Panama: From Balboa to the Presentby Rit Nosotro
Change Over Time essay
Trace the history of Panama from Balboa to the end of the USA lease on the canal.
The country of Panama lies between Central American Costa Rica and South American Colombia. Its tiny isthmus connects these two great realms and yet also divides the mighty Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Yet even though so much energy has been devoted to developing the usefulness of its unique physical geography, Panama's geographical location is not the only fascinating aspect of the country. Throughout the age of Spanish colonization and up through the country's constitutional republic of today, Panama has experienced many interesting, and sometimes tumultuous, changes. But particularly, the different forms of government that have ruled Panama have changed this country over the past centuries.
When Vasco Núñez de Balboa arrived in Panama in the year 1510, Panama was claimed for Spain. Three years later, Balboa made a trek that would forever impact Panama's history. Leading 190 Spaniards, he hacked his way through the jungle and finally reached the Pacific coast after twenty-five grueling days. There Balboa waded into the ocean and claimed the land and sea for Spain's king. Unlike many other conquistadors, Balboa befriended the indigenous people of Panama. Balboa, however, was soon executed due to a false charge of treason, and Pedro Arias de Ávila took his place as governor. During his term in office, Panama City was officially founded. More settlers began arriving to this Spanish colony, and eventually Camino Real (or royal road), the first trail across Panama's isthmus, was established. Spain soon began using this shortened route as an alternative to the time-consuming and dangerous sea-voyage around the tip of South America.
About three hundred years passed before Panama finally broke free from the rule of Spain. Amazingly, the country managed to do this peacefully. November 28, 1821 is commemorated as the national Day of Independence. However, the country decided to remain attached to Colombia, a neighboring county that had also gained its independence from Spain. "Panama announced its union with Gran Colombia as a 'Hanseatic State,' i.e., as an autonomous area with special trading privileges." 1 But Panamanians grew weary of this arrangement and between 1930 and 1940, three attempts were made to split Panama from Colombia.
Then came the California Gold Rush. Many Americans sailed down the east coast of the U.S. to Panama, crossed the Panamanian isthmus, and then sailed back up the west coast to reach California instead of undertaking the arduous journey across the American inland. So in 1850, the Panama Railroad Company obtained approval from Colombia to construct a railroad line that connected the isthmus' Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The first train traveled the track on January 28, 1855. For a while, this gold rush returned affluence to the Panamanian economy that had dwindled in previous years. But with the completion of the U.S. transcontinental railroad in 1869 (the same year the Suez Canal was opened by the French) decreased trafficking through Panama slowed the push of economic revival. By this time, however, serious interest in building a canal across the isthmus had greatly mounted in several foreign countries. In 1879 the Colombian government furnished approval for a French company headed by Ferdinand de Lesseps to construct a sea-level canal across Panama in twelve years. By 1888, due to corruption in Bogotá, Paris, and Panama, more than 234 million dollars was spent with "one-third expended on the canal work, one-third wasted, and one-third stolen.".2 In this the love of money proved to be the root of evil and last in a string of French companies went bankrupt. Yellow fever and malaria were a primary cause of death for over 25,000 workers. By 1889, the French gave up with only an estimated two-fifths of the canal dug.
During the mid to late 1800s, political strife in Colombia turned to physical fighting. Overthrows of governments, upheavals of power, and political violence occurred frequently. Between 1863 and 1886 Panama saw twenty-six presidents come and go. In the midst of all of this, Panama became subject to direct authority of the Colombian government in Bogotá.3 This did not bode well with the Panamanians and they turned to the United States for assistance.
The Spanish-American war of 1898 gave the United States the territories of Guam and the Philippines. Other events such as the Boxer Rebellion in China (which was killing missionaries from the U.S.) presented President Theodore Roosevelt with the need for quicker access to the Pacific Rim countries. When Colombia refused to grant the United States a permit to construct a canal across the isthmus, many Panamanians were embittered. Backed by the U.S. military, Panama staged a successful revolt against Colombia in 1903. It is remarkable that less than one year before America took control of building the canal, God bestowed success on the American doctors (Finlay, Reed, Gorgas) who proved the connection of Mosquitoes carrying yellow fever during field studies in Cuba. “Unless the Lord build the house, its builders labor in vain.” (Psalm 127). With disease, graft, and wasteful extravagance minimized, the Americans were set for success.
The newly-independent country of Panama quickly began working to setup its own democratic republic. In 1904, a constitution, similar to that of the United States', was ratified, and Manuel Amador Guerrero became the first president of this new republic. On December 2, 1903 and February 23, 1904, Panama and the U.S. Senate (respectively) approved the Hay-Burnau-Varilla Treaty, which granted the Untied States a sixteen kilometer wide strip of land, bisecting the country, that would be governed by the U.S. and on which a canal would be built. Labor on the canal employed tens of thousands of people from numerous countries who avoided disease by draining land and sleeping in screened rooms. Many of these people remained in Panama even after the canal was completed, giving the country the cultural diversity now observed. Antillean blacks constituted a large number of these workers, 4 and the remnant of these people today form the majority of Protestants in Panama.5 So the construction of the canal indirectly aided the spread of the gospel, especially since the Protestant church continues to grow in this country dominated by Roman Catholicism.6 Even with all of these laborers the canal took 10 years to complete, and on August 15, 1914, the first ship traversed the completed canal.
However, this canal and its subsequent zone became a source of major contention between Panamanians and the Untied States for years. The Hay-Burnau-Varilla Treaty ensured independence and protection for Panama, and in return granted the United States the right to intervene in Panamanian domestic affairs.7 But U.S. involvement frustrated Panamanians and led to feelings of animosity. In the 1920s, in 1936, and in 1939 the U.S. modified its policy of intervention but not significantly enough to satisfy the people of Panama. In July 1941 President Roosevelt tightened the sanctions against Japanese aggression by closing the Panama Canal to Japanese shipping.
In 1959, 100 Panamanians stormed the U.S. controlled Canal Zone causing violence and vandalism. By 1964, Panamanian nationalism had ebbed its way up to the point that many citizens desired the U.S. to leave Panama completely. A series of unusually severe riots that took place during that year demonstrated these feelings clearly.
During this time of escalating frustration with the United States, politics began becoming corrupt, the National Guard (Panama's army) began expanding its powers and taking significant control in political affairs, and the government was again evolving. Many presidents were pressured into resignation by the ever-increasing power of the commanders of the National Guard. Election results were skewed unfairly, so that the military-backed candidates always won. The captains of the National Guard and others even used violence against one another in an effort to gain political affluence.
Finally, in 1969, Omar Torrijos, already commander of the National Guard, assumed full jurisdiction over the government as well, and instigated yet another change of government when he declared himself dictator. He then proceeded to exile, arrest, or remove all those who potentially threatened his regime. Yet Torrijos actually enjoyed support from many Panamanians because he originally worked reforms in health care, education, and public services that had been absent for a long time. But "economic problems beginning in 1973 led to some backtracking in social programs,"8 which, subsequently, led to a decline in popular support. In 1974 and through the next several years, Torrijos sought a treaty from the United States that would award the all-important, ever-disputed canal to the Panamanians. After many tedious negotiations, President Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos signed the Panama Canal Treaty in 1978 which annulled the 1903 treaty and declared that at noon on December 31, 1999, "the Panama Canal Company and the Canal Zone government would cease to operate and Panama would assume complete legal jurisdiction over the former Canal Zone."9 In 1978, Torrijos took steps to re-democratize the country. He stepped down as head of government and Aristides Royo was elected to the presidency. However, because Torrijos maintained his post as commander of the National Guard, he still exerted tremendous influence in the decisions made in the Panamanian government. But Torrijos died unexpectedly in a plane crash in 1981. "Torrijos had been the unifying influence in Panama's political system,"10 and with his death politics again fell apart.
From 1983 to 1989, Manual Antonio Noriega, the new head of the National Guard, took control of the country. He became involved in drug trafficking and declared war against the United States. When a U.S. marine was killed, President Bush sent 26,000 troops and the fighting that ensued claimed at least 2,000 civilian lives. Finally, in 1990, Noriega surrendered to the U.S. and was sent to the United States for trial.11 1989 saw the election of Guillermo Endara, but his presidency proved one of immorality and social turmoil. The election of Ernesto Perez Balladares in 1994 was one of the fairest elections that had taken place in a long time. And in 1999 Mireya Moscoso, the first female president, was elected to office. In the first year of her term, Panamanians welcomed their complete and absolute ownership of the Panama Canal for the first time ever in the country's history.12
To summarize, Panama began as a colony of Spain but gained its independence in 1821. However, in this new independence from Spain, it was still subject to Colombian jurisdiction. With U.S. support, Panamanians eventually managed to throw off Colombian authority and established their own constitutional republic. As military influence in politics rose, the democratic system became corrupt and overrun with violence. This nominal democracy finally ended in the nine year dictatorship of Omar Torrijas and the proclaimed dictatorship of his successor Noriega. After Noriega's removal, slowly but surely, fair democracy has again begun to take hold. And this is the situation in which we find Panama's present day government. Clearly, then, Panama has experienced many different forms of government throughout its history that have changed and shaped the country over time.
1US Library of Congress, "Independence from Spain," <http://countrystudies.us/panama/4.htm>, (29 October, 2004).
2"The French Failure",<http://www.czbrats.com/Builders/FRCanal/failure.htm> (13 November, 2004)
3US Library of Congress, "The Spillover from Colombia's Strife," <http://countrystudies.us/panama/7.htm>, (29 October, 2004).
4 "Workforce," <http://www.pancanal.com/eng/history/history/index.html>, (29 October, 2004).
5U.S. Department of State, "Panama," Section I. Religious Demography, October 7, 2002, <http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2002/14053.htm>, (29 October, 2004).
6 "Panama/Basic Facts," <http://wrc.lingnet.org/panama.htm>, (29 October, 2004).
7US Library of Congress, "The 1903 Treaty and Qualified Independence,"<http://countrystudies.us/panama/8.htm >, (29 October, 2004).
8US Library of Congress, "The Government of Torrijos," <http://countrystudies.us/panama/17.htm>, (29 October, 2004).
9US Library of Congress, "The 1977 Treaties," <http://countrystudies.us/panama/19.htm>, (29 October, 2004).
10US Library of Congress, "Torrijos' Sudden Death," <http://countrystudies.us/panama/21.htm>, (29 October, 2004).
11 "Noriega, Manuel Antonio," in 1999 World Book [CD-ROM] (IBM Corp. 1998 [cited 29 October, 2004]).
12 "Panama," <http://www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/central_america/panama/history.htm>,
(29 October, 2004).
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