FOR what he had wrought on the Isthmus of Panama, Theodore Roosevelt had only pride until the day of his death. “No more honorable chapter in U.S. history,” he wrote defensively a decade after the revolt in Panama. But when the Panama Canal opened a few years afterwards, President Woodrow Wilson asked the Congress to give Colombia $25 million in conscience money for the 1903 rape at the Isthmus, and after Theodore Roosevelt was dead Congress paid it, with the approval of a Republican President.
Today the United States remains on the defensive. The Canal Zone twice was rushed by mobs last November; scores were injured, American firms were attacked, and the U.S. Embassy was stoned. U.S. soldiers fought against the citizens of the little republic Theodore Roosevelt had helped to create. During a year-end lull, President Eisenhower tentatively granted Panama the right to “visual evidence” of “titular sovereignty” in the U.S. corridor bisecting the Isthmus. And Major General William E. Potter, the governor of the Canal Zone and president of the Panama Canal Company operating the dual locks, lakes, waterways, and establishments of the zone, was ordered to yield to Panama certain economic privileges, at a loss to the company and its owner, the U.S. government.
These unusual developments have come during another period of violence within the Republic of Panama. The traditional struggle for political power and spoils is under way, with the showdown scheduled at the national elections in May. In addition, there have been four exceptional revolutionary outbursts and an invasion-rebellion in less than two years. Panamanians by the hundreds have been killed or wounded, and many have been arrested. The government of the republic had to seek urgently assistance from the United States and from the Organization of American States.
The two thrusts at the Canal Zone were rooted in these earlier events. The government of Panama has a well-trained National Guard, a police force which is Panama’s only army. On November 28 at the Canal Zone boundaries, it showed how effectively it could resist the mobs. But on November 3 it was not there; it was not anywhere, not even at the U.S. Embassy. There is abundant other evidence, aside from the Guard’s absence, to show that the men running Panama’s government machine wanted to assist Aquilino Boyd, who led the first nationalist demonstration at the Canal Zone. U.S. troops were given no assistance in repelling the mob until the National Guard’s leaders were warned that gunfire would be used if they persisted in withholding their men.
It was a wild night, even after the National Guard intervened, for Boyd and his assistant, Ernesto Castillero, Jr., an ex-deputy-foreignminister, had lost control of their demonstrators. Perhaps, as some have said, professional agitators were present. The fact is, however, that Boyd’s planned flag march was not opposed by President Ernesto de la Guardia, Jr., and the National Guard. And while this can be explained as a nationalist gesture, it also can be explained as a maneuver to assist Boyd’s campaign to make himself a presidential candidate, to oppose the candidacy of Ricardo M. Arias, Panama’s ambassador in Washington and a strong personality.
There are many differences between Arias and Boyd and their followers. But Boyd, a former foreign minister, is no more likely to seek to revolutionize the social order than Arias is. An honest election in May, between them, thus would bring none of the risks inherent in the revolts and uprisings of the last two years.
Panama asks for help
One such risk is the coming to power, in the republic which embraces the Panama Canal, of men in the mold of Fidel Castro and Gamal Abdel Nasser, revolutionary nationalists who could make life on the Isthmus quite unpleasant for many Panamanians and for residents of the Canal Zone. This seemed to be the danger inherent in the invasions and revolt of the spring of 1959, when Washington promptly intervened at the urgent request of Panama’s government. Plotting and financing the revolt were members of the family of an ex-president. Harmodio Arias, led by his son Roberto, an attorney who had been Panama’s envoy to Britain, where he married Dame Margot Fonteyn, the ballerina. Also involved was a Cuban invasion force led by Cesar Vega, a Havana bistro owner, resistance fighter for Castro. Anibal Illueca, a Panamanian attorney whose brother is Panama’s UN delegate, was arrested, charged with gathering arms for the rebels. Two other Panamanians found asylum in the Brazilian embassy along with Roberto Arias. Dame Margot was held briefly and deported.
Washington dispatched weapons to Panama’s National Guard, helped in spotting the invaders who landed on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, and brought investigators from the Organization of American States to the scene to effect surrender, arrest, and deportation of the Cubans. This prompt and effective action probably forestalled the internal uprisingexpected by the conspirators and possibly also by the government itself. Only a few months before, a revolutionary movement had been proclaimed openly in a public plaza in Panama City for the stated purpose of “overthrowing the corrupt national government.” It in fact succeeded in overthrowing the city’s municipal government.
The year before, bloodier uprisings had occurred in Panama City. Students led off the first attack in May, 1958, demanding the dismissal of a corrupt minister. They were besieged in the national university; dozens of persons were killed and wounded in street fighting. A general strike paralyzed the city. In September there was another revolutionary strike. Many people openly sided with the strikers and the students.
The Canal Zone
Panama has been notable even in Latin America for its lawlessness. Theodore Roosevelt, in the defensive article mentioned earlier, recorded the instability of Panama. “The Isthmus of Panama during 57 years,” he wrote, “saw 53 revolutions, rebellions, insurrections, civil wars, and other outbreaks . . . on six occasions [U.S.] marines and sailors were forced to land . . . to protect property.”
Such being the historical pattern, Panama’s violent revolts and repressions of the last two years caused little excitement or anxiety outside of Panama or inside the Canal Zone, where some 11,000 U.S. civilians live and work on company properties. In this civil service paradise there are also some 16,000 employees who are not U.S. citizens (not all are Panamanians, however — the canal project has drawn heavily on the nearby British West Indies for workers), but only about 3000 live within the zone, usually in servants’ quarters, and only a small number hold responsible positions in the canal company.
The city hall in Panama City was taken by storm in February, 1959, by several hundred persons led by Guillermo Marques Briceno. A junta was formed and a new council named to supplant the councilmen ousted as corrupt. For two days the new councilmen and the junta ruled in the council chamber, seeking by radio to start a revolt against the national government. But the government cut off their broadcasting and National Guardsmen reluctantly escorted Briceno, the junta, the reform councilmen, and hundreds of their followers out of the city hall. They went to a plaza, where Briceno proclaimed the “eighteenth of February” movement of revolution.
In the beginning of the American canal project and during de Lesseps’ earlier, abortive work on the Isthmus, the importation of skilled and reliable persons was a necessity; Panama’s handful of white families offered few candidates for the kind of engineering, management, and administrative work required, and Panama’s Indians and former slaves were found to be less fit for the hard work of canal digging than were the West Indian Negroes who flocked to the Canal Zone.
It took about ten years to build the canal linking the Caribbean to the Pacific across the lush, tropical Isthmus. The American investment or equity was fixed last year at $480 million; the canal company’s gross annual revenue now is about $83 million, its net profit $3 million. Panama’s annuity is $1,930,000, fixed in 1955, after being raised to $430,000 in 1936 from the original $250,000 payment starting in 1913. The canal company estimates that the bulk of the $24 million it pays in wages to employees living outside the Canal Zone is spent in Panama. In addition there are some 10,000 U.S. servicemen and the tourists who have come to Panama because of the canal and who contribute to the economy. Panama certainly depends on the canal for its rising standard of living.
The barriers to cooperation
Equally important to the progress of Panama has been the influence of American science, education, and politics. Panamanians have clean water, sanitation, and schools in the communities adjacent to the Canal Zone, and new opportunities for education are coming, along with economic betterment.
Among the expectations of Panamanians today is a less corrupt, more responsive and responsible government, as the revolutionary outbursts of the last two years show. And this ambition surely has been produced by what so many Panamanians observed and learned about governments elsewhere, usually as part of the education stimulated by the Canal Zone. Before the canal, Panama was, as Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “one of the festering pestholes of the world.” It is no longer that, and Panamanians are no longer ignorant, sick, and unemployable within the operations of the Panama Canal. Discrimination against them by the canal company is one of the two main barriers to Panamanian-American cooperation.
The other barrier is history. American apologists and legalists have tried to justify 1903 on grounds other than raw national interest. But Latin Americans do not agree. Theodore Roosevelt was convinced that he was dealing in Colombia with men he described as “banditti.” Latin America recalls the political leaders of Colombia in the early twentieth century as patriotic, perhaps overly emotional, misguided, propertied gentlemen, who had fought a bitter civil war and whose president was much more meek than dictatorial.
Latin American students, especially those whose interests center around Colombia and Panama, know about the U.S. treaty made with Colombia’s envoy in Washington and ratified by the U.S. Senate just six months before the revolt of Panama. In this document, the proposed Panama Canal Zone was to be five kilometers (three miles) wide, Colombian sovereignty in the zone was to be affirmed and safeguarded — there could be no U.S. forces unless Colombia were unable to protect it — and the lease was to be for 100year periods. It provided for mixed courts to administer justice within the Canal Zone.
The Colombian Senate refused to ratify this treaty, Panama revolted, and with unseemly haste the United States signed a treaty with a Frenchman, the Panamanian envoy, whose only interest in the affair was to get $40 million for a defunct canal company. The Panama treaty fixed a ten-mile-wide zone under perpetual U.S. sovereignty and made Panama into a protectorate. Meanwhile, an offer from Bogotá to go through with the earlier treaty was rejected by Washington.
The story does not end there. U.S. naval vessels were sent to Panama in advance of the revolt with orders to prevent the landing of Colombian troops. And while this was happening, the United States was bound by a solemn undertaking to guarantee “Colombia’s rights of sovereignty and property” on the Isthmus.
The grievous wrong to Colombia was tacitly confessed when the U.S. Congress voted $25 million for it, the amount Colombia had been seeking for the smaller Canal Zone in 1903. But the wrong done Panama goes unrighted, except perhaps by President Eisenhower’s offer to let the Panamanian flag wave over the Canal Zone. Even that offer is in doubt. A House Foreign Affairs subcommittee has gone into the question, and it meanwhile asked the State Department to postpone a final decision. Representative Armistead I. Selden, Jr., the subcommittee chairman, recalled that in 1955 the State Department had explained in detail why Panama should not be allowed to have “visual evidence” of “titular sovereignty” in the Canal Zone.
There are, as there have been since the canal was started, overtones of racial prejudice in the American attitude toward Panamanians. Economic discrimination in the building and operation of the canal has always seemed racist to Panamanians.
Business interest also is a factor in the attitude of congressmen and of North Americans in Panama. Banana plantation workers in neighboring Costa Rica have conducted a long strike against the United Fruit Company, although the Costa Rican courts called the strike an illegal violation of the company’s contracts. The same company operates extensively in Panama, and back of U.S. reluctance to make concessions to the Panamanians may be a fear of more labor trouble and social unrest.
The need for partnership
Panama and the canal have changed; defense from the Isthmus is extremely unlikely during a war of missiles. U.S. fortifications have been abandoned, and the base is in mothballs. More important, the people of the Isthmus are ready to take their place in the management of the canal, today much more of a business than a strategic outpost.
The proposal has been made to demilitarize Canal Zone government, to add a United StatesPanama Joint Board of Management with nondiscriminatory labor policies, and thus to begin a partnership which could become a beacon in the troubled, growing, restless Western Hemisphere and an example to the world of a peaceful transition from the old imperialism to the new neighborliness.