The Ambassador in Panama (Wiley) to the Secretary of State

No. 452

Subject: Communist Progress in Panama

The Embassy reported at some length on the current political situation of Panama in Despatch No. 365, of November 23, 1951.1

Since then, Communist activities have become increasingly active and tangible while Communist leadership in the students’ strike and civil disturbance has emerged visibly to the forefront.

The proximity of Guatemala, the visits to Panamá of ex-President Arévalo and the suspect activities in Panamá of Sr. Benitez Bone, the Guatemalan Minister, suggest a probable connection between the two countries in the coordination of Communist plans. This is supported in Panamá by the circumstance that every indication points to outside guidance. Indeed, it might be surmised that at least so far as Panamá is concerned Guatemala is the operational headquarters of the Communists and that Arévalo may be the chief of operations.

The Communists invariably aim at targets of strategic value. There are two in this area: 1) the International Railways in Guatemala which connect the Caribbean and the Pacific—Puerto Barrios to San José—and 2) the Panama Canal.

[Page 1563]

The Communists already may have come close to scoring a fatal hit on the railway. Presumably the Canal comes next. To carry out Communist designs on the Canal, there are two principal techniques which may be employed. The first, of course, is sabotage. This, for obvious reasons, would be reserved for the culminating moment of a great emergency. The second would be to undermine the American position in the Republic of Panamá.

That the second is already being attempted is more than evident. Moreover, the means available for Communist machinations and the propitious conditions of leaderless confusion existing in the Republic itself suggest that this danger should be viewed most seriously.

The Communist Party in Panamá according to reliable information has only a membership of about 700, which is disarmingly small. It has shown no interest in obtaining recognition as a national party.

However, the Communist Party of Panamá may be compared to the Tudeh Party in Iran, and in spite of its diminutive size it may be regarded as a highly effective instrument. First of all, it is unique among the political parties of Panamá in being entirely cohesive and perfectly disciplined. It clearly follows with unquestioning obedience directives from abroad. Moreover, each of the 700 members is undoubtedly a trained agent; thus, the 700 represent leaders, not just rank and file. Viewed in this light, the Partido del Pueblo is far from a negligible factor.

In connection with the card-bearing membership of the Communist Party, it may be pointed out that the Embassy has no information on which to base a calculation of the overall strength of the Communist cadres. Estimates of crypto-Communists, candidates for membership and other neophytes, fellow-travelers, and members of Communist front organizations are not available. Moreover, there are many sympathizers among the economically-depressed, the pseudo-intellectuals, the exotically idealistic, and the anti-Americans. Last, but not least, there are leaders of the conventional political groups who either willingly or tacitly accept Communist collaboration.2 This phenomenon notably characterizes the coalition of forces opposing the presidential candidacy of Colonel José Remon Cantera.3 Clearly the illusion persists among them that one may use the Communists politically to one’s own advantage.

[Page 1564]

The Communists, since the overthrow of President Arnulfo Arias, to which they contributed,4 have consolidated their position and have assumed increasingly great authority in inspiring and leading popular manifestations. Their activities have become more overt and their penetration is deep over a broad and deep front.

Communist influences have penetrated the Presidential Palace, the Government, governmental agencies, the University, the entire school system of the Republic, the Frente Patriótico and the bourgeois press.

Indeed, Communist operations in Panamá have met for many months with almost unchallenged and unbroken success. The United States still has considerable influence with the present government; otherwise, the American position is weak and is deteriorating. There is no American counterweight to Communist penetration of the University or the schools, nor are there any champions of the United States among the organs of the press. In Panamá, the friends of the United States, though sincere, are for the most part platonic or helpless. The opponents, though, are active and the many who are either indifferent or neutral toward the United States may be only counted as liabilities unless they can be reached by propaganda.

The foregoing brief statement of the situation is pointed up when considered in the light of general conditions prevailing in the Republic. As matters now stand in Panamá, the conjuncture of circumstances could hardly be more favorable for Communist activities. There are simultaneously a grave and deepening economic crisis and a bitter, indeed, a vicious political struggle for the Presidency, involving political campaigns without program or platform. All of the economic weakness and the political evils of the structure of the nation have risen to the surface. They might easily erupt.

The economic problems of Panamá, the consequence of ancient and misguided trends, are well known to the Department. However, it now seems evident that while the Department studies or initiates long-range projects with a view to remedying the basic causes of Panamá’s economic illness, immediate steps should be taken to alleviate its symptoms in the exigent interests of political expediency.

For example, Canal Zone purchases in the Republic should be increased and expedited in so far as possible and building projects already approved in the Canal Zone should be initiated at the earliest possible moment. This work should be undertaken on a basis of urgency, with maximum employment; there should be as much overtime as possible. Also, some way should be sought promptly to relieve [Page 1565] the financial situation of the government in so far as public works are concerned.

The presidential elections will take place on May 11. The political campaigns are already in full swing, the country is still harassed by a students’ strike, the government is worried by reports of gun-running by would-be revolutionary elements and, finally, all are agreed that there is a probability of serious popular disorders.

It is, therefore, important that any steps that may be contemplated be taken at once if any real advantage is to be gained from them. As the basic line of approach to the problem, I would suggest that emphasis be placed on any measure that would immediately stimulate employment and thus produce a flow of money into the pockets of the people. Such an approach would afford great relief to many, it would sterilize sections of the population ripe for Communist exploitation and it could have profound effect in general—if action were taken without delay.

It is indeed urgently desirable to bring economic alleviation to those strata of the Panamanian people that are particularly hard hit by the current depression. This is illustrated by the fact that it is to them that the present Communist drive is spearheaded. The Partido del Pueblo is now making a complete census of the unemployed, is seeking them out in their houses and proselytizing them in the streets. This is not only true in the terminal cities, but in the interior as well, where something like one-half of the Party membership is actively engaged. It may be added that in addition to the Chiriquí Land Company (United Fruit), special Communist attention is now being dedicated to the villages along the Trans-Isthmian Highway.

The acceleration of the building program in the Canal Zone is presumably an administrative matter susceptible to an immediate solution if the Secretary of the Army and Governor of the Canal Zone should concur. In connection with the financing of the Point Four Program and Panamanian public works, a credit, say, of $500,000 would suffice to give an instantaneous stimulus to reviving existing programs now precariously bogged down by the fiscal difficulties of the Government.

In this connection, it may be added that the new Minister for Public Works, Sr. César Guillen, has shown character, energy and considerable capacity for decision in the short time he has been in office. When he recently entered the Cabinet, he discovered that his predecessor, Sr. Norberto Navarro, had bequeathed him a budgetary deficit of $1,500,000. In consequence, he was obliged to suspend practically all the public works projects of his Ministry, thus precipitating additional unemployment. His decision was made necessary by Panamá’s imminent obligation to meet its financial commitment in connection with the forthcoming construction of a sector of the Inter-American Highway.

[Page 1566]

How such a $500,000 credit or its equivalent could be found or made available is beyond the scope of conjecture of the Embassy. However, the amount is so small in comparison with the stakes involved that I deeply hope the Department can discover the necessary ways and means therefor. The aforesaid amount could prime the pump admirably for the short pre-election period. This is a country and a moment where small sums wisely spent could play an important role. Moreover, there is no substitute weapon at our disposition at this moment.

A purely political approach to the problems of Panamá is more difficult. As the Department will recall, the ex-Chief of Police, Colonel Remón, supported by a very effective political machine, is running for the presidency against Roberto Chiari, wealthy representative of the “collar and tie” class. Behind Chiari is a loose but powerful “anti-militarist” coalition, comprising disparate elements ranging incongruously from the ultra-conservative to the Communist.

Colonel Remón, opposed by the Communists, has long been their avowed enemy. The Communists in opposing him have found ready allies. These alliances have engendered great tolerance of Communist activities, even to the point where the Communists have been able to assume open and undisputed leadership of popular agitation.

The only identity of purpose or program that binds together the Chiari supporters is their common determination to prevent the election of Remón. Very reputable elements among them would not hesitate to provoke serious public disorders for the purpose, and there is no convincing reason to suppose that the Communists would not employ, if necessary, their decisive technique of political murder. The Department will recall the upheaval that followed the killing of Gaitan5 in Colombia and how effective was the assassination of General Razmara in Iran.6

Colonel Remón is known to be friendly toward the United States and to favor close collaboration with the civil and military authorities of the Canal Zone. This alone would make him anathema in Communistic eyes. The possibility of his elimination by violence may not be altogether farfetched.

Were the elections to be held in an atmosphere of political tranquility, Colonel Remón would have a good chance of election. If he had the support of ex-President Arnulfo Arias, which is not impossible, his election would be a foregone conclusion. However, with the prospect of civil strife and Communist determination to prevent his [Page 1567] reaching the Palace, there can, I fear, be no assurance of his gaining the Presidency.

If Colonel Remón can be eliminated and Chiari elected, the latter, as President, would be in a weak position. He could count on no effective strength among his supporters were he to face only the normal opposition which usually confronts the Chief Executive in Panamá. In this connection, it may be noted that in turbulent Panamá only four out of 27 presidents of the Republic have ever completed their elected terms of office. On top of this, Chiari would find his erstwhile friends, the Communists, adroitly manipulating the situation in order to make his tenure of office impossible.

The purpose behind the Communist line in Panamá seems clear; it is to foment a crisis bordering on the chaotic wherein the Panamanian friends of Arévalo, either as a junta or otherwise, would take over the government. Thereupon, Panamá would fall into the pattern of Guatemala.7

What has happened in Guatemala affords a foretaste of what might be expected in Panamá. And, in the final analysis, all that would stand in the way of success, should Arevalistas dominate the Government of Panamá, would be the National Police. In such a crisis, the Police would not be pitting its strength against the hard core of 700 Communists alone, but against the “anti-militarist” elements. This would include the same mob that tasted blood in May. Even with Colonel Remón, the “strong man” of Panamá, back in control of the Police, the outcome of a head-on clash may not be too confidently forecast. Colonel Remón, in crisis, is known to have moments of great vacillation and indecision.

The political picture of Panamá affords very little consolation or reason for confidence. Moreover, there is very little that may be suggested in order better to meet the political exigencies of the situation.

The Embassy is prudently careful not to be involved in any way, directly or indirectly, in the current domestic political conflict. Nevertheless, the American eggs all seem to be in one basket, that of Colonel Remón, since he is the sole anti-Communist leader in the entire political panorama. Though the basket, as the Department is well aware, is far from commendable, Colonel Remón still remains an irreplaceable faut de mieux.

To meet the political situation, there seems to be very little that can be done outside of an immediate economic “shot in the arm” except to dedicate vigilant attention to developments and greatly to increase anti-Communist propaganda of all kinds. This difficulty emphasizes the essential importance of prompt economic aid as a purely political [Page 1568] measure. But, of course, economic aid by itself is not enough. Much attention should be given to intensifying propaganda efforts.8

If Panamá should fall into the orbit of Guatemala, the security of the Canal will become, of course, a matter of immediate preoccupation. It is certainly desirable that everything feasible and proper be done to forestall any such catastrophe. Pennies spent now could save dollars in the future; perhaps dollars spent too late.

John C. Wiley
  1. Not printed.
  2. In a memorandum dated July 20, 1951, the Officer in Charge of Central America and Panama Affairs (Siracusa) had stated in part the following: “The United States has no quarrel with Panamanian nationalism per se; the danger lies in the willingness of Individuals of this type to cooperate with and lend themselves to the purposes of truly communistic elements, as past experience in Panama and elsewhere has shown”. (719.001/7–2051)
  3. Police Chief Remón’s decision to accept nomination for the presidency had touched off a political crisis in October. Pertinent documents are in decimal file 719.00.
  4. In despatch 50, from Panamá, July 20, 1951, Chargé Wise had stated in part that “despite the fact that the political and governmental confusion in Panamá during and following the overthrow of Arnulfo Arias presented what appeared to be a golden opportunity, the Communist Partido del Pueblo’s lack of efficient organization prevented it from taking an active or important role in the change of Government”. (719.00/7–2051)
  5. Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, popular leader of the Liberal Party in Colombia, was assassinated on April 9, 1948; for documentation on his assassination and its impact on the Ninth International Conference of American States, which had convened at Bogotá, March 30, 1948, see Foreign Relations, 1948, vol. ix, pp. 39 ff.
  6. For documentation relating to the assassination of Premier Ali Razmara, see volume v.
  7. For documentation concerning United States policy toward Guatemala, see pp. 1415 ff.
  8. This subject was discussed at a meeting at the Department of State on November 29, attended by the following officials of the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs: Mr. Mann, Ambassador Nufer, Director of the Office of Regional American Affairs Edward G. Cale, Director of the Office of South American Affairs Fletcher Warren, Intelligence Adviser Hobart A. Spalding, and Public Affairs Adviser Ralph Hilton. In a memorandum to Mr. Thurman L. Barnard, General Manager of the International Information and Educational Exchange Program, dated December 5, 1951, Mr. Hilton described the meeting in part as follows: “The meeting agreed that the situation calls for a concerted effort by the U.S. to create deterrents to Panamanian tolerance of local Communism. Measures in the field of public opinion should, it was decided, include an informational campaign by USIE on themes designed to stimulate opposition to Communism and increase public awareness of Panama’s mutuality of interest with the United States”. (719.00/12–551)