Brilliant Disguise: Semi-Authoritarianism & Bonapartism in Panama

Updated on November 28, 2019
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A 25 year Army combat veteran who studied Economics at the Eisenhower School and Strategy at the Army School of Advanced Military Studies.

General Torrijos and Noriega
General Torrijos and Noriega

General Omar Torrijos became the undisputed leader of Panama and its “Maximum Leader” through the revolution of 1968, which was actually a Caesarist coup d’état. Torrijos brought about the era of the caudillo to Panama, and Manuel Noriega would continue it with his succession. They were political-military leaders at the head of semi-authoritarian governments in Simón Bolívar’s Bonapartist style of governance that they deftly disguised in democratic ideals to bear a resemblance to legitimate governance.

The Embodiment of Ideas

General Omar Torrijos was what Thomas Jefferson called “[a man that] becomes an idea.” His opening act in Panamanian history shook the foundations of Latin America. In his first act, General Omar Torrijos put the death nail into the long reign of the elite oligarchy that had ruled for over 100 years. Then, he negotiated the Panama Canal Treaties of 1977 with President Jimmy Carter, transforming him into a national hero to Panama and the entire Latin American region. Torrijos was famously proclaimed the Líder Máximo (maximum leader) by the people of Panama. Like a Greek hero, he did what was thought impossible. He challenged two leviathans at great odds and defeated them.

General Omar Torrijos became a great idea and symbol of great hope to the peoples of Latin America very much in the same vein that Abdel Nasser did for Arabs of the Middle East. Both of them emanated intense and infectious nationalism that other countries, including the U.S., feared and misunderstood especially in the setting of the Cold War.

A Caesarist Coup d’état

Omar Torrijos’ 1968 Caesarist coup was very different from others in the region since it did not seek power for just power’s sake, it sought to add the lower classes to a new political power base. This was something that had never been seen in Latin America since Simón Bolívar.

He accomplished this through his uncontested control of Panama’s National Guard where many of its ranks were filled with the lower class. Torrijos wisely reached out to other groups like labor unions, farmers, students, and even members of the elite oligarchy to build his coalition.

By reaching out to some in the elite oligarchy, he radiated an essential confidence that would be admired by all groups and ensured an economic diffusion would not take place since he left many of the economy’s mechanisms untouched. Torrijos was prudent; he knew his hold on power could never last very long without economic prosperity and he needed to maintain national unity as he negotiated a new Canal treaty with the U.S. Future military juntas would not be as wise.

"I Am Who I Am"

General Manuel Antonio Noriega, mentored by General Torrijos, would follow in Torrijos’ footsteps and acquire his own unique place in Panamanian and American history.

When asked who he was in 1983 by Panama’s La Prensa, General Noriega hubristically replied, “Ego sum qui sum, I am who I am. I am Manuel Antonio Noriega. I always have been. I have my personal characteristics. There is nothing enigmatic about me.” General Noriega expressed his power by relating himself in God’s terms when He spoke to Moses.

This remark was nothing short of a Bonapartist response. Noriega wanted to make sure that everyone in Panama and in the surrounding region understood that he was his own man, no longer accepting his role in the shadow of Torrijos, and that he would be a force to be dealt with.

Map of Panama and the Canal
Map of Panama and the Canal

Creating Understanding

Torrijos and Noriega were able to brilliantly disguise their authoritarianism by preserving just enough of the trimmings of democracy. This made it difficult for foreign policymakers to deal with them since they exhibited a dual nature: democratic and semi-authoritarian.

Marina Ottaway calls this existence the “vast gray zone.” Nevertheless, all of us need to understand the underpinnings of such an existence and the repercussions to those nations attempting to determine policy with such “gray zone” governments.

Semi-Authoritarian Rule

In her seminal work Democracy Challenged, Marina Ottaway, explains how semi-authoritarian regimes challenge democracy in such places as Panama. Semi-authoritarianism is seen as an antithesis to democracy because authority obviously rests in the hands of one individual or a concentrated group of leaders rather than in the hands of the people.

Although seemingly successful, one must be careful to not define semi-authoritarian regimes as imperfect democracies. In reality, they are semi-democratic governments that are decaying, slowly or quickly, into authoritarianism. Venezuela could be seen as a good example of such a condition today.

Semi-authoritarian leaders are necessarily highly charismatic and also manipulative. One needs to remember that they become successful in their endeavors by as Thomas Jefferson remarked: “Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of liberty.”

Semi-authoritarian leaders take advantage of the suffering caused by democratic failures, making easier to reject democracy. Ottaway tells us that such a regime “does all of this in the name of people’s democracy.” Torrijos’ Panama showed that it could operate under a functioning semi-authoritarian ruler while simultaneously curing the social ills ignored by the democratically elected government. This is powerful when poverty levels and high and economic prosperity rests in the hands of very few elites.

Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega fit this reference to semi-authoritarianism because they were never elected but held to power by the command and control of Panama’s National Guard. Emma Scribner states that this constituted an unofficial fourth branch of government that “remained the most powerful branch from the time of Torrijos’ coup in 1968 up until the forced removal of General Noriega by the US military in 1989.”


Although Torrijos established semi-authoritarian rule, it was very different than that of other caudillos that abused and terrorized their citizenry. Torrijos’ Bonapartist style of leadership drew support from the marginalized sector of the populace and surprisingly also from wealthy persons. General Torrijos became a reformist leader as Napoleon Bonaparte was for France. And like Napoleon, Torrijos still holds a special place in the hearts of the Panamanian people where he still evokes passionate nationalism.

Bonapartism requires a leader that can rise above and establish a form of autonomy and independence from outside forces for the state. Hal Draper enumerates the following principal elements of Bonapartism.

Principles of Bonapartism

  1. A military commander that comes to power via a Caesarist coup d’état.

  2. A historical figure that modernizes society.

  3. The middle-class trades its rights and power in exchange for the assurance of economic expansion and stability

  4. The figure enforces the interests of the marginalized classes against the opposition elite class that held power.

  5. There is a consolidation of power.

  6. The figure drives social transformation.

  7. The figure emanates the qualities of a national hero.

In a Bonapartist state, since the leader is not beholden to the ruling class, the elite oligarchy that was overthrown, the leader can direct actions with little repercussions or accountability. This allows the leader an incredible amount of latitude to determine the course of the country and even emplace ideas and policies that in time can become impossible to undo.

GEN Torrijos and Pres. Carter after signing the new Panama Canal Treaty
GEN Torrijos and Pres. Carter after signing the new Panama Canal Treaty


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