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More on the history of the Panama Canal from PBS's American Experience. See video/animation of how the locks work.

D.H. Chamberlain's open letter to the Secretary of State, condemning the Panama Affair of 1903.

The "Down and Dirty story of the Panama Canal" from the Discovery Channel.



The Red Apple of Imperialism: Colombia-U.S. Relations during the Panama Affair

Cartwheeling through Spanish-Harlem

We've all heard the stories about the heat, illness, and death that described the construction of the Panama Canal; stories like disease-carrying mosquitoes being so thick that workers would trap a mouthful of them with every breath. Most of us have probably also learned that the building of the canal is still considered one of the human race's greatest triumphs in engineering. However, do we all know that behind this tale of struggle and triumph, lies another story of dirty politics and international deceit?

A delicious. selection of Central American cuisine

After the end of the Spanish-American War and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1898, the U.S. was well on its way to becoming the economic and political leader of the Western hemisphere. It had secured Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines as official protectorates and was already looking south toward the Isthmus of Panama for the missing link in the growing chain of its empire.

Since the San Francisco Gold Rush in 1849, the U.S. had been using the Isthmus of Panama--then a state in the Republic of the United States of Colombia--to transport goods between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. At the time, there was already a Colombian railroad used to transport goods across the narrow isthmus.. In fact, the U.S. had sponsored the construction of the railroad, after having signed a treaty with Colombia. This treaty gave the U.S. free and open access to the railroad and guaranteed Colombia political neutrality and the continued right to sovereignty and property over the territory. Things were good--so good, in fact, that the Colombian government had already accepted French sponsorship to start building a canal, following the model of the Suez Canal in the Middle East.


But then, treacherous conditions in the area began to take their toll, and the French could no longer afford to continue building the canal. Eager to secure a deal to take over the project, the U.S. proposed a treaty with Colombia (the Hay Herran Treaty to be exact) to purchase the rights to build the canal across Panama. Colombia gave an emphatic "No go" regarding the treaty, and specifically to its stipulation that the U.S. would maintain military control around the canal. The current president, Teddy Roosevelt, got a might bit upset about the rejection...his plans for the control of the hemisphere's most influential inter-oceanic passage foiled.

Someone tell Stephen you can't swim to the Panama Canal

Did Teddy Roosevelt's administration concede to Colombia's refusal? What? And just forget about its dream of becoming a hemispheric leader? Of course not! Teddy Roosevelt actually broke the previous treaty with Colombia and began to pay Panamanian residents to support a revolution against the Republic of Colombia. His logic was that if the U.S. were to support a Panamanian revolution successfully, he could sign a treaty with the new republic he helped "liberate" and then secure his plans for the canal.

And, so the story goes, the U.S. government sent its navy down to Panama, prevented Colombia from asserting its sovereignty against its national rebellion, and successfully supported the birth of a new country. The new Panamanian government, most definitely following the suggestion of French and U.S. officials, appointed an ex-Canal engineer to the post of Ambassador to the U.S. The French engineer quickly signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, which gave the U.S. complete control of a fifty-mile long, ten-mile wide strip of land across Panama, in exchange for $10 million.


Try one; you'll thank me! / Ever had a guanabana? It's a green fruit, about the size and shape of two big fists fused together

The U.S. pretty much broke international law, ignored the tenets of ethical diplomacy, and sponsored a national revolution so that it could build and maintain control of the Panama Canal. In response to the dirty politics used to cheat Colombia and win control over Panama, longtime member of the Anti-Imperialist League D.H. Chamberlain, wrote a long list of open letters to the signers of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, accusing them of breaking the moral foundations of international law. He questioned the ethics of U.S. involvement in the area when he asked whether the U.S. would have dreamed of treating England or Germany as it had treated Colombia. He blamed the U.S. for succumbing to the red apple of temptation and for letting the vision of linking its empire blind its recognition of the sanctity of sovereign nations.

Dirty politics didn't stop the food trade

For the next seventy years, the U.S. maintained strict political and economic control over the Canal Zone; the new Panamanian government was, in effect, only a puppet for U.S. interests. Political problems stemming from Panama's lack of sovereignty in its own territory grew until the 1970s, when Jimmy Carter introduced the Canal Treaty and the return of the Canal Zone to Panamanian rule in 1999. Of course, the U.S. continued to have problems with the country all the way up until 1989, when the U.S. sponsored the overthrow of Panama's President Noriega, whom the U.S. felt was not adequately supporting U.S. interests in the area. Since the end of the 19th century, the United States intervened militarily more than twenty times to stabilize politics and to further U.S. foreign policy interests in the area.

The Panama Canal was transferred back to Panamanian control on December 31, 1999 as planned. The transfer of power between the two countries, as yet, has not created any notable political difficulties. While the U.S. still has a military presence in the country, there is a very palpable feeling that the damaging effects of U.S. imperialism are finally fading away.

One of Spanish Harlem's reasons why some of  us SHOULD write on walls

Considering the U.S. treatment of Colombia and its years of involvement (sometimes violent) in Panamanian politics, is the U.S. really the defender of the free world that it claims to be, or is it more a self-interested nation with a penchant for imperialism? Do you think there could have been a Panama Canal, had the U.S. not been tempted by the possibility of becoming a world leader?


Please email me at: stephen@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - Sure, Puerto Ricans want a state. Of independence
Jen - The first U.S. president of Nicaragua
Neda - A little taste of the Philippines - at the mall food court
Stephen - Cuba Libre! Freedom is intoxicating