Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department

Political Science

Major Professor

Harry E. Vanden, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Festus U. Ohaegbulam, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Kofi Glover, Ph.D.


democracy, latin america, populism, military, social movement


Since gaining independence from Colombia in 1903, Panama has witnessed both elitist democratic governments and authoritarian populist governments. The oligarchic system in place throughout much of Panama's history was a significant hindrance to real democracy taking hold within the country. Democracy was further set back by the inordinate power exerted by the US presence on the isthmus throughout the twentieth century. Omar Torrijos's time as head of the Panamanian government from 1969 to 1981 exhibited populist, paternalistic and personalistic characteristics. His government marked an attempt to establish a form of government based on popular democracy. While a number of social programs were implemented and the social welfare of a greater percentage of the population was generally improved during the years Torrijos was in power, his military regime did not ultimately institutionalize a model for democratic participation.

This study argues that some form of popular democracy should replace the status quo in Panama. This would allow for genuine representation of a greater number of the population and in turn broaden the base of decision-making, something that has not been fully accomplished under previous authoritarian or democratic forms of government. The Torrijos regime was the first and only government in Panama to have attempted this move toward popular democracy. As such it is seen as a useful case study in examining its contributions to the political landscape and the political culture that makes up contemporary Panama. Deductions are made from it for the political future of the country in terms of the democratization process.