History of Panama

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The History of Panama is about the Isthmus of Panama region's long history that occurred in southern Central America, from Pre-Columbian cultures, during the Spanish colonial era, through independence and the current country of Panama.

Location of Panama, between Pacific Ocean (bottom) and Caribbean Sea (top).

The earliest artifacts discovered of indigenous peoples in Panama have included Paleo-Indians projectile points. Later central Panama was home to some of the first pottery-making in the Americas, such as the Monagrillo cultures dating to about 2500–1700 BC. These evolved into significant populations that are best known through the spectacular burials (dating to c. 500–900 AD) at the Monagrillo archaeological site, and the beautiful polychrome pottery of the Gran Coclé style. The monumental monolithic sculptures at the Barriles (Chiriqui) site are other important evidence of the ancient isthmian cultures.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Panama was widely settled by Chibchan, Chocoan, and Cueva peoples, among whom the largest group were the Cueva (whose specific language affiliation is poorly documented). There is no accurate knowledge of size of the Pre-Columbian indigenous population of the isthmus at the time of the European conquest. Estimates range as high as two million people, but more recent studies place that number closer to 200,000. Archeological finds as well as testimonials by early European explorers describe diverse native isthmian groups exhibiting cultural variety and already experienced in using regional trade routes. The indigenous people of Panama lived by hunting, gathering edible plants & fruits, growing corn, cacao, and root crops. They lived in small huts made of palm leaves over a rounded branch structure, with hammocks hung between the interior walls for sleeping.

Spanish colonial period[edit]

In 1501, Rodrigo de Bastidas was the first European to explore the Isthmus of Panama sailing along the eastern coast. A year later Christopher Columbus on his fourth voyage, sailing south and eastward from upper Central America, explored Bocas del Toro, Veragua, the Chagres River and Porto Belo (Beautiful Port) which he named. Soon Spanish expeditions would converge upon Tierra Firma (also Tierra Firme, Spanish from the Latin terra firma, "dry land" or "mainland") which served in Spanish colonial times as the name for the Isthmus of Panama

In 1509, authority was granted to Alonso de Ojeda and Diego de Nicuesa to colonize the territories between the west side of the Gulf of Uraba to Cabo Gracias a Dios in present-day Honduras. The idea was to create an early unitary administrative organization similar to what later became Nueva España (now Mexico). Tierra Firme later received control over other territories: the Isla de Santiago (now Jamaica) the Cayman Islands; Roncador, Quitasueño, and Providencia and other islands now under Colombian control.

Santa Maria la Antigua del Darien[edit]

In September 1510, the first permanent European settlement, Santa María la Antigua del Darién on the Americas mainland was founded. Vasco Nuñez de Balboa and Martin de Enciso agreed on the site near the mouth of the Tarena River on the Atlantic. Balboa maneuvered and was appointed Mayor on the first official cabildo abierto (municipal council) held on the mainland. On August 28, 1513, the Santa María de La Antigua del Darién mission was erected with Fray Juan de Quevedo as the first Catholic Bishop in the continental Americas.

Vasco Nuñez de Balboa's 1513 expedition route to the South Sea-Pacific Ocean
Vasco Núñez de Balboa claiming possession of the South Sea.

Balboa expedition[edit]

On September 25, 1513 the Balboa expedition verified what the indigenous people had spoken of, that the Panama isthmus had another coast to the southwest along another ocean. Balboa was the first known European to see the Pacific Ocean, which he named the South Sea.

The 'fantastic descriptions' of the isthmus by Balboa, as well as those of Columbus and other explorers, impressed Ferdinand II of Aragon and Castilla, who gave the territory the name of Castilla Aurifica (or Castilla del Oro, Golden Castille). He assigned Pedro Arias Dávila (Pedrarias Davila) as Royal Governor. Pedrarias arrived in June 1514 with a 22 vessel, 1,500 men armada. Dávila was a veteran soldier who had served in the wars against the Moors at Granada and in North Africa.


On August 15, 1519, Pedrarias, having abandoned Santa María la Antigua del Darién, moved the capital of Castilla del Oro with all its organizational institutions to the Pacific Ocean's coast and founded Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Panamá (present day Panama City), the first European settlement on the shores of the Pacific.

Governor Pedrarias sent Gil González Dávila to explore northward, and in 1524 Francisco Hernández de Córdoba to settle that region (present day Nicaragua). Pedrarias was a party to the agreement authorizing the expedition by conquistadors Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro that brought the European discovery and conquest of the Inca Empire (present day Peru).

In 1526, Pedrarias was superseded as Governor of Panama by Pedro de los Ríos, and retired to León in Nicaragua, where he was named its new governor on July 1, 1527. Here he died on March 6, 1531, at the age of 63.

Panama was part of the Spanish Empire for over 300 years (1513–1821) and her fortunes fluctuated with the geopolitical importance of the isthmus to the Spanish crown. During the 16th and 17th centuries, at the height of the Empire, no other region would prove of more strategic and economic importance.

Governor Pedrarias began building intercontinental and trans-isthmian portage routes, such as the "Camino Real" and "Camino de Cruces", linking Panama City and the Pacific with Nombre de Dios (and later with “Portobelo”) and the Atlantic, making possible the establishment of a trans-atlantic system of Treasure Fleets and trade. It is estimated that of all the gold entering Spain from the New World between 1531 and 1660, 60% had arrived at its destiny via the 'Treasure Fleet and Fairs' system from Nombre de Dios/Portobello.

Explorations and conquest expeditions launched from Panama claimed new lands and riches from Central and South America. Explorations seeking a natural waterway between the Atlantic and the South Sea with the hope of reaching the Molucas (Spice Islands—Maluku Islands) and Cathay (China) were also pursued.

Royal Audiencia of Panama[edit]

Further information: Royal Audiencia of Panama
Map off "New Caledonia" colony, west of the Gulf of Darien in the Bay of Caledonia

In 1538 the Audiencia Real de Panama, Royal Audiencia of Panama, was established, initially with jurisdiction from Nicaragua to Cape Horn. An Audiencia Real (royal audiency) was a judicial district that functioned as an appellate court. Each audiencia had oidores (a hearer, a judge).

Strategically located on the Pacific coast, Panama City was relatively free of the permanent menace of pirates that roamed the Atlantic coast for over one and a half century, until it was destroyed by a devastating fire, when the pirate Henry Morgan sacked it on January 28, 1671. It was rebuilt and formally established on January 21, 1673, in a peninsula located 8 km from the original settlement. The place where the previously devastated city was located is still in ruins, and has become a tourist attraction known as "old Panama".

Panama was the location in 1698 of the Darien scheme which set up the ill-fated Scottish "New Caledonia" colony in the region west of the Gulf of Darien in the Bay of Caledonia.. The Darien scheme failed for a number of reasons, and the ensuing Scottish debt contributed to the 1707 Acts of Union that joined the previously separate states of the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland – into the Kingdom of Great Britain".[1]

When Panama was colonized, the indigenous peoples who survived many diseases, massacres and enslavement of the conquest ultimately fled into the forest and nearby islands. Indian slaves were replaced by imported enslaved Africans.

The prosperity enjoyed during the first two centuries (1540–1740) while contributing to colonial growth; the placing of extensive regional judicial authority (Real Audiencia) as part of its jurisdiction; and the pivotal role it played at the height of the Spanish Empire -the first modern global empire- helped define a distinctive sense of autonomy and of regional or national identity within Panama well before the rest of the colonies.

In 1744 Bishop Francisco Javier de Luna Victoria y Castro established the College of San Ignacio de Loyola and on June 3, 1749 founded La Real y Pontificia Universidad de San Javier. By this time, however, Panama’s importance and influence had become insignificant as Spain’s power dwindled in Europe and advances in navigation technique increasingly permitted to round Cape Horn in order to reach the Pacific. While the Panama route was short it was also labor-intensive and expensive because of the loading and unloading and laden-down trek required to get from the one coast to the other. The Panama route was also vulnerable to attack from pirates (mostly Dutch and English) and from 'new world' Africans called cimarrons who had freed themselves from enslavement and lived in communes or palenques around the Camino Real in Panama's Interior, and on some of the islands off Panama's Pacific coast. During the last half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th migrations to the countryside decreased Panama City’s population and the isthmus' economy shifted from the tertiary to the primary sector.

In 1713, the Viceroyalty of New Granada (northern South America) was created in response to other Europeans trying to take Spanish territory in the Caribbean region. The Isthmus of Panama was placed under its jurisdiction. But the remoteness of New Granada's capitol Santa Fe de Bogotá proved a greater obstacle than the Spanish crown anticipated as the authority of the new Viceroyalty was contested by the seniority, closer proximity, previous ties to the Viceroyalty of Peru in Lima and even Panama's own initiative. This uneasy relationship between Panama and Bogotá would persist for a century.


In 1819 the liberation of New Granada was achieved, finally gaining its freedom from Spain. Panama and the other regions of former New Granada were therefore technically free. Panama weighed its options carefully as it considered union with Peru or with Central America in federations that were emerging in the region. Finally it was won over by Venezuela's Simon Bolivar, whose ambitious project of a Gran Colombia (1819–1830) was beginning to take shape. Then, timing the action with the rest of the Central American isthmus, Panama declared its independence in 1821 and joined the southern federation. As the isthmus' central interoceanic traffic zone, as well as the City of Panama had been of great historical importance to the Spanish Empire and subject of direct influence, so, the differences in social and economic status between the more liberal region of Azuero, and the much more royalist and conservative area of Veraguas displayed contrasting loyalties. When the Grito de la Villa de Los Santos independence motion occurred, Veraguas firmly opposed it.

Origin of the movement[edit]

The Panamanian movement for independence can be indirectly attributed to the abolishment of the encomienda system in Azuero, set forth by the Spanish Crown, in 1558 due to repeated protests by locals against the mistreatment of the native population. In its stead, a system of medium and smaller-sized landownership was promoted, thus taking away the power from the large landowners and into the hands of medium and small sized proprietors.

The end of the encomienda system in Azuero, however, sparked the conquest of Veraguas in that same year. Under the leadership of Francisco Vázquez, the region of Veraguas passed into Castillan rule in 1558. In the newly conquered region, the old system of encomienda was imposed.

Arrival of the printing press[edit]

After the region of Veraguas was conquered, the two regions settled for a mutual dislike of each other. To the inhabitants of Azuero, their region was symbolic of the power of the people, while Veraguas represented an old, oppressive order. Diametrically, to the inhabitants of Veraguas, their region was a bastion of loyalty and morality, while Azuero was a hotbed for vice and treason.

The tension between the two regions finally peaked when the first printing press arrived in Panama in 1820. Under the guidance of José María Goitía, the printing press was utilized to create a newspaper called La Miscelánea. Panamanians Mariano Arosemena, Manuel María Ayala, and Juan José Calvo, as well as Colombian Juan José Argote, formed the writing team of the new newspaper, whose stories would circulate throughout every town in the isthmus.

The newspaper was put to use in the service of the cause of independence. It circulated stories expounding the virtues of liberty, independence, and the teachings of the French Revolution, as well as stories of the great battles of Bolívar, the emancipation of the United States from their British masters, and the greatness of men such as Santander, Jose Martí, and other such messengers of freedom.

Due to the narrow area of circulation, those in the capital were able to transmit these intoxicating ideals to other such separatists, such as those in Azuero. In Veraguas, however, there remained a strict sense of submission to the Spanish Crown.

José de Fábrega[edit]

On November 10, 1821, the Grito de La Villa de Los Santos occurred. It was a unilateral decision by the residents of Azuero (without backing from Panama City) to declare their separation from the Spanish Empire. In both Veraguas and the capital this act was met with disdain, although on differing levels of said emotion. To Veraguas, it was the ultimate act of treason, while to the capital, it was seen as inefficient and irregular, and furthermore forced them to accelerate their plans.

The Grito was an event that shook the isthmus to the core. It was a sign, on the part of the residents of Azuero, of their antagonism towards the independence movement in the capital, who in turn regarded the Azueran movement with contempt, since they (the capital movement) believed that their counterparts were fighting their right to rule, once the peninsulares (peninsular-born) were long gone.

It was, as well, an incredibly brave move on the part of Azuero, which lived in fear of Colonel José de Fábrega, and with good reason: the Colonel was a staunch loyalist, and had the entirety of the isthmus' military supplies in his hands. They feared quick retaliation and swift retribution against the separatists.

What they had not counted on, however, was the influence of the separatists in the capital. Ever since October 1821, when the former Governor General, Juan de la Cruz Mourgeón, left the isthmus on a campaign in Quito and left the Veraguan colonel in charge, the separatists had been slowly converting Fábrega to the separatist side. As such, by November 10, Fábrega was now a supporter of the independence movement. Soon after the separatist declaration of Los Santos, Fábrega convened every organization in the capital with separatist interests and formally declared the city's support for independence. No military repercussions occurred due to the skillful bribing of royalist troops.

Having sealed the fate of the Spanish Crown's rule in Panama with his defection, Jóse de Fábrega now collaborated with the separatists in the capital to bring about a national assembly, where the fate of the country would be decided. Every region in Panama attended the assembly, including the former loyalist region of Veraguas, which was eventually convinced to join the revolution, out of the sheer fact that nothing more could be done for the royalist presence in Panama. Thus, on November 28, 1821, the national assembly was convened and it was officially declared (through Fábrega, who was invested with the title of Head of State of Panama) that the isthmus of Panama had severed its ties with the Spanish Empire and its decision to join New Granada and Venezuela in Bolivar's recently founded Republic of Colombia.

Posterior to the act, Fábrega wrote to Bolívar of the event, saying:

Exalted Sir,

I have the pleasure to communicate to Your Excellency the praiseworthy news of the Isthmus' decision of independence from Spanish dominion. The town of Los Santos, to the comprehension of this Province, was the first town to pronounce with enthusiasm the sacred name of Liberty and immediately almost every other town imitated their glorious example...

Inasmuch as I am concerned, Most Excellent Sir, the effusion of my gratitude is inexplicable, at having had the unique satisfaction capable of filling the human heart, as is to deserve the public confidence in circumstances so critical to govern the independent Isthmus; and I can only correspond to such high distinction with the sacrifices I am willing to make since I devoted myself, as it wished, to the mother country that has seen me be born and to who I owe all that I own...

Bólivar, in turn, replied,

It is not possible to me to express the feeling of joy and admiration that I have experimented to the knowledge that Panama, the center of the Universe, is segregated by itself and freed by its own virtue. The act of independence of Panama is the monument most glorious that any American province can give. Everything there is addressed; justice, generosity, policy and national interest. Transmit, then, you to those meritorious Colombians the tribute of my enthusiasm by their pure patriotism and true actions...

Panama and Colombia[edit]

Bolivar, well aware of geographical obstacles but also of the unique qualities and critical role in trade throughout history and under Spanish tutelage, had hesitated to include Panama in his Gran Colombia project. Besides the geographical argument, there was the fact that Simon Bolivar’s actions had been the decisive military factor in the independence of Venezuela, New Granada and Ecuador, while his role in Panama’s independence was none. Thus, while Bolivar knew that the nation of Panama was linked historically and culturally to South America, he was also conscious of the fact that the region was part of the Central American geography. This view is clearly seen in some of his famous documents and quotes such as his Carta de Jamaica (1815):

The Isthmian States, from Panama to Guatemala, will perhaps form an association. This magnificent position between the two great oceans could with time become the emporium of the universe. Its canals will shorten the distances of the world: they will narrow commercial ties between Europe, America and Asia; and bring to such fortunate region the tributes of the four parts of the globe. Perhaps some day only there could the capital of the world be established!

New Granada will join Venezuela, if they convene to form a new republic, their capital will be Maracaibo….This great nation would be called Colombia in tribute to the justice and gratitude of the creator of our hemisphere.

Nevertheless in 1821, convinced that under Bolivar's leadership the nation's destiny would move in the most progressive direction, the Isthmus joined Venezuela, New Granada (present day Colombia) and latter Ecuador, in 1822. The Republic of Colombia (1819–1830) or ‘Gran Colombia’ as it began to be called only after 1886, more or less corresponded in territory to the old colonial administrative district called the Viceroyalty of New Granada (1717–1819). While Panama had also been included in the Viceroyalty during the colonial period, the Isthmus' economic and political ties had been much closer, for all practical purposes, to the Viceroyalty of Peru (1542–1821).

In September 1830, under the guidance of General José Domingo Espinar, the local military commander who rebelled against the nation's central government in response to his being transferred to another command, Panama separated from the Republic of Colombia and requested that general Simón Bolívar take direct command of the Isthmus Department. It made this a condition to its reunification with the rest of the country. Bolívar rejected Espinar's actions, and though he did not assume control of the isthmus as he desired, he called for Panama to rejoin the central state. Because of the overall political tension, Republic of Colombia's final days were approaching. Bolívar's vision for territorial unity disintegrated finally when General Juan Eligio Alzuru undertook a military coup against Espinar's authority. By early 1831, with order restored, Panama reincorporated itself to what was left of the republic -forming a territory now slightly larger than present day Panama and Colombia combined- which by then had adopted the name of Republic of New Granada. The alliance of the two nations would last seventy years and prove precarious.

19th century Panama[edit]

By July 1831, as the new countries of Venezuela and Ecuador were being established, the isthmus would again reiterate its independence, now under the same General Alzuru as supreme military commander. Abuses committed by Alzuru's short-lived administration were countered by military forces under the command of Colonel Tomás de Herrera, resulting in the defeat and execution of Alzuru in August, and the reestablishment of ties with New Granada.

In November 1840, during a civil war that had begun as a religious conflict, the isthmus under the leadership of -now General- Tomás Herrera, who assumed the title of Superior Civil Chief, declared its independence as did multiple other local authorities. The State of Panama took in March 1841 the name of 'Estado Libre del Istmo', or the Free State of the Isthmus. The new state established external political and economic ties and by March 1841, had drawn up a constitution which included the possibility for Panama to rejoin New Granada, but only as a federal district. Herrera's style was first changed to Superior Chief of State in March 1841 and in June 1841 to President. By the time the civil conflict ended and the government of New Granada and the government of the Isthmus had negotiated the Isthmus's reincorporation to the union, Panama's First Republic had been free for 13 months. Reunification happened on December 31, 1841.

In the end, the union between Panama and the Republic of New Granada (under its various names United States of Colombia 1863–1886 and the Republic of Colombia since 1886) was made possible by the active participation of U.S.A. under the 1846 Bidlack Mallarino treaty until 1903.

In the 1840s, two decades after the Monroe Doctrine declared U.S. intentions to be the dominant anti-European imperial power in the Western Hemisphere, North American and French interests became excited about the prospects of constructing railroads and/or canals through Central America to quicken trans-oceanic travel. At the same time it was clear that New Granada’s control over the isthmus was turning increasingly untenable. In 1846, the United States and New Granada signed the Bidlack Mallarino Treaty, granting the U.S. right of way across the Isthmus, and -most significantly- the power to militarily intervene, ensuring neutrality of the Isthmus, and guaranteeing New Granada sovereignty.[2]:83 The world's first transcontinental railroad, the Panama Railway, was completed in 1855 across the Isthmus from Aspinwall/Colón to Panama City.[3] From 1856 onwards, the United States used troops to suppress separatist uprisings and quell social disturbances on many occasions.[2]:84-104 The first of many such conflicts was known as the Watermelon War of 1856, where U.S. soldiers mistreated locals causing large-scale race riots that U.S. Marines eventually put down.

Under a federalist constitution that was later brought up in 1858 (and another one in 1863), Panama and other constituent states gained almost complete autonomy on many levels of their administration, which led to an often anarchic national state of affairs that lasted roughly until Colombia's return to centralism in 1886 with the establishment of a new Republic of Colombia.

As was often the case in the new world after independence, the local administrative and political structures were controlled by the remnants of the colonial aristocracy. In the case of Panama, this elite was constituted by a group of under ten extended families. Though Panama has made enormous advances in social mobility and racial integration, it is still true that much of Panama's economic and social life is controlled by a small number of families. The derogatory term rabiblanco ("white tail"), of uncertain origin, has been used for generations to refer to the usually Caucasian members of the elite families.

In 1852 the isthmus would adopt trial by jury in criminal cases and—30 years after abolition—would finally declare and enforce an end to slavery.


Panamanian history which has been shaped by the recurrent theme of transisthmian commerce, looked now at the possibility of a canal to replace the difficult overland route. In 1519, the Spanish crown built a cobbled track joined the oceans, and by 1534, the Chagres River was dredged, facilitating traffic for two-thirds of the way.[2]:82

French start[edit]

From 1882, Ferdinand de Lesseps started work on a canal.[2]:85 By 1889, with engineering challenges caused by frequent landslides, slippage of equipment and mud, plus disease, the effort failed in bankruptcy.[2]:96 A new company was formed in 1894 to recuperate some of the losses of the original canal company.

U.S. in Panama[edit]

Construction work on the Culebra Cut, in 1907 photograph.
Ship at the Culebra Cut while transiting the Panama Canal, in 1915 photograph.

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt convinced U.S. Congress to take on the abandoned works in 1902, while Colombia was in the midst of the Thousand Days' War. During the war there were at least three attempts by Panamanian Liberals to seize control of Panama and potentially achieve full autonomy, including one led by Liberal guerrillas like Belisario Porras and Victoriano Lorenzo, each of whom was suppressed by a collaboration of Conservative Colombian and U.S. forces under the Mallarino–Bidlack Treaty. By the middle of 1903, the Colombian government in Bogotá had balked at the prospect of a U.S. controlled canal under the terms that the Roosevelt administration was offering. The U.S. was unwilling to alter its terms and quickly changed tactics. According to the terms of the treaty, the U.S. was to pay the stockholders of the French company that had tried to build the canal across Panama the sum of $40,000,000.[2]:105

The Colombian Senate's rejection of the treaty confronted these French investors with the prospect of losing everything. At this point, the French company's chief lobbyist (and a major stockholder), Philippe Bunau-Varilla went into action. Justly confident that the Roosevelt administration would support his initiative, from a suite in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York,[4] Bunau-Varilla arranged for the Panama City fire department to stage a revolution against Colombia. The United States Navy gunboat USS Nashville was dispatched to local waters around the city of Colón, where a force of 474 Colombian soldiers had landed and was preparing to cross the isthmus and crush the rebellion.[2]:126-135 Nashville '​s commanding officer, Commander John Hubbard, sent a small party ashore and, with the support of the American superintendent of the Panama Railroad, kept the Colombians from taking the train to Panama City. On November 3, 1903, after 57 years of policing Bogotá's interests, the United States had sided with Panama.

Less than three weeks later, on November 18, 1903, the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty was signed between Frenchman Philippe Bunau-Varilla, who had promptly been appointed Panamanian ambassador to the United States, representing Panamanian interests, and the United States Secretary of State John Hay. The treaty allowed for the construction of a canal and U.S. sovereignty over a strip of land 10 miles (16 km) wide and 50 miles (80 km) long, (16 kilometers by 80 kilometers) on either side of the Panama Canal Zone. In that zone, the U.S. would build a canal, then administer, fortify, and defend it "in perpetuity."

Roosevelt’s explanation of the U.S.’ role in the region was made abundantly clear throughout the many speeches and addresses he gave from 1902 on. First he invoked the Mallarino–Bidlack Treaty; second, he made it clear that Colombia had rejected his government's offers for a deal; and finally, he demonstrated that Colombia had never been capable of preventing Panama from regaining its sovereignty. On his December 7, 1903 Third Annual Message to the Senate and House of Representatives he enumerated an extensive list of interventions the U.S. armed forces had made in Panama since 1850 explaining:

The above is only a partial list of the revolutions, rebellions, insurrections, riots, and other outbreaks that have occurred during the period in question; yet they number fifty-three for the fifty-three years...

And he added:

In short, the experience of over half a century has shown Colombia to be utterly incapable of keeping order on the Isthmus. Only the active interference of the United States has enabled her to preserve so much as a semblance of sovereignty. Had it not been for the exercise by the United States of the police power in her interest, her connection with the Isthmus would have been sundered long ago.

It is evident that treaties like the Bidlack-Mallarino Treaty were not considered unconstitutional, or illegal, at the time given the fact that they included interference of the U.S. government in internal matters of a sovereign country. It is also evident that Roosevelt speeches made clear that the United States decided to unilaterally break with the Bidlack-Mallarino treaty and, instead of solving the internal Panamanian problem as the treaty forced them to do, helped with the separation of Panama from Colombia. Thus enforcing that part of the treaty which was of interest to the United States, namely, "It granted the U.S. significant transit rights over the Panamanian isthmus"

It is a common mistake to call the 1903 events ‘Panama’s independence from Colombia’. Panamanians do not consider themselves former Colombians. They celebrate their independence from Spain on November 28, 1821; and November 3, 1903, the separation from Colombia.[citation needed]


The Panama Canal was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between 1904 and 1914; the existing 83-kilometer (50-mi.) lock canal is considered one of the world's greatest engineering triumphs. On January 5, 1909 the government of Rafael Reyes in Colombia signed and presented to its Congress a treaty that would officially recognize the loss of its former province, but the matter was dropped due to popular and legislative opposition, without any ratification being achieved. Different negotiations continued intermittently until a new treaty was signed on December 21, 1921 which finally and formally accepted the independence of Panama.

While Roosevelt’s ‘walk softly and carry a big stick’ as well as the Canal Company’s apartheid administrative policies, early on, have been the subject of much criticism, the fact is that, beyond the financial injection to the country’s economy and workforce, the changes brought about by the canal venture were largely positive for Panama. Well aware of the need to sanitize the area before and during the construction, engineers developed an infrastructure that guaranteed the treatment of potable water, sewage, and garbage that encompassed both the Canal Zone as well as the cities of Panama and Colon. High standards employed in construction techniques, transportation systems and landscaping maintenance operations for the Canal Zone's urban development employed during the first half of the 20th century, had no parallel in tropical regions in the hemisphere. The work of Dr.William Gorgas deploying the techniques pioneered by Cuban physician Carlos Finley made it possible to rid the area of yellow fever between 1902 and 1905. Gorgas' work in the sanitation of the Canal Zone and the cities of Panama and Colon eventually made him a sought after authority internationally.

The entire Panama Canal, the area supporting the Canal, and remaining US military bases were turned over to Panama on December 31, 1999.

Military coups and coalitions[edit]

Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos shake hands moments after the signing of the Torrijos–Carter Treaties.
Jimmy Carter's speech upon signing the Panama Canal treaty, September 7, 1977.

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From 1903 until 1968, Panama was a republic dominated by a commercially-oriented oligarchy. During the 1950s, the Panamanian military began to challenge the oligarchy's political hegemony. The January 9, 1964 Martyrs' Day riots escalated tensions between the country and the U.S. government over its long-term occupation of the Canal Zone. Twenty rioters were killed, and 500 other Panamanians were wounded.

In October 1968, Dr. Arnulfo Arias Madrid was elected president for the third time. Twice ousted by the Panamanian military, he was again ousted (for the third time) as president by the National Guard after only 10 days in office. A military junta government was established, and the commander of the National Guard, Brig. Gen. Omar Torrijos, emerged as the principal power in Panamanian political life. Torrijos' regime was harsh and corrupt, and had to confront the mistrust of the people and guerrillas backing the populist Arnulfo Arias. However, he was a charismatic leader whose Socialist domestic programs and nationalist foreign policy appealed to the rural and urban constituencies who were largely ignored by the oligarchy.

On September 7, 1977, the Torrijos–Carter Treaties were signed by the Panamanian head of state and U.S. President Jimmy Carter for the complete transfer of the Canal and the fourteen US army bases from the US to Panama by 1999. These treaties also granted the U.S. a perpetual right of military intervention. Certain portions of the Zone and increasing responsibility over the Canal were turned over in the intervening years.

General Manuel Noriega[edit]

Aftermath of urban warfare during the United States invasion of Panama

Torrijos died in a mysterious plane crash on August 1, 1981. The circumstances of his death generated charges and speculation that he was the victim of an assassination plot. Torrijos' death altered the tone but not the direction of Panama's political evolution. Despite 1983 constitutional amendments, which appeared to proscribe a political role for the military, the Panama Defense Forces (PDF), as they were then known, continued to dominate Panamanian political life behind a facade of civilian government. By this time, Gen. Manuel Noriega was firmly in control of both the PDF and the civilian government, and had created the Dignity Battalions to help suppress opposition.

Despite undercover collaboration with Ronald Reagan on his Contra war in Nicaragua (including the infamous Iran-Contra Affair), which had planes flying arms as well as drugs, relations between the United States and the Panama regime worsened in the 1980s.

The United States froze economic and military assistance to Panama in the summer of 1987 in response to the domestic political crisis and an attack on the U.S. embassy. General Noriega's February 1988 indictment in U.S. courts on drug-trafficking charges sharpened tensions. In April 1988, President Reagan invoked the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, freezing Panamanian Government assets in U.S. banks, withholding fees for using the canal, and prohibiting payments by American agencies, firms, and individuals to the Noriega regime. The country went into turmoil. When national elections were held in May 1989, the elections were marred by accusations of fraud from both sides. An American, Kurt Muse, was apprehended by the Panamanian authorities, after he had set up a sophisticated radio and computer installation, designed to jam Panamanian radio and broadcast phony election returns. However, the elections proceeded as planned, and Panamanians voted for the anti-Noriega candidates by a margin of over three-to-one. The Noriega regime promptly annulled the election and embarked on a new round of repression. By the fall of 1989, the regime was barely clinging to power.

When Guillermo Endara won the Presidential elections held in May 1989, the Noriega regime annulled the election, citing massive US interference. Foreign election observers, including the Catholic Church and Jimmy Carter certified the electoral victory of Endara despite widespread attempts at fraud by the regime. At the behest of the United States, the Organization of American States convened a meeting of foreign ministers but was unable to obtain Noriega's departure. The U.S. began sending thousands of troops to bases in the canal zone. Panamanian authorities alleged that U.S. troops left their bases and illegally stopped and searched vehicles in Panama. During this time, an American Marine got lost in the former French quarter of Panama City, ran a roadblock, and was killed by Panamanian Police (who were then a part of the Panamanian Military). On December 20, 1989 the United States troops commenced an invasion of Panama. Their primary objectives were achieved quickly, and the combatants withdrawal began on December 27. The US was obligated to hand control of the Panama Canal her to Panama on January 1 due to a treaty signed decades before. Endara was sworn in as President at a U.S. military base on the day of the invasion. General Manuel Noriega is now serving a 40-year sentence for drug trafficking. Estimates as to the loss of life on the Panamanian side vary between 500 and 7000. There are also unproven claims that U.S. troops buried many corpses in mass graves (which have never been found) or simply threw them into the sea. For different perspectives, see references below. Much of the Chorillo neighborhood was destroyed by fire shortly after the start of the invasion due to the use of incendiary devices being tested by the United States Military, as well as deliberate burning by fleeing members of the Panamanian government.

Following the invasion, President George H. W. Bush announced a billion dollars in aid to Panama. Critics argue that about half the aid was a gift from the American taxpayer to American businesses, as $400 million consisted of incentives for U.S. business to export products to Panama, $150 million was to pay off bank loans and $65 million went to private sector loans and guarantees to U.S. investors.[5]

Politics and institutions after Noriega[edit]

In the morning of December 20, 1989, a few hours after the beginning of the invasion, the presumptive winner of the May 1989 election, Guillermo Endara, was sworn in as president of Panama at a U.S. military installation in the Canal Zone. Subsequently, on December 27, 1989, Panama's Electoral Tribunal invalidated the Noriega regime's annulment of the May 1989 election and confirmed the victory of opposition candidates under the leadership of President Guillermo Endara and Vice Presidents Guillermo Ford and Ricardo Arias Calderón.

President Endara took office as the head of a four-party minority government, pledging to foster Panama's economic recovery, transform the Panamanian military into a police force under civilian control, and strengthen democratic institutions. During its 5-year term, the Endara government struggled to meet the public's high expectations. Its new police force proved to be a major improvement in outlook and behavior over its thuggish predecessor but was not fully able to deter crime. In 1992 he would have received 2.4 percent of the vote if there had been an election.[citation needed] Ernesto Pérez Balladares was sworn in as President on September 1, 1994, after an internationally monitored election campaign.

Pérez Balladares ran as the candidate for a three-party coalition dominated by the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), the erstwhile political arm of the military dictatorship during the Torrijos and Norieiga years. A long-time member of the PRD, Pérez Balladares worked skillfully during the campaign to rehabilitate the PRD's image, emphasizing the party's populist Torrijos roots rather than its association with Noriega. He won the election with only 33% of the vote when the major non-PRD forces, unable to agree on a joint candidate, splintered into competing factions. His administration carried out economic reforms and often worked closely with the U.S. on implementation of the Canal treaties.

On May 2, 1999, Mireya Moscoso, the widow of former President Arnulfo Arias Madrid, defeated PRD candidate Martín Torrijos, son of the late dictator. The elections were considered free and fair. Moscoso took office on September 1, 1999.

During her administration, Moscoso attempted to strengthen social programs, especially for child and youth development, protection, and general welfare. Education programs have also been highlighted. More recently, Moscoso focused on bilateral and multilateral free trade initiatives with the hemisphere. Moscoso's administration successfully handled the Panama Canal transfer and has been effective in the administration of the Canal.

Panama's official counternarcotics cooperation has historically been excellent (in fact, officials of the DEA praised the role played by Manuel Noriega prior to his falling-out with the U.S. over his own drug dealing ) The Panamanian Government has expanded money-laundering legislation and concluded with the U.S. a Counternarcotics Maritime Agreement and a Stolen Vehicles Agreement. In the economic investment arena, the Panamanian Government has been very successful in the enforcement of intellectual property rights and has concluded with the U.S. a very important Bilateral Investment Treaty Amendment and an agreement with the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). The Moscoso administration was very supportive of the United States in combating international terrorism.

In 2004, Martín Torrijos again ran for president but this time won handily.

See also[edit]


  • Theodore Roosevelt, Third Annual Message, December 7, 1903. presidency.ucsb.edu
  • Lina Vega Abad, Un brindis por Panamá la Vieja, 17 de agosto de 2003; La Prernsa Web
  • Patricia Pizzurno, Panamá en la encrucijada del mundo; No. 116, enero – abril 2004. 93–116. TAREAS web
  • Simón Bolívar, Carta de Jamaica (Contestación de un Americano meridional a un Caballero de esta Isla), Kingston, septiembre 6, 1815. bolivar.org
  • Sandra W. Meditz and Dennis M. Hanratty, editors. Panama: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1987. See: Independence from Spain [1] and The 1903 Treaty and qualified independence [2]


  • Alarcón Núñez, Óscar, Panamá Siempre fue de Panamá, Planeta, 2003.
  • Alberto Mckay L., La estructura del Estado panameño y sus raíces históricas. Editorial Mariano Arosemena, INAC, 1998.
  • Alfredo Castillero Calvo, Conquista, Evangelización y Resistencia. INAC, Editorial Mariano Arosemena, 1995
  • Celestino Andrés Araúz y Patricia Pizzurno, El Panamá Hispano (1501–1821) Comisión Nacional del V Centenario –Encuentro de Dos Mundos- de España Diario La Prensa de Panamá, Panamá 1991.
  • Justo Arosemena, El Estado Federal de Panamá, (febrero 1855). Obras Digitalizadas de la Biblioteca Nacional Ernesto Castillero R. 1999.
  • María del Carmen Mena García, La Sociedad de Panamá en el siglo XVI. Artes Gráficas Padura, S.A. Sevilla 1984.
  • Mellander, Gustavo A.; Nelly Maldonado Mellander (1999). Charles Edward Magoon: The Panama Years. Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Editorial Plaza Mayor. ISBN 1-56328-155-4. OCLC 42970390.
  • Mellander, Gustavo A. (1971). The United States in Panamanian Politics: The Intriguing Formative Years. Danville, Ill.: Interstate Publishers. OCLC 138568.
  • Harding, Robert C. The History of Panama, Greenwood Publishers, 2006.
  • Sweetman, Jack; "American Naval History: An Illustrated Chronology of the US Navy And Marine Corps, 1775 – present". Third Edition, Naval Institute Press, 2002.

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