118. Letter From the Ambassador in Panama (Chapin) to the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (Holland)1

Dear Henry: It has occurred to me that it might be useful to you to have a brief summary of the recent political events in Panama and I therefore enclose a memo prepared by Roy Davis.2

Remón’s death left a serious power vacuum in Panama. Guizado filled the job by virtue of being next in line, but with no real political strength of his own to sustain him.

In the first days following the assassination the principal dynamic forces in Panama were either directed elsewhere or temporarily impotent. The National Guard devoted itself to taking precautions against an expected coup d’etat or public disturbances, neither of which materialized, and to a confused search for Remón’s assassins. Although the National Guard has generally been considered competent as a body to maintain law and order in Panama, it was baffled by such a unique problem as the assassination of a President. Many clues were overlooked for days or even destroyed through carelessness.

It appears that Guizado’s crucial error was his determination to run the government on his own terms, evidenced by his refusal to take Alejandro “Toto” Remón3 into his cabinet and also by reportedly contemplating certain changes in the governmental makeup, particularly those related to financial institutions which were in control of Remón’s friends. Guizado did not have the requisite political backing either by the National Guard, Mrs. Remón or a [Page 250] strong personal following. At the same time there existed an unfavorable public attitude towards him ranging from apathy to outright distrust of his abilities and integrity. The result was that the first breath of scandal, even though it consisted and still consists only of the unconfirmed allegations contained in the conflicting statements of a self-confessed assassin, was sufficient to topple Guizado from power. It is to be noted that Guizado was apparently kept in ignorance by his own police force of the contents of this confession until after he had actually been placed under house arrest.

Ricardo Arias, who up until now has been more or less regarded as “Pancho Arias’ boy Dicky” who someday might grow up to fulfill his dead father’s life-long ambition, is now unexpectedly President. He is demonstrating considerable poise and maturity. In general people are taking a second look and realizing that he has grown up. He is popular, for the present enjoys the support of the National Guard, and has been publicly endorsed by Sra. Remón as a trustworthy heir of her husband’s aims and ideals. His social position and family connections tie him closely with the traditional ruling classes of Panama and he is apparently willing to play along with existing political forces. He also seems to be personally honest and sincere. In a conversation which I had with him Sunday during the finals of the Panama Open Golf Tournament, Arias told me of his complete bewilderment at the sudden change of events and his incapacity to believe that Guizado was involved to the extent claimed by the self-confessed assassin Miró.

The main stabilizing factors here now appear to be: (1) The chief political figures in Panama who, incidentally, are some of the wealthiest citizens and which include many of the people who were not in the Remón Government and who might even be said to be in opposition, do not desire any serious political disturbances which might endanger life and property. (2) The apparent loyalty of the National Guard to the memory of Remón as embodied in his widow and his brother and their support of Sra. Remón’s desire to continue her social and welfare work. (3) The prospect of the forthcoming signature of the highly desirable new treaty with the United States which no one wishes to jeopardize. Consideration of this factor has constantly colored the decisions of the men in power as well as influenced the various sectors of public opinion. All have repeatedly stressed the necessity of following orderly constitutional procedures in order not to prejudice the position of Panama vis-à-vis the United States.

It is obvious that if the present Government is to survive it must obtain a conviction of someone for the assassination of Remón. It is here that I sense danger. The evidence against Guizado is indeed tenuous. As stated before, it is based entirely on the statement of a [Page 251] self-confessed assassin who although reportedly a clever lawyer has recently been undergoing treatment by a local psychiatrist. Mr. Chatham, the American polygraph expert, feels that his lie detector test of Miró was worthless since Miró had been kept up all night and at the time of the test was surrounded by policemen with tommy guns. Chatham told me in confidence that the test run yesterday on Guizado’s partner, St. Malo, and Guizado’s son left no doubt that the two men were telling a straight story and were completely guiltless. Whether Chatham will be allowed to make another run on Miró or whether he will be allowed to examine Guizado Sr. remains to be seen. Chatham feels that U.S. standards of justice would require that Miró be examined by a panel of psychiatrists.

It is difficult to make any prediction. Unless new evidence is adduced it would seem impossible to convict Guizado of implication in Remón’s death. It could even be that Miró might disavow his confession as obtained under duress. It is clear, however, that even though there is some slight sympathy beginning to build up for Guizado, he is dead politically and could not, if acquitted, reassume the Presidency with any hope of continuing in office for more than a few days. On the other hand, such an acquittal might discredit the men presently in power and the police force and make them even [appear] ridiculous in the eyes of the people. This would certainly appear to lead to a considerable period of political uncertainty and instability in Panama. Possibly something similar to a Scotch verdict of “not proved” will be reached by the Assembly; Guizado allowed to reassume the Presidency for a nominal period to clear the record and vindicate his honor and then resign; Dicky Arias or less likely some other person would then finish out Remón’s term with the support of the Guard and Mrs. Remón.

I believe in the circumstances our own attitude must be one of “hands off” while going ahead with the treaty. We have properly continued our relationships with the present Panamanian Government since constitutional processes have been adhered to and since the Government enjoys the support of the people. Since, happily, with the departure of Mr. Lipstein no American interests appear to be involved in the judicial processes now going on, I do not feel that we could properly interfere in the trials or even offer any advice to the Panamanian Government as to how they should proceed. I state this even though it may be possible that we will witness a miscarriage of justice. It is to be hoped that the good sense of the Panamanian people and of Dicky Arias will rise to meet the situation. In the circumstances, however, I am sure you will understand [Page 252] that I am unfortunately not yet in a position to advise either for or against the Vice President’s proposed visit to Panama.4


Selden Chapin5
  1. Source: Department of State, ARA Files: Lot 60 D 667, Panama 1955—Political Local. Secret; Official–Informal.
  2. Not printed.
  3. Brother of the late President, José Antonio Remón.
  4. See vol. vi, Document 195.

    On January 28, Holland replied to Chapin’s letter in part as follows:

    “I am completely in agreement with your recommendation of a ‘hands off policy’. You mentioned the forthcoming signing of the treaty as being a stabilizing influence. I hope that now that the signing is accomplished, its stabilizing effect will not dissipate and that there will not be a scramble for power without regard to the constitutionality of method. It will behoove us all to consider in what ways we can help to maintain the momentum toward political and economic stability which Remón had generated. What you say about President Arias is encouraging in this respect. Let us continue for the present to watch carefully and to hold our peace.” (Department of State, ARA Files: Lot 60 D 667, Panama 1955—Political Local)

  5. Printed from a copy which bears this typed signature.