Panamá has been the victim for most of its history. Because it is the narrowest land division between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea (and to the Atlantic Ocean,) Panamá was a strategic gateway for world commerce long before the great canal was built.
Panamá Under Foreign Control
When Spanish Explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa managed to cross from the northern Caribbean/Atlantic coast to the southern Pacific coast in 1513, the fate of Panamá was sealed. The Spanish instantly knew that this was the access to the Pacific side of the Americas and Panamá was the link that would make conquest possible.
Ruins of the Spanish fortifications in Portobelo, Panamá
Spain’s official rule of the Americas began in 1538, and lasted almost 300 years, but Spain’s hold on Panamá would not go uncontested. Pirates and English backed privateers attempted to raid Spanish held ports in Panamá in hopes of stealing the wealth of cargo passing across the land. Eventually it would be the Spanish-American wars and rebellions across Latin America that would force Spain to retreat back to Europe.
When Panamá gained independence from Spain in 1821, it became a department of Columbia, but the citizens almost immediately sought to be free of all foreign control. Columbia refused to give Panamá independence, and its strategic value to world trade was probably one of the most significant reasons.
A Spanish Import: The Catholic Church
In the late 19th century a new European power was implanting itself on Panamanian soil. France had decided to take action on the Holy Grail of world trade, an ocean channel through Panamá that would end the need for unloading cargo from a ship, transporting goods across a tropical jungle, and reloading the cargo onto another ship. The French effort eventually killed over 20,000 people before the effort was finally abandon.
Soon after the French failed, the United States decided to insert itself into the effort of building a canal system in Panamá. It initially negotiated a deal with Columbia, but the Colombian Senate rejected the treaty/contract. As the citizens of Panamá had recently attempted to gain independence from Columbia in a 1,000 day war, the United States decided to bypass Columbia’s rejection and assist Panamá’s rebellion effort. The understanding was that the United States would be allowed to build, operate, and control the canal if Panamá was successful in gaining independence.
The Panamá Canal has guided Panamá’s fate for over 100 years
A day after U.S. warships created a blockade to stop Columbia from sending troops into Panamá, it declared independence from Columbia on November 3, 1903. Three days later the treaty to give the United States the right-of-way for the canal and a zone extending five miles to each side of the canal.
Though there was no bloodshed in 1903, between Panamá, the United States, and Columbia, the actions taken by the United States, and its motives for assisting Panamá created diplomatic issues with Columbia. Many citizens of Panamá were also unhappy with the cost of independence. Almost two decades later the United States reached an agreement and monetary settlement with Columbia over the events of 1903, but many Panamanians still felt that the United States occupation was only a slight revision of past foreign domination.
20th Century Political Oddity
Under the terms of the treaty of 1903, Panamá was placed in an odd position. The government of Panamá finally governed over the people of Panamá, but not the Panamá Canal. It received annual royalties from the United States, but in return Panamá could not do anything that might threaten use of the canal. The best jobs in Panamá were related to operation and maintenance of the canal, but the United States instituted a system of institutionalized racism in Panamá by selective employment and a preferential pay structure. United States citizens were offered administrative positions and were paid in gold currency (gold roll.) The Hispanic and African-American Panamanians were hired for worker positions and were paid in silver currency (silver roll.)
Housing for U.S. personnel assigned to the canal is now owned and maintained by Panamá
The Panamá government found itself as the liaison between the United States and the Panamanian people. That role led to cycles of odd leadership styles and often corrupt and/or dictator-like political control of the country. The United States military was an oppressive reminder to all Panamanians of who held the power in their country, and yet. the citizens of Panamá found that the presence of the United States military did not keep their leadership from being corrupt or cruel, and attempts by the U.S. to address the corruption and criminality of the government of Panamá failed to resolve the problems.
By the early 1970’s it was apparent that the United States was exacerbating the internal issues in Panamá and negotiations for transferring the ownership and operation of the Panamá Canal to Panamá began. That resulted in a new treaty signed by President Jimmy Carter. Based on the treaty signed in 1977, the control of the Panamá Canal was to be turned over to the Panamanian government on December 31, 1999.
Panamá: Required to Run Before It Walks
In 500 years of world attention, Panamá never had the opportunity to develop its internal government without interference or influence of a foreign power. During the last fifteen years Panamá has faced the task of trying to restructure and address its internal issues in order to map out a sustainable future for its diverse population.
The occupational governments of the Spanish, French, Columbia, and the United States, rarely offered a positive model of good government for Panamá as each foreign power had an agenda for the country that had little, if anything, to do with improving the standard of living for the citizens.
Panamá’s future rests largely on the ability of government to create an ethical environment that protects citizens and limits the potential for corruption. A significant aspect of that environment will be infrastructure that provides access to all people to opportunities currently reserved for the wealthy and powerful.
A Panamanian girl in traditional dress
Education: The Foundation of Panamá’s Future
Education will play an important role for the future of Panamanian citizens. Basic skills, (mathematics, reading, science, history, etc.,) and more advanced subjects, (multiple languages, music, art, speech, etc.) will create citizens who are better prepared for job opportunities of the 21st century. In addition, education provides a path to overcome corruption. Ethical behavior is a learned function that requires the ability to see a bigger picture of society. Uneducated people tend to gravitate to a, “what’s-in-it-for-me,” mindset that sacrifices the future for a short-term gain.
Simón Bolivar, a key figure in forcing Spain to give up the Americas
Epilogue For A Country Reborn
Panamá has never been given a chance to develop its own identity. It has three dates that could be called “Independence Days.” Independence from Spain on November 28, 1821; independence from Columbia on November 3, 1903, and independence from United States control of the canal on December 31, 1999. The irony is that while Panamá celebrates the two former days of ‘independence,” it is really the latter date that gave the country true independence of foreign meddling.
For the first time in 500 years Panamá has the opportunity to make choices about its destiny. This freedom comes with a bigger challenge. The leadership of Panamá must establish a new long-term vision for the country that will involve significant projects and programs to develop the infrastructure that the country must have to succeed. Yet, the people of Panamá will justifiably be suspicious their government based upon a long history of great plans and promises that were lies of corrupt officials who pocketed money and didn’t deliver. Winning back the trust of the citizens will be the first task of an independent Panamá.
The Panamá Canal will play a significant role in an independent Panamá. World economics affect world trade, and world trade affects the Panamá canal; however, the country has the opportunity to re-position itself as more than just a conduit of trade. If Panamá can minimize corruption, improve transportation infrastructure, and increase the education level of its citizens, it will have an environment that will continue to grow Panamá’s role as a center of commerce and industry as well as a ocean-to-ocean conduit for cargo passing through the country.
Panamá no longer is a victim of foreign interference. Panamá now has the opportunity, and the burden, of determining its own future.