Tuesday, April 19, 2011

P is for ... Panama

The country of Panama lies on the isthmus connecting the Americas. It is one of several countries that arose from the ruins of the Virreinato de la Nueva Granada, the Spanish colonial jurisdiction established in 1717 and centered at Bogota (in what is now Colombia). Spanish rule in the New World was always problematic: the terrain, the natives, the poverty of the infrastructure and the vast leagues separating the colonists from their Spanish roots all played a role in the turbulence of the period. The Viceroyalty of New Granada was set up in an attempt to bolster the authority of the Viceroyalty of Peru, and in turn was obliged to delegate its own authority to a Captaincy General in Caracas and the Audiencia of Quito - these were to become the centers of Venezuela and Ecuador, respectively. The autonomy of these regions grew over time, not only outliving the conquistadores but also resisting the unifying efforts of Simon Bolivar and others: the internecine politics of Latin America remains a complex and delicate discipline to this day.

Bolivar it was, of course, who led the successful efforts of New Granada against Spain; he was born in Caracas in 1783, four years after it was designated a Captaincy General and three years before it acquired an Audiencia of its own. The Bolivar family were originally Basques: La Puebla de Bolivar, from which the familial name is derived, is a village in the Biscay province, and Bolibar in the Basque tongue Euskera means "valley of the windmill". Bolivar, now known throughout Latin America as El Libertador ( "The Liberator"), was a distant descendant of King Fernando III of Castile, canonized as Saint Ferdinand in 1671. Ferdinand is claimed by the Catholic Church as a holy incorruptible, and was himself regarded as a "liberator", defeating the Moors notably at Cordoba and Seville. It is, perhaps, one of history's ironies that St. Ferdinand's successes during the Reconquista should have laid the ground for the conquest of the New World and the triumphant rebellion of his descendant, Simon Bolivar.

Bolivar was theoretically in line for a position among Spanish nobility: his grandfather had purchased the titles of Marques de San Luis and Vizconde de Cocorote, and although the Spanish Crown had not issued the patent of nobility by the time of New Granada's independence, Bolivar's elder brother would have held those titles if the issue had been resolved. The family's legal dispute with the Spanish authorities, however, was to be dwarfed by El Libertador's crusade against their rule in the Americas. Bolivar himself had completed his education in Spain, and indeed married a Spaniard in 1802. After her untimely death in Gran Colombia of yellow fever, he lived for a few years in Napoleonic France. It is arguable that he would have been content to remain under Spanish rule, had Emperor Napoleon not unwisely attempted to seat his brother Joseph as Spain's Head of State.

Pepe Botella ("Joe Bottle", a soubriquet alluding to Joseph's drunkenness), as King Joseph was derisively known by the Spaniards, was not a popular monarch; his brief reign coincided with the Peninsular War and the expulsion of Napoleonic forces from the Iberian Peninsula. It also coincided with juntas in Latin America, of which Simon Bolivar was an influential leader. The First Republic of Venezuela declared independence from Spain in 1811; Francisco de Miranda (known as El Precursor and arguably a role model for Bolivar) was to become generalissimo of the nascent republic in its fight for self-expression. This fight was, sadly, doomed: an ominous earthquake destroyed the capital of Caracas on the second anniversary of the Caracas junta, a coincidence that badly shook confidence among the Venezuelan people and contributed to Miranda's ignominious surrender in 1812.

Bolivar, more fortunate than Miranda, was able to escape to Cartagena, where he wrote his first public document: the Cartagena Manifesto. This detailed Bolivar's understanding of the fall of the First Republic and its several causes; and he was to demonstrate that he had heeded the lessons of Miranda's failures during the conduct of the so-called "Admirable Campaign" to liberate New Granada. It was during this, ultimately successful, campaign that Bolivar issued another famous decree: the Decreto de Guerra a Muerte, or Decree of War to the Death. This was an explicit exoneration of any crime committed against a Spaniard in the cause of Neogranadian independence, and it led to some truly horrific excesses that were by modern standards anything but "admirable". Less than two months after the Decreto, Bolivar retook Caracas and established the Second Republic. This fared little better than its predecessor: the Royalist sympathies of the rural llaneros (who made up a formidable army in their own right, loosely under the command of Jose Tomas Boves) and the necessity of military rule in the prevailing circumstances of ongoing war against the Spanish peninsulares left Bolivar with a dwindling base of support. Bolivar, along with Santiago Marino, a fellow revolutionary with his own armed forces in the east, was exiled to Cartagena as the Second Republic collapsed.

In March of 1814, Ferdinand VII returned to the Spanish throne; he took a hardline stance, perhaps understandably, abolishing the 1812 Constitucion and sending an expeditionary force captained by Pablo Morillo to settle unrest in the Americas once and for all. In the face of this formidable strengthening of Spain's resolve, Bolivar fought valiantly in the service of the United Provinces but was obliged to retreat to Jamaica in 1815. Here he wrote the "Letter from Jamaica", an appeal to Britain and the English-speaking world to side with the "American" people (Bolivar used the term "American" in its strictly correct sense of "native of the Americas"). It met with an unsatisfying response, but Bolivar did find an ally in the President of newly-liberated Haiti, Alexandre Petion. Despite growing tensions within the ranks of revolutionary leaders (Marino, for example, only accepted Bolivar as head of the new Republic after Bolivar made a brutal example of another disloyal revolutionary, Manuel Piar), Bolivar was able to consolidate his authority and, importantly, secure the services of the llaneros under Jose Antonio Paez (later to become President of Venezuela); Morillo, unwisely as it turned out, had disbanded the army of Boves and the llaneros were now more favorable to Republican persuasion.

In 1819, Bolivar led a brilliant surprise assault on the Spanish stronghold of New Granada, securing famous victories at Boyaca and Bogota and altering the course of South American history. Bolivar returned to the Venezuelan Congress in triumph, and in December 1819 was declared president of Gran Colombia, the new state merging New Granada with the Third Venezuelan Republic. 1820 was a high point for Bolivar: Spain negotiated a peace and he was the head of a liberated nation. Unfortunately, this nation proved too vast and too diverse to remain united under his rule. By 1828, the situation had deteriorated to the point where he was obliged to name himself a dictator; and on September 25 of that year he survived an assassination attempt. Two years later, Gran Colombia dissolved and Bolivar died at the age of 47 - he may well have considered his own death something of a liberation after the privations of war and government. Bolivar's dream of a unified America failed, but he remains a national hero in the several countries that emerged out of Gran Colombia's death throes.

Panama came late to the independence party. It remained a province of Colombia until 1903, and might have remained longer than that, but for a quirk of geographical good fortune. At that time, a vessel traveling from New York to San Francisco faced a 22,500 mile journey around Cape Horn - a treacherous and time-consuming passage. However, with the east and west coasts of Panama separated by a distance of less than 50 miles, the potential existed to create a shipping canal that would cut this journey by more than half. The advantages of such a canal to the United States were obvious; and, indeed, they weren't the first to think of it. Way back in 1529, the Spanish had planned such a venture, although it was beyond their scope at that time; and in 1698 the Scotsman Mark Buke embarked upon the disastrous Darien scheme, which was to have far-reaching consequences for his homeland but very little impact on Panamanian shipping.

The U.S. had the combination of financial and political clout, and technological know-how, to make a practical possibility of the Panama Canal: but it was a formidable enterprise, and they were obliged to buy local cooperation. Panama had unsuccessfully attempted to declare itself a sovereign state repeatedly since Bolivar freed the region from the Spanish yoke; after the failure of the Hay-Herran treaty between the U.S. and Colombia, which would have granted the U.S. a perpetual lease on the land that would become the canal, the government of Theodore Roosevelt lent its support, both financial and political, to Panamanian independence. The Panamanians were in turn very supportive of the proposed canal; they saw it as bringing prestige and prosperity to their country, and the explicit support of the United States gave their claims of sovereignty international legitimacy.

Five days after the U.S. formally recognized Panama, the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty was signed. Interestingly, no Panamanian was a signatory to this treaty. In the wake of the Abramoff scandal, modern readers may be somewhat alarmed to note that Jean-Phillipe Bunau-Varilla was a French lobbyist and employee - and prominent shareholder - of Ferdinand de Lesseps' Panama Canal Company, who signed the treaty on behalf of Panama (he was serving as its ambassador, although hardly in a selfless spirit) but without the formal consent of its government. The Treaty granted the U.S. control in perpetuity of a Zone - the Panama Canal Zone - extending six miles from each bank of the proposed canal. In return, the government of Panama received a lump sum payment of $10 million, and an annual stipend of $250,000. De Lessep's Panama Canal Company, which had prior concession to build the canal, was also purchased under the terms of the treaty by the U.S. Government: the price negotiated for that by Panama's ambassador was a rather more substantial $40 million.

Not surprisingly, the terms of the Treaty sparked resentment in Panama that never really subsided. Bunau-Varilla's proposed design for the Panamanian flag, which bore a more than passing resemblence to the Stars and Stripes, was rejected in favor of the current design: a divided rectangle in red, white, and blue with two stars displayed in opposite quarters. With the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, tensions grew higher: Panamanians were obliged to identify themselves to U.S. authorities upon entering the Zone, and U.S. employees within it enjoyed wages more than double those of Panamanians. By 1918, the U.S. was actively interfering in Panamanian affairs of state, revoking a decree of the Panamanian president and occupying Panama City and Colon. With the advent of World War Two, the U.S. was obliged to offer concessions to the Panamanians in return for locating further U.S. military bases outside the Zone; in 1947, the controversial Filos-Hines Treaty, which would have extended the presence of 140 such sites, was defeated in the Panamanian National Assembly after public protests which included a march by students of the Instituto Nacional bearing the Panamanian flag. The Instituto was Panama's premier public high school, and it was to play a prominent role nearly twenty years later in the history of the Canal Zone.

During the 1950s, Panamanians were influenced by numerous events: the CIA-orchestrated ouster of Guatemala's president Jacobo Arbenz; the successes of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement; Castro's revolution in Cuba. As a result of these developments, the U.S. made further concessions to Panama. Eisenhower's administration agreed in principle that the Panamanian flag could fly within the territory of the Zone, which had been de facto American soil since 1903; shortly before his assassination, John F Kennedy agreed that both Panamanian and American flags should fly at non-military sites within the Zone. These orders were overturned by decree of the Canal Zone's Governor, Robert Fleming, a month after Kennedy died: perhaps attempting to appease all parties, he succeeded in inflaming them instead by ordering that no flags should be flown within the Zone at civilian locations. Students at Balboa High School, within the Zone and strongly sympathetic to the U.S., erected a U.S. flag in direct contravention of the decree; when school officials took it down, the students walked out and erected another, this time posting a guard around it. Popular opinion within the Zone supported their stand.

Popular opinion outside it was very different. Incensed by this assertion of American imperialism, the students of the Instituto Nacional once again took up their flag - the same one they had carried in 1947 - and marched it into the Zone to stand proudly alongside its fellow at Balboa High School. Led by one Guillermo Guevara Paz, the delegation had informed Zonian authorities of their intent in advance. They were met on January 9, 1964, by a crowd of Zonian citizens and a nervous phalanx of police, who agreed to allow a half-dozen students to advance to the Balboa High School flagpole. Incensed Zonians surrounded it, singing the Star-Spangled Banner and preventing the Panamanian students from reaching their goal. In the ensuing violence, the flag of Panama was torn - accidentally, according to the Zonians; deliberately, according to the Panamanians.

The Governor, en route to a summit in Washington to address the situation, discovered upon landing that the situation had escalated far beyond his control. Word of the flag-tearing had spread, and Panamanian demonstrators invaded the Zone at several points, bearing their national flag; they were repelled by armed police. Panama's armed forces, the Guardia, rejected Zonian calls to restore the peace, and demonstrators attacked the so-called "Fence of Shame" that separated Zonian from Panamanian soil. By 8:35, the U.S. Army's 193rd Infantry Brigade had deployed in the face of thousands of outraged protestors. Although accounts differ, it is generally accepted that 21 Panamanians lost their lives during the riots: January 9 became known as "Martyr's Day" and remains a national holiday in Panama. Among the "martyrs" were six-year-old Maritza Avila Alabarca, who died of respiratory problems after U.S. troops bombarded her neighborhood with CS tear gas, and 20-year-old Ascanio Arosemena, shot from behind allegedly while helping wounded protestors flee the scene of violence. Six of the dead were burned to death by rioters who destroyed the Pan American Airlines building in the Zone. Four U.S. soldiers were also killed.

The violence of Martyr's Day set the stage for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces. President Carter signed the 1977 Treaty that relinquished U.S. control of the Zone, which formally passed to Panama in 1999. The former Balboa High School, now named for the fallen "martyr" Ascanio Arosemena and used as a training center for the Panama Canal Authority, is the site of a memorial upon which the names of the 21 fallen Panamanians are listed. Sadly, this wasn't the last violent episode in Panama's history, and it wasn't the last time U.S. troops would be involved, although the circumstances of Operation "Just Cause" were markedly different, and represent another iteration of that historic irony that linked the destinies of St. Ferdinand and Simon Bolivar.

"A man, a plan, a canal - Panama!" Leigh Mercer's 1948 publication of this famous palindrome brought it to prominence; but although the canal is indisputably identified, inquiring readers may occupy themselves with disquieting consideration of these linked questions: Who is the Man? What is the Plan?

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