Outstanding political figures of the 19th century include Tomás Herrera (1804–54), the national hero who led the first republican movement, and Justo Arosemena (1817–96), a writer and nationalist. The international lawyer Ricardo J. Alfaro (1882–1971) and the rector of the University of Panama, Octavio Méndez Pereira (1887–1954), were well-known Panamanian nationalists. The most important political leader of the 20th century was Omar Torrijos Herrera (1929–81), who ruled Panama from 1969 until his death and successfully negotiated the Panama Canal treaties of 1979 with the United States.
Important poets were Tomás del Espíritu Santo (1834–62), nationalist Amelia Denis de Icaza (1836–1910), Federico Escobar (1861–1912), Darío Herrera (1870–1914), and Ricardo Miró (1888–1940). Panamanian-born José Benjamin Quintero (1924–1999) was a noted stage director in the United States. Narciso Garay (1876–1953) founded the National Conservatory of Music and served as a foreign minister. Harmodio Arias (1886–1962) was the prominent owner of the newspaper El Panamá-America. Leading Panamanian painters include Epifanio Garay (1849–1903), Roberto Lewis (1874–1949), Sebastián Villalaz (1879–1919), and Humberto Ivaldi (1909–47). Noteworthy among Panamanian athletes is the former world light-and welter-weight boxing champion Roberto Durán (b. 1949); the former baseball star Rod (Rodney) Carew (b. 1945) is also of Panamanian birth.