings would have resulted in the relations between the United States and Panama which would have lasted for years; and it also appeared probable that such action would be severely criticized at home and abroad.
- Because it appeared probable that the revolutionists would kill the President and his family and all of their prisoners immediately upon receiving word that American troops were entering the city.
The situation was, however, so serious that it appeared possible that rioting and serious disorder might break out at any minute unless some controlling force could be established. Since it appeared inadvisable to establish and maintain order by means of American troops, [Page 897] the only course left open was to find some responsible authority in Panama which could take the situation in hand. It was evident that I must make some constructive suggestion before it became known that troops would not enter the city.
When I returned to the Legation I encountered a member of the Supreme Court at the door. I requested him to bring the Chief Justice to the Legation immediately. I then conferred with responsible representatives of the Opposition party, who I felt could influence leaders of the revolution, with some of the President’s friends, and with the presiding judge of the Supreme Court, and informally and unofficially suggested that the Supreme Court act extra-officially as a board of mediation to find ways and means of establishing order and in finding a solution of the problem confronting the Panamanian people. I also suggested that it appeared advisable for the firemen’s brigade to take over the policing of the city, under the direction of the Supreme Court, calling attention to the fact that the Supreme Court is non-political and that the firemen’s organization, which is competent and well trained, is also independent of politics and had no connection with either the Government or the revolutionary movement. I also observed that, in case the above suggestions should be acted upon, it would be advisable for the revolutionists to withdraw from the streets and concentrate at the Central Police Station. I made it clear that these suggestions were informal and unofficial and were made merely as a friend interested in the peace and well-being of Panama. I pointed out most earnestly that this offered Panama an opportunity to settle her own problems and keep her house in order.
When it was suggested that the Supreme Court might meet at the Legation, I insisted that it should meet in its own chambers. When an effort was made to ascertain my opinion as to whether the President should resign and my opinion as to candidates to replace him, I made it perfectly clear that I considered such inquiries inappropriate and that I could not and would not express any opinion about the matter, because I considered it to be the duty of the Panamanians to settle their own affairs.
The program outlined above was carried to completion. Armed men withdrew from the streets and the policing was done by the firemen’s brigade. Armed revolutionists were also withdrawn from the Presidencia and the President was guarded by firemen and by a guard of honor of four prominent Panamanians. Members of the Supreme Court, after several conferences and after a first-hand study of the situation, conferred with President Arosemena. I understand that the members of the Court were unanimous in suggesting that the [Page 898] President resign. In any event, he decided to present his resignation. Up to that point the members of the Supreme Court had been acting in an unofficial capacity.
The cooperation of the members of the Supreme Court in this matter appeared to be advisable for many reasons. First, it would have been impossible for any commission appointed directly from the active revolutionists and from the Government to reach an agreement, because of bitter feelings; second, it was highly desirable to avoid any suggestion that the Legation mediate in the matter; third, the members of the Supreme Court could act without recognizing the revolutionary movement; fourth, it was also thought that any solution proposed by members of the Supreme Court would be based upon constitutional and legal principles.
At one time objection developed to the members of the Supreme Court acting as friendly mediators, on the ground that all members of the Court had been appointed during the Chiari and Arosemena administrations, and it was asserted that members of the Court would be prejudiced. When this objection was presented to me I was somewhat disturbed because it was raised by two or three of the more responsible representatives of the opposition group and it appeared that the entire plan might be wrecked. I replied that if Americans and other foreigners had been willing to accept the decision of the Panamanian Supreme Court it would appear that the Panamanians ought to be willing to trust the members of that body. I inquired if they, as representative Panamanians, were willing to indicate by their action in repudiating the Court at this time that foreigners had had their cases decided by incompetent and prejudiced judges. Those who came to object against the Supreme Court, remained to cooperate in the movement.
When President Arosemena indicated a desire to resign, way and means were discussed—(the Legation did not participate in any way in these discussions)—under which the government could continue on a constitutional basis, and the following steps were taken in the belief, on the part of the Supreme Court, that the transfer of authority would come within constitutional provisions:
- First: Dr. Ballen resigned as Secretary of Government. President Arosemena accepted his resignation and immediately appointed Dr. Harmodio Arias in his place.
- Second: President Arosemena presented his resignation to the Supreme Court which accepted it. (See Article 75 of the Constitution).
- Third: Members of the Arosemena Cabinet then met and elected Dr. Harmodio Arias as Provisional President. (See Article 81 of the Constitution).
- Fourth: All of the members of the Cabinet then resigned except Arias.
- Fifth: In the meantime the Supreme Court had met in formal session and rendered a decision that the election of designados effected on October 1st was unconstitutional, (see my despatch No. 218, dated October 4, 1930),6 and also rendered a decision to the effect that the designados elected in 1928 continued to be the constitutionally elected designados. The Supreme Court having accepted the resignation of President Arosemena therefore called Dr. Ricardo Alfaro, elected First Designado in 1928, to take chargé of the presidency.
- Sixth: In the temporary absence of Dr. Alfaro, Dr. Harmodio Arias took the oath as Provisional President before the Supreme Court.
I am transmitting herewith copies of the several resolutions adopted by the Supreme Court.7
Apparently the only question raised as to the constitutionality of this change in authorities had to do with the question raised relative to the Second and Third Designados elected in 1928 when Dr. Alfaro was elected First Designado. At that time Dr. Carlos Lopez was elected Second Designado and Mr. Eduardo Chiari was elected Third Designado. Dr. Lopez at first insisted upon his right to assume the presidency but later informed the Supreme Court that he did not desire to assume the presidency and sent the following telegram to Dr. Alfaro:
“Moved by patriotic sentiment, I presented my excuses to the Court of taking chargé of the Presidency during the period of your absence. I trust your Government will answer to the principle of your good name, illustration and patriotism. If you think it convenient, you may so communicate it to the State Department. Your friend, Carlos L. Lopez, Second Designate.”
I have been reliably informed that Mr. Eduardo Chiari resigned as Third Designado, thus leaving Dr. Alfaro as the only constitutionally elected designado willing to accept the Presidency.
Provisional President Harmodio Arias then appointed his Cabinet and organized the new government.
The Governor of the Province of Colon refused to recognize the new government and it appeared that complications might arise which would be embarrassing, not only for the new authorities, but also for the Legation because it was entirely possible that those favoring the new regime might attack the Governor and his police force. After two days, however, the police force of Colon went over to the new regime and the Governor was imprisoned.
One by one the interior provinces accepted the new regime and at present all have accepted the change and new provincial authorities have been appointed and have taken over control without disorder.[Page 900]
The new government is confronted by many problems. It not only has to face the possibility of a counter revolution on the part of the overthrown government but it is also confronted with the problem of dealing with irresponsible and radical elements within the group which carried out the armed movements against the Arosemena administration. Some of those who took part in the movement feel that the change in administration was due entirely to their efforts and they are dissatisfied because some of the more radical leaders have not been given high positions in the new government. Some elements are also insisting upon bitter reprisals and upon wreaking vengeance upon those who were in any way connected with the previous administration. Provisional President Arias is a man of great ability. He is doing everything in his power to control some of the irresponsible revolutionists.
On account of the attitude of the extremists in the revolutionary party, several politicians connected with the Chiari and Arosemena factions are still held as prisoners. President Arias is, however, making every effort to liberate these prisoners and will, no doubt, do so as soon as he feels he is sufficiently strong to meet the opposition of the over-zealous revolutionists.
The spite of the more zealous revolutionists is directed against Rudolfo Chiari, President from 1924 to 1928, and head of the political faction which elected Arosemena to the Presidency. During the disorders incident to the revolution, Mr. Francisco Arias, one of the opposition leaders but a friend of Chiari, took him to the Ecuadorean Legation and requested the Minister to grant him asylum, to which the Minister acceded. Francisco Arias is Minister for Foreign Affairs in the new Cabinet and some of the radical revolutionists resent the protection he gave to Chiari. The feeling against Chiari is so bitter in some quarters that rumors were current that the Ecuadorean Legation would be attacked and Chiari seized. The Ecuadorean Minister informed me about the matter and confidentially requested my assistance. I conferred informally with members of the new regime and called their attention to the grave situation which would develop if the immunity of any legation should be violated. Steps were taken to protect the Ecuadorean Legation, and to point out to the overzealous revolutionists the danger that would be incurred if they should carry out their plans.
The armed movement against the Arosemena administration was planned and executed by an organization known as “Acción Comunal”, in which a Dr. Ramon Mora is a leading spirit. When this organization was first founded it was my impression that it was connected in some manner with the communist movement. Later investigation, however, leads me to believe that the organization has no connection [Page 901] with the International Organization of Communists and its only interest is in Panamanian political affairs. While a part of its program appears to be semi-radical, its energies have been directed largely against the political faction which has been in control of the Panamanian Government for many years.
The activities of Mora came to the attention of authorities in the Canal Zone as early as last October when two enlisted men reported to their superior officers that Mora had attempted to make arrangements with them to manufacture bombs and other explosives. Information about Mora’s activities was made available to the Panamanian Government by this Legation. (See my despatch No. 233, dated October 16, 1930).8 So far as I could ascertain no action was taken against Mora by the Panamanian authorities.
The outbreak of the armed movement at this time came as a surprise not only to the Panamanian Government but to American agencies in the Canal Zone and Panama. While it has been known that there has been considerable discontent with regard to political matters, it was believed that this discontent would not show itself actively for several months. In fact, it appears that the movement on the morning of January 2nd came earlier than was originally planned by those who promoted it. It is reported that members of “Acción Comunal” met on the evening of January 1st to make definite plans for the revolutionary movement to take place some days later. It is asserted that they discovered that their plans were about to be disclosed and they decided to act at once.
While it appears that the new government is slowly dominating the situation there is, of course, always the possibility that disorders will develop. I am using the influence of this Legation, insofar as I consider it proper to do so, to encourage calmness, saneness, and seriousness on the part of all elements. The attitude of the United States in declining to intervene in political affairs has thrown upon the Panamanians the responsibility of meeting a situation which they had not anticipated, and considerable time must pass before complete confidence can be established.
In connection with recent developments in Panama, every effort has been made by this Legation to avoid complications for the United States Government.
I wish to speak in the highest terms of the friendly cooperation and wise and useful counsel given me by Acting Governor Schley and General Preston Brown and members of their respective staffs.
I also wish to commend to the Department Foreign Service Officers Merrell and Bucknell for the splendid service they have performed during [Page 902] the trying period. In fact, each member of the staff from the First Secretary to the Janitor has rendered faithful and efficient service.