Bits & Pieces

August 20, 2010

The Constitution of Panama

Panama has had four Constitutions since declaring its independence from Colombia November 3, 1903.  The first one was adopted in 1904 and was followed by new ones in 1941, 1946 and 1972. 
 
As to the 1904 Constitution, on January 15, 1904, the first  National Constitutional Convention was convened consisting of 32 delegates: 16 Conservatives and 16 Liberals.  There were 4  delegates for each Province of the country except for the Province of Panama which had 8 delegates. 
 
Interestingly, the first de facto President of Panama was Demetrio H. Brid who was President of the Municipal Council of Panama from November 3 to November 4, 1903.  He was followed by a Provisional Junta consisting of Jose Agustin Arango, Tomas Arias and Federico Boyd who ruled from November 4, 1903 until February 20, 1904 when the first elected President, Manuel Amador took over until October 1, 1908.
 
But, back to the Constitution. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention elected Dr. Pablo Arosemena as its president with Dr. Luis de Roux as 1st vice-president, Don Eliodoro Patino as 2nd vice-president and D. Juan Brin as secretary.  By February 13, the final document was ready for signatures and was presented to the whole Constitutional Convention.  On February 15, 1904, the delegates approved and signed the document which would govern the new Republic for the next 37 years.
 
Unfortunately, this constitution contained an Article which rankled Panamanian nationalists for those three decades.  This was Article 136 which gave the United States the right to "intervene in any part of Panama, to reestablish public peace and constitutional order."  This reflected the provisions of the  Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty and confirmed the status of Panama as a protectorate of the United States.  It also gave the United States the right to add additional territory to the Canal Zone any time they considered it necessary for the defense of the Canal.  Finally, in 1939, the new Hull-Alfaro Treaty did away with the right of the United States to intervene in the internal affairs of Panama.
 
The 1941 Constitution, enacted during Arnulfo Arias first, and brief, presidential term, not only ended Panama's constitutionally mandated protectorate status, but also concentrated more power in the hands of the president and extended the term of the president and legislators from 4 to 6 years.  Additionally, Panamanian citizenship was required in order to own and operate many business in the country and women, for the first time, gained the right to vote.
 
In 1946, President Ricardo Adolfo de la Guardia proposed a new Constitution, which was basically a return to the 1904 document without the offensive Article 136.  The new Constitution was adopted and was in effect for 26 years until the 1968 military coup when eleven Constitutional Guarantees, including freedom of speech, press and travel, were suspended for several months and some were not restored fully until after the adoption of the 1972 Constitution by the military government.  This last constitution proclaimed general Torrijos as "Maximum Leader of the Panamanian Revolution".
 
Since then, the 1972 Constitution has been amended in 1978, 1983, 1993, 1994 and 2004. While the changes dealt with "demilitarizing" the constitution, one of the last changes was to abolish the position of "Second Vice-President" which had existed from the very first day of Panama's independence.  The National Assembly, a unicameral legislative branch, is now composed of 71 members, down from 78.  Citizens of Panama have a right to vote at age 18.
 
SourcesEpocas, May 2003http://countrystudies.us/panama;   www.state.gov/r/pa

Correction To Constitution Article(From Sept 9 letter)
 
Last month, I included an article pertaining to the Constitution of Panama.  Some of the information was not entirely correct.  For example, I stated that the Constitution of 1941 gave the vote to women.  This was not the case.  The only women who got the right to vote were those who had at least a high school degree. This was in contrast to the right to vote by all males without regard to their level of education.  It was not until the Constitution of 1946 that every citizen of Panama, male or female, age 21 or over, was allowed to vote.
 
I thank Briseida de Lopez for forwarding the correct information.

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas