For victor in Panama, an unlikely destiny
By GLENN GARVIN
Herald Staff Writer
PANAMA -- Mireya Moscoso remembers well the moment, 11 years ago,
that her fate was sealed. How could she not? It was the day her husband,
Arnulfo Arias -- three times elected president of Panama, three times cheated
out of the job through fraud or force -- was buried. Tens of thousands of his
supporters were turning the funeral into a protest against the military
dictatorship of Gen. Manuel Noriega.
``Se siente! Se siente! Arnulfo está presente!'' the crowd roared,
traditional Latin American chant in honor of a fallen warrior. We feel it! We
feel it! Arnulfo is here with us! The throng fell silent for a moment, then
suddenly there was a new roar:
``Se siente! Se siente! Mireya presidente!''
``I clutched the flag from his coffin to my chest, and I fainted,''
recalls. ``If the two men beside me hadn't caught my shoulders, I would have
fallen right there. I never wanted to go into politics; politics for me was always
suffering, but that day the people themselves set my destiny.''
She fulfilled that destiny Sunday on her second try, winning the Panamanian
presidency with a surprisingly solid victory over Martin Torrijos, the son of
one of her husband's ancient political enemies. Trailing in the polls until the final
week of the six-month campaign, sometimes by as much as 18 percentage
points, Moscoso ended up collecting 45 percent of the vote to Torrijos' 38
She will preside over her country as it enters a millennium that will
more than symbolic. On the final day of 1999, the United States will hand over
the Panama Canal, and the last American soldier will wave goodbye. Panama,
for the first time, will be left alone to manage its own affairs. And Moscoso --
President Moscoso -- will be in charge.
It is still a little hard to comprehend for Moscoso, who spent a quarter
century inside the giant shadow cast by her husband, the most legendary figure
in Panamanian political history.
``It never crossed my mind, during our marriage, that I would be the
carry on his political legacy,'' she says. ``He was the politician, he was the
leader. I was his companion, nothing more.''
If Moscoso never entirely lost her awe of her husband -- she still refers
as Dr. Arias -- it's easy to understand why. When they met at a dinner party at
the home of a mutual friend in 1964, she was a 17-year-old secretary. He was
64 with a Harvard medical degree and had already been booted out of the
presidency twice by an upper class that feared his cranky populism.
``His influence on me was total,'' she recalls. ``He was a very dominant
personality. He told me how to talk, how to dress, what to read. And I
absorbed it all, everything he told me. I never resented it. He was an
enormously interesting person.''
For the next 24 years, Moscoso saw it all: The 1968 coup that ejected
from the presidency for a third time and plunged Panama into more than two
decades of military rule. The periods of exile. (They were married in Miami in
1971 during one of them.) The 1984 election, when Arias voters were shot
and beaten in the streets as the army juggled ballot boxes to keep him from
winning. Moscoso often wished her husband would find another line of work.
If the political education she received -- however unwillingly -- from
Moscoso's greatest appeal to many voters, it is also what repels many others.
At various times, Arias flirted with Italian fascism, supported racist legal
measures, preached class warfare and railed against the United States.
Moscoso insists that some of Arias' extreme positions -- many of which
both struck and abandoned before she was even born -- have been
misinterpreted. ``He was never a racist, never,'' she says. ``He had that image,
but it wasn't true -- I was married to him; I know. And anti-American? That's
crazy. When we went into exile, we lived in the United States, in Coconut
In her first try at electoral politics, Moscoso lost the 1994 presidential
by a bare 45,000 votes, despite a number of gaffes and awkward moments on
the campaign trail. But she took only a few days off after her defeat.
When Moscoso takes office Sept. 1, Panamanians will want to know how
she's going to cut the country's 13 percent unemployment rate. They'll want to
know how she's going to keep the Panama Canal from becoming ensnarled in
the country's ruthless and often venal political games. They'll want to know
what she plans to stop the violence of Colombia's civil war from spilling across
Panama's southern border.
Many analysts bluntly say Moscoso will not be up to answering those
questions, or many others. ``She is simply not prepared to be president,'' said
Ricardo Arias Calderon, a Christian Democrat who ran for vice president with
Arnulfo Arias in 1984 as part of a coalition slate.
``She doesn't have any policies. Her government is going to be completely
dependent on the quality of people she can attract to her Cabinet. Where she
has a good person, the policy will be good. And where she has a bad person,
the policy will be bad -- maybe very bad.''
Moscoso, however, says that her critics have been underestimating her
life, and that she'll just go on proving them wrong. ``Making mistakes is
human, it happens,'' she said. ``But what people are going to find out is that I
don't make the same mistakes twice.''