Thu, May 29, 2003 - Page 16 News List

100 years of gratitude?

Panama celebrates its centenary as a nation this year, but it is still struggling for a sense of identity


A child climbs on a bust of Panama's first president and independence fighter, Manuel Amador Guerrero, in Panama City's Cathedral Square.


For 10-year-old schoolgirl Paola Muschette, the story of Panama's struggle for independence 100 years ago is straightforward.

"Our Panamanian patriots overthrew Colombian oppressors in November 1903, as US forces stood by to keep enemy troops from invading," she quotes from her history textbook. "Our patriots gave the US permission to build the Panama Canal."

But as Panama celebrates its centenary as a nation this year, many academics say that version of history is nothing but a legend and that the truth is less heroic.

As never before, local historians are challenging the official account of how Panama gained its independence, forcing Panamanians to question their national identity and raising the ire of the establishment.

"It's hard for people to accept, but Panama was created for profit," said Ovidio Diaz, a US-educated lawyer and author of How Wall Street Created a Nation. The book, published in 2001 in English, was recently translated into Spanish and is causing controversy in Panama and Colombia.

Money talks

According to Diaz, Panama was wooed away from Colombia by a Wall Street syndicate, led by financier J.P. Morgan that secretly paid US$3.5 million for the failed French canal construction concern in Panama, which went bankrupt in 1889.

With the acquiescence of US president Theodore Roosevelt, the syndicate bribed Panamanian politicians and Colombian generals into declaring the new state of Panama. This allowed the US to take over the French project and build its own canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans without interference, said Diaz.

"After the Panama uprising, the syndicate sold the US government the French canal shares for US$40 million," said Diaz, who spent years trawling through forgotten journalistic and congressional accounts of US efforts to build the Panama Canal in the early 1900s.

Republic of Panama

■ Capital: Panama City

■ Currency: 1 Balboa (B) = US$1 (fixed rate)Administrative divisions: Nine provinces; Bocas del Toro, Chiriqui, Cocle, Colon, Darien, Herrera, Los Santos, Panama and Veraguas.

■ Territories: Ngobe-Bugle and San Blas.

Climate: Tropical, hot, humid, cloudy; prolonged rainy season from May to January, short dry season from January to May.

■ Geography: 75,990km2. Interior mostly steep, rugged mountains and dissected, upland plains. Coastal areas largely plains and rolling hills.

■ Population: 2,808,268 (growth rate 1.34 percent (July 2000)

■ Ethnic groups: Mestizo (mixed Amerindian and white) 70%, Amerindian and mixed (West Indian) 14%, white 10%, Amerindian 6%.

■ Languages: Spanish [official], English 14%. Many Panamanians are bilingual.

■ Religions: Roman Catholic 85%, Protestant 15%.

■ Natural resources: Copper, mahogany forests, shrimp, hydro-power.

■ Industries: Construction, petroleum refining, brewing, cement and other construction materials, sugar milling.

■ Agricultural produce: Bananas, rice, corn, coffee, sugarcane, vegetables, livestock, shrimp.


Colombia ruled what is today Panama after independence from Spain in 1821, but historians are often split over whether Panama's break with Bogota was the result of a genuine separatist movement or just due to US interference.

Some older Colombians still lament the loss of Panama 100 years ago. Relations between the two countries today are cordial but Panamanians see Colombia's drug trade and guerrilla war as a source of instability in the region.

Historians agree that Colombia, which had granted the rights to the failed French canal effort in the 1880s, made life difficult for the US in early 1903, asking huge sums of money in annual rent to build a canal on Colombian land.

Roosevelt, who was dedicated to forging a US-built canal in Panama, was frustrated by the lack of progress, saying he had a "mandate from civilization" to build the canal.

But from there on, history is open to interpretation.

According to Pulitzer prize-winning US historian David McCullough, Panamanians did revolt against Colombia on November 3 1903, with the only casualties being one man and a donkey on the Panamanian side.

On Nov. 6 at 12:51pm, only 70 minutes after the official cable reached the US announcing the Panama uprising, Washington recognized the Republic of Panama.

Panamanian historian Olmedo Beluche says Panama's independence was a sham because, "There's no evidence of any separatist movements in Panama," even after independence from Spain and Panama's inclusion into Greater Colombia in 1821.

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