The Chargé in Panama ( Wise ) to the Department of State


Subject: The Second Administration of Dr. Arnulfo Arias M., November 1949–March 1951; an Appraisal


The most colorful Panamanian figure of the past decade has been Dr. Arnulfo Arias Madrid, a physician and surgeon educated in the United States, current presidential incumbent and chief executive of Panamá for the second time since October 1940. A year after entering office, Arnulfo was deposed by a bloodless coup d’ état in October 1941 when … he secretly left the country without authorization. …

Provisional presidents elected by the National Assembly headed the Panamanian Government from the time of Arnulfo’s overthrow [Page 1538] in October 1941 until 1948 when popular elections were held. Arnulfo returned from exile in October 1945 and entered the 1948 presidential campaign. The unofficial count gave Arnulfo a majority of votes, but the official count disqualified twenty-seven hundred of the votes cast for him and gave the election to his opponent, Domingo Diaz Arosemena. In the early fall of 1949, an attempt by President Daniel Chanis, Jr., who had succeeded to the Presidency in August 1949 upon President Diaz’ death, to remove Colonel Josẽ A. Remón, the Chief of Police, from his post prompted the National Police to a coup d’état. After the Supreme Court held that the succession of Second Vice President Roberto F. Chiari was illegal because Chanis resigned under police duress, Colonel Remón on November 24 placed Arnulfo in the Presidency to begin his second period in office.1

Political Problems of Arias’ Current Administration

Although Arnulfo entered his present incumbency with widespread popular support, he also had at least one strike against him. The character of his former régime, his activities while in exile, and the manner of his return to office, all gave him an opposition of an intensity and virulence in excess of normal, and at no time since November 1949 has his position as President been secure.

The story of Arnulfo’s return to the Presidency in November 1949 and the Embassy’s evaluation of his Administration during his first five months in office are summarized in the enclosure, “The Current Political Situation”, to Embassy despatch 374 of April 26, 1950 and in telegram 215 of March 30, 1950.2 By this time it was already evident that Arnulfo’s “honeymoon period” with his ministers and Colonel Remón, prolonged by the disorganization of his opposition, was over. But it still remained to be seen just how much authority the President would assume and whether he might return to the tactics and conduct of the Arnulfo of 1940–1941.

The intentions of Colonel Remón were also a matter of speculation. Remón, previously a bitter enemy of Arias, had suddenly put him into the Presidency. Arnulfo clearly was chosen by Remón in order that the Police could clothe their November 1949 coup d’état with some semblance of legality based on the unofficial count of votes which had given Arnulfo a majority in the 1948 election. By then it was public knowledge that Arnulfo’s defeat was a result of dishonesty in the electoral jury.

The peculiar power relationship between Arias and Remón created by Arnulfo’s second installation was quickly interpreted as a marriage of convenience through which the two sought to acquire mutual [Page 1539] political and financial advantages. Whether the arrangement could last and whether the two could operate an effective government could he determined only by time.

Arnulfo’s second administration has been characterized by repeated periods of political tenseness with disclosures of various plans to overthrow him. At first Arnulfo appeared to be well advised and the consensus of observers was that, if shrewd, he would not make the mistakes of his previous presidency and could, through the use of good judgment and by improving his international and domestic policies, become a strong and effective president.

… There were a series of political blunders shortly after the National Assembly adjourned in February, 1950 which indicated not only a lack of sober judgment by the President but also a surprising disregard for the best interests of Panamá. This gave rise to widespread dissatisfaction and a feeling of economic and political insecurity while furnishing the opposition with material for a campaign to discredit Arnulfo’s administration and to seek ways of causing his downfall. The Administration, however, weathered bitter criticism through August, 1950 and the working arrangement between the President and the Commandant of the National Police appeared still to be mutually advantageous. It continued in effect in spite of efforts by the Liberal Party, the Frente Patriótico and others to persuade Remón to oust the President. From August 1950 until the National Assembly adjourned in February 1951, the situation was quiet so far as threats to the Administration’s stability were concerned but political opposition increased in the Assembly.

The activities of the opposition in building a more solid front against the Government have steadily developed throughout Arnulfo’s present administration. The Liberal Party, the National Revolutionary Party and dissident elements of the Liberal Reform and Authentic Revolutionary Party worked hard to make the October 1950–February 1951 session of the National Assembly a real source of dissension and embarrassment for Arnulfo’s Administration. The President, anticipating this, considered dissolving the Assembly and the Supreme Court before the Assembly met. Early in August the Embassy was reliably informed that Arnulfo was so anxious to declare a de facto government (Embassy telegram 86 of August 22)3 that he had actually drafted the necessary decree. He made several unsuccessful attempts to persuade Remón to support him in establishing a government to operate by fiat.

Tension rose sharply following the adjournment of the National Assembly because of the President’s speech of February 21, 1951 (Embassy despatch 653 of February 23),3 in which the Assembly was severely criticized for lack of cooperation and in which the Minister of [Page 1540] Government and Justice was reprimanded for actively seeking support for his own candidacy for the 1925 presidential elections. This led to a change of three ministers, reinforcing the President’s personal strength within the Administration.

Next came the attempt on the part of the Government to gain a controlling hand in the Panamá Trust Company and the Hotel El Panamá (Embassy telegrams 388 and 391 of March 1 and 5, 1951).4 In consequence the Panamá Trust Company was “temporarily” closed (Embassy telegram 403 of March 8)5 and a political crisis resulted (Embtels 405, 408, and 411 of March 8, 9 and 13)6 which for a few days could have become a serious threat to Arnulfo’s incumbency. However, there was virtually no public response to a strong attempt by opposition leaders to make a major issue of this interference by the Government and Colonel Remón failed to act.

One major objective of the opposition in its campaign against the Administration was to win Remón fully to its cause. For a long period Remón seemed interested only in himself and his National Police. However, he has more recently given some evidence himself of aspirations for the Presidency in 1952. (Embassy despatch 623 of February 15).5

Administration Achievements


From the day Arnulfo took office in November 1949, he adopted a policy of close cooperation with other nations and especially with the United States in a strong bid for power and prestige. He has endeavored to build up his reputation internationally, in contrast to the record he left during the few months of his first administration. He has made numerous public statements strongly supporting the United States and democracy everywhere and has attacked communism and totalitarianism. He has firmly supported the United Nations and the United States in the United Nations. Unlike the immediately preceding Liberal régimes, Arnulfo’s administration has not seriously interfered with civil liberties in spite of vitriolic press attacks on him and in spite of serious threats to his tenure of office.

[Here follows further description of the achievements and failings of the Arias administration.]


In initiating his second administration, it seems that Arnulfo was determined, through acts of international cooperation particularly with the United States, to dispel so far as possible the derogatory [Page 1541] opinions of him that had become widespread during his previous presidency, and to ingratiate himself with the United States Government. He seems to have believed, perhaps as a result of his 1941 experience, that good relations with the United States would help assure his continuance in power.

The constant use of official position and power … has steadily brought Arnulfo loss of confidence and prestige at home and has encouraged his opponents on repeated occasion to seek his overthrow.

With a relatively large annual budget of some $30,000,000 there is much that the Administration could do on its own initiative and without outside assistance if there were any real concern for the commonweal.

That Arnulfo’s second administration is any more corrupt than the régime that immediately preceded would be difficult to prove; that its economic problems are more acute and that accordingly, its activities whether for good or bad are more exposed to the public eye and have more serious consequences, is evident.

Murray M. Wise
  1. For documentation relating to the attitude of the United States concerning these political events in Panama during the latter part of 1949, see Foreign Relations, 1949, vol. ii, pp. 701 ff.
  2. Neither printed.
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  5. Neither printed.
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  7. None printed.
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