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History of Panama

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History of Panama

Pre-Columbian ceramic figure from Talamancan, Panama
Pre-Columbian ceramic figure from Talamancan, Panama

Panama had a rich Pre-Colombian heritage of native populations whose presence stretched back over 12,000 years. The earliest traces of these indigenous peoples include fluted projectile points. Central Panama was home to some of the first pottery-making villages in the Americas, such as the Monagrillo culture dating to about 2500-1700 BC. These evolved into significant populations that are best known through the spectacular burials of the Conte site (dating to c. AD 500-900) and the beautiful polychrome pottery of the Coclé style.

A recurring theme in Panama's history has been the relation of the isthmus to the world economy and its significance in the plans of great powers to control world commerce. Rodrigo de Bastidas, sailing westward from Venezuela in 1501 in search of gold, was the first European to explore the Isthmus of Panama. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Panama was widely settled by Chibchan and Chocoan peoples, among whom the largest group were the Cueva (whose specific language affiliation is poorly documented). A year later, Christopher Columbus visited the isthmus and established a short-lived settlement in the Darien. Vasco Núñez de Balboa's tortuous trek from the Atlantic to the Pacific in 1513 demonstrated that the isthmus was, indeed, the path between the seas, and Panama quickly became the crossroads and marketplace of Spain's empire in the New World. The success of the Spanish was in stark contrast to the devastation of indigenous peoples. By the late 17th century, Cueva culture had all but disappeared. Mining techniques included the looting of Indian cemeteries for the pre-Colombian gold treasures they contained. Gold and silver were brought by ship from South America, hauled across the isthmus, and loaded aboard ships for Spain. The route became known as the Camino Real, or Royal Road, although was more commonly known as Camino de Cruces (Road of the Crosses) because of the frequency of gravesites along the way.

Panama was part of the Spanish Empire for 300 years (1538-1821). From the outset, Panamanian identity was based on a sense of "geographic destiny," and Panamanian fortunes fluctuated with the geopolitical importance of the isthmus. The colonial experience also spawned Panamanian nationalism as well as a racially complex and highly stratified society, the source of internal conflicts that ran counter to the unifying force of nationalism.

From 1821 to 1903, Panama was a remote province 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 the early 1850s, the first Transcontinental railway of the New World, the Panama Railway, was build across the isthmus from Colón to Panama City. The existence of the railroad made speculation about a Panamanian canal feasible.

Contents

Building the Canal

Modern Panamanian history has been shaped by the reality of transisthmian commerce, and by the possibility of a canal to replace the difficult overland route. In the 1520s and 1530s, the Spanish crown ordered surveys of the isthmus to determine the feasibility of such a canal, but the idea was soon abandoned. From 1880 to 1889, the French Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique under the direction of Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had successfully built the Suez Canal, attempted to construct a sea-level canal in the same general area as the present Panama Canal. The company faced insurmountable health problems such as yellow fever and malaria as well as engineering challenges caused by frequent landslides, slippage of equipment and mud. In the end the company failed in a spectacular collapse which caused the downfall and incarceration of many of its financial backers in France. A new company was formed in 1894 to recouperate some of the losses of the original canal company.

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt convinced U.S. Congress to take on the abandoned works in 1902, but the Republic of Colombia balked at U.S. terms. With American connivance, a plot was hatched among the handful of Panamanian landholding families to detach themselves from Colombia. The USS Nashville was dispatched to local waters around the city of Colón to deter any resistance from Bogotà and so, on November 3, 1903, with United States' encouragement and French financial support, Panama proclaimed its independence. Less than three weeks later, Panama signed the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty with the United States. The treaty allowed for the construction of a canal and US sovereignty over a strip of land 10 miles wide and 50 miles 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." 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.

Military Coups and Coalitions

From 1903 until 1968, Panama was a constitutional democracy dominated by a commercially oriented oligarchy. During the 1950s, the Panamanian military began to challenge the oligarchy's political hegemony. In October 1968, Dr. Arnulfo Arias Madrid, twice elected president and twice ousted by the Panamanian military, was again ousted 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, but he was a charismatic leader whose populist domestic programs and nationalist foreign policy appealed to the rural and urban constituencies largely ignored by the oligarchy.

Torrijos' assassination in 1981 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.

On September 7, 1977, an agreement was signed for the complete transfer of the Canal and the fourteen US army bases from the US to Panama by 1999 apart from granting the US a perpetual right of military intervention. Certain portions of the Zone and increasing responsibility over the Canal were turned over in the intervening years. 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 OAS convened a meeting of foreign ministers but was unable to obtain Noriega's departure. The US began sending thousands of troops to bases in the canal zone. Panamanian authorities alleged that US troops left their bases and illegally stopped and searched vehicles in Panama. During one such search, a firefight broke out between US Marines and Panamanian soldiers, a US Marine was killed. On December 20, 1989, the United States invaded. The U.S. troops involved in Operation Just Cause achieved their primary objectives quickly, and troop withdrawal began on December 27. The US was obligated to hand control of the Panama Canal over to Panama on January 1st due to a treaty signed decades before. Endara was sworn in as President at an US military base on the day of the invasion. 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 claims that US troops buried many corpses in mass graves 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.

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

Rebuilding Democracy

Panamanians moved quickly to rebuild their civilian constitutional government. On December 27, 1989, Panama's Electoral Tribunal invalidated the Norieiga 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 (according to a poll). 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 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.) 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

fr:Histoire du Panama ja:パナマの歴史

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