The Odyssey

Making a Difference
Trek Connect
Time Machine

Teacher Zone
Latin America Shawn Dispatch

Panama: The Fifty-first State

Shawn recounts the history of Panama
On September 26, 1513 when the Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa crossed the mountains of Panama and became the first European to reach the Pacific Ocean from the Americas, the fate of this country was sealed. Panama was destined to be a center of trade and passage between two oceans. It is the narrowest strip of land dividing the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, making it the ideal place for goods from places such as Asia and Peru to be brought overland and shipped back to Spain on the Atlantic. Since the conquest, Panama has been a center of international trade, and this has been the primary factor in Panama's history and development.

Originally goods were brought across the isthmus on what was known as the Camino Real. Enslaved Indians and mules were used to carry Peruvian gold and other valuables from Panama City to Portobelo where Spanish galleons would be waiting loaded with European goods to trade. This made Panama a very popular place for French and English pirates. To this day the ruins of Spanish fortifications litter the coast of Panama. Panama remained a key part of the Spanish Empire until 1821 when Gran Columbia, which included all of what is now Columbia, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Panama, broke off to form an independent nation. Panama continued to be a trade-center for the industrial nations of the world.

In 1846, Columbia allowed the United States to construct a railroad connecting the Atlantic and Pacific. This treaty also gave the U.S. the right to defend the railroad with force, and marked the beginning of U.S. military involvement in Panama. Since no railroad had yet been constructed across the United States and Indians still had control of a lot of the central states, the Panama Railroad was widely used during the California gold rush. The Railroad served to bring people to California and to carry gold and other rich exports back to the East Coast safely. The success of this railroad led to speculation that a canal could be built across the country. In 1881 the French began construction on a canal through Panama. This proved to be a disaster, however, when malaria and yellow fever killed over 22,000 workers. The project went bankrupt by the turn of the century.

The United States, seeing the usefulness of a canal in Central America, decided to take over the failed French project in 1903. The French agreed to sell their rights to the canal since they were financially unable to finish it, but the Columbian government refused to allow the sale to go through. This decision greatly angered both the U.S. and French governments. Since Panama is very distinct and isolated from the rest of mainland Columbia, many Panamanians supported breaking off and forming an independent nation, especially since Panamanians were being enlisted into the army by the thousands to fight a civil war in Columbia. On November 3, 1903, Panama declared independence from Columbia and met almost no resistance from the Colombian government, since U.S. navy ships blocked troops sent by sea, anyway.

Click image for larger view
Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru
The U.S. wasted no time in signing a treaty with the Panamanian ambassador Philippe Bunau-Varilla, who was also the chief engineer of the French canal. Although a delegation was on its way to Washington to negotiate terms of the treaty, Bunau-Varilla, made a deal with the U.S. before they arrived. This deal was a great benefit to the U.S. and very expensive for Panama. It made the canal an U.S. territory, and gave the United States the right to be involved in Panamanian affairs to protect its interests there. The delegation was of course outraged by this and protested, but as far as the U.S. government was concerned, the deal had been made and could not be broken. Construction began on the canal almost immediately and took more than ten years and 75,000 workers to finish. When the SS Ancon became the first ship to navigate the canal in 1914, one of the greatest engineering projects in history was complete.

Relations between the U.S. and Panama remained tense, as U.S. military involved itself in Panamanian politics several times. Panama remained an U.S. puppet state until 1936, when a new treaty was signed in which the U.S. gave up the right to military force outside the canal-zone, and Panama received more compensation for canal rights. Panama's autonomy increased and Panamanians became increasingly unhappy with U.S. control after World War II. After many years of fruitless negotiations a new treaty was finally signed in 1977, in which the U.S. agreed to gradually relinquish control of the canal until Dec. 31 1999, when Panama would assume complete ownership.

Of course this treaty did not end U.S. involvement in Panamanian affairs, as Operation Just Cause clearly demonstrates. This U.S. invasion in 1989 not only removed Manuel Noriega from office, but also allowed the U.S. to create a government in Panama that would continue to serve American interests, and allow the U.S. government to control the canal. Although the U.S. is scheduled to hand over the canal at the end of this year, many people wonder if the most powerful government in the world is really ready to let go of one of the most strategic points on earth after more than 150 years of control, or if it will find a way to continue its control of the this land and its people into the next century.


Abeja - The Darién Gap: Blow-darts, Guerrillas, and a Mother's Worst Nightmare
Team - HELP! Does Anyone Know How To Get Out Of Panama?!?
Kavitha - American Involvement in Panama: A Just Cause but an Unjust Result
Monica - Twenty-Two Reptiles, Toucans, and a Thousand Plants: Biodiversity in Panama
Kevin - A Traveler's Paradise: Yummy Food, Hot Showers, and NO COCKROACHES!!!
Meet Shawn | Shawn's Archive
Meet Shawn
  Basecamp | Making a Difference | Trek Connect | Time Machine
Home | Search | Teacher Zone