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Causes of the Panamanian Revolution of 1903

Daniel J. Castellano

May 13, 1997

From the beginning, Panama's primary natural resource has been geographical. Its position as the narrowest stretch of land between the Atlantic and the Pacific made it an extremely valuable route for the transport of Peruvian gold to Spain; three centuries later, it served as a way station for American gold prospectors headed toward the West Coast. In the nineteenth century, the exclusivity that Panama enjoyed as an interoceanic route gradually deteriorated. The advent of steamships made travel around Cape Horn an increasingly practical route, and the Transcontinental Railroad provided an overland alternative. With these developments, even the American-built railroad across the isthmus was no longer sufficient to keep Panama competitive. The success of the Suez Canal inspired Ferdinand de Lesseps to undertake a transisthmian canal project to restore prominence to Panama; unfortunately, his French Canal Company met with financial disaster in 1889. The rights of the bankrupt company were acquired in 1894 by a compatriot, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, who faced the unenviable task of restoring investors' confidence in an apparently risky venture.

Up until this point, the incentives for building the canal were almost strictly commercial. However, with the onset of the Spanish-American War, the United States soon established itself as a naval power on two oceans, with island protectorates on both sides of the American continent. The economic rationale for a link between the seas was now buttressed by those of military defense and nationalist ambition.1 These new factors made it necessary, in the eyes of the American public, for the canal to be a strictly American enterprise. In the Hay-Pauncefote treaties, the British relinquished their rights to manage the project, freeing the U.S. to draft a canal treaty with Colombia (whose sovereignty over the isthmus had been recognized in the Bidlack-Mallarino Treaty of 1846). This treaty was rejected by the Colombian senate in August 1903. Diplomatic tensions mounted until November, when several hundred armed secessionists revolted and declared Panamanian independence. The United States Navy intervened to prevent the landing of Colombian troops, and immediately recognized Panama's independence. Finally, the infant Republic of Panama (scarcely two weeks old) signed a treaty with the United States in which:
...la República de Panamá se deshizo, a perpetuidad y en beneficio de los Estados Unidos, de aquel poder latente de la naturaleza, del cual había derivado su existencia hasta entonces, o en otros términos, de la única fuerza productiva que había explotado desde el descubrimiento de su territorio.2
The events which led to this amazing coup for the United States are complex and convoluted, involving the conflicting interests of the Americans, Panamanians, Colombians, and Bunau-Varilla. A combination of civil war, private interests, and foreign imperialism guaranteed the success of the Panamanian Revolution of 1903, a small-scale armed uprising which would not only dramatically alter the fortunes of the Panama canal project, but also redefine U.S. relations with Latin America.

1  Nicaragua vs. Panama

Prior to the Panamanian Revolution, the prospects for the construction of an isthmian canal seemed bleak. The failure of the Lesseps project was steeped in scandal (involving bribes accepted by French parliamentarians) and technical obstacles (e.g. Lesseps' attempt to build a canal without locks) which made the Panama project something of an anathema. Additionally, a strong rival had emerged in the Nicaraguan route, which exploited the presence of natural lakes (Nicaragua and Managua) to compensate for the wider land-mass. This route (minus the canal segments, of course) had been used by Cornelius Vanderbilt's steamships during the California gold rush, and gathered popularity as a result of the failure of the Lesseps project and the cooperativeness of the Nicaraguan government. This is remarkable, considering the Isthmian Canal Commission appointed in 1899 gathered technical evidence clearly demonstrating the superiority of the Panama route. [See Appendix.] The Nicaragua phenomenon, therefore, requires some explanation.

By 1901, the American public was overwhelmingly in favor of the Nicaraguan route. At this time, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, an engineer for Lesseps' project and head of the New Panama Canal Company (of which the Republic of Colombia was the second-largest shareholder)3 issued a pamphlet, Panama or Nicaragua? discussing the advantages of the “three times shorter” Panama route.4 His writings and speeches were sufficient to rekindle debate by the time he left New York for Paris on April 11, though his claim that he “had mortally wounded the rival of Panama”5 seems exaggerated and premature. American newspapers continued to support the Nicaraguan route; on January 14, 1902, the New York Herald published this editorial, adducing that the American infatuation with the Nicaraguan route was based upon:
...the instinctive conviction, profoundly rooted in the American nation, that the Nicaragua canal project is a purely national affair, conceived by Americans, sustained by Americans, and if later on constructed, operated by Americans according to American ideas, and for American needs. In one word, it is a national enterprise.6
With this sort of reasoning, it is only natural to expect a zealous patriot like Theodore Roosevelt to have favored the Nicaraguan route. In one of his letters to his longtime friend Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations), Roosevelt commended the senator's work on the Nicaraguan canal treaty.7 This was in 1900, before McKinley's assassination and Roosevelt's ascent to the presidency. Immediately after this transition in September 1901, however, Lodge expressed a reversal of opinion: “We must not tie you down to Nicaragua for I am strongly inclined to think that Panama is best.”8 This attitude shift led to the passing of the Spooner Act the following year (June 25), authorizing the president to buy the rights of the New Panama Canal Company for no more than $40 million and to obtain permanent control of a six-mile wide strip of land across the isthmus from Colombia; otherwise the Nicaraguan canal should be built.9

Bunau-Varilla attributes the Panamanian project's success in the Senate to the May 8 eruption of Mont Peleé in Martinique. This catastrophe, which resulted in 40,000 deaths, vindicated the Frenchman's warning of the dangers of Nicaragua's active volcanos.10 Six days later Mount Momotombo erupted in Nicaragua, confirming the presence of volcanic activity; before this, Bunau-Varilla had only a one-cent Nicaraguan postage stamp depicting an erupting volcano as evidence.11 Even so, the bill would not have even reached the Senate had not Roosevelt convinced the Isthmian Canal Commission to reverse its recommendation, favoring the Panama route.12

Meanwhile, Bunau-Varilla had been engaged in private dealings with the Colombian government in March. José Vicente Concha, the Colombian minister in Washington, indicated that the rights to operate and control the canal would not be sold to the U.S. for less than $7 million with a $600,000 annuity for a total of $27 million. Bunau-Varilla cabled the Panama Star and Herald a message which equated Colombian demands above $12.5 million with the death of Panama.13 This shameless ploy to create or increase friction between Panama and Colombia in order to obtain a lower price for the canal rights was not entirely unprompted. Indeed, the Colombian demands were problematic in that they were significantly higher than what Nicaragua would accept. A Nicaraguan canal would mean not only financial ruin for Bunau-Varilla's canal company without a canal, but also Panama's failure to exploit its most valuable resource. At any rate, the engineer's tactic was effective; on March 31, Concha agreed to leave the annuity for “later arbitrations,” and no annuity was to be paid for the first fourteen years.14

2  The Hay-Herrán negotiations and the Panamanian secession

With the passing of the Spooner Act, President Roosevelt was authorized to buy the rights to construct the canal from the New Panama Canal Company. This immediately became a major sticking point with the Colombians, who required that the transfer of railroad and canal rights be regulated by a “previous special arrangement” between Colombia and the companies.15 Secretary of State John Hay found such claims to be “wholly inadmissible.”16 This issue would resurface repeatedly in the negotiations of the coming year, as would disputes over money and the status of the canal zone. Nonetheless, on January 22, 1903 a treaty was signed by Hay and his Colombian counterpart, Tomás Herrán (Concha's successor), which was amenable to the United States on all of these points. Article I of the Hay-Herrán Treaty authorized the canal and railroad companies to sell their rights to the U.S.17 Article XXV set the payments at $10 million down, plus $250,000 per year, adding that “no delay or difference of opinion under this Article” should prevent the rest of the treaty from taking effect.18 The treatment of sovereignty over the canal is ambiguous. While acknowledging Colombia's sovereignty over the proposed canal zone, it was simultaneously referred to as “neutral territory.”19 Moreover, the United States was given the right to “control” and “protect” the zone in this 100-year renewable agreement.20 Article XXIII actually enabled the United States to deploy forces to protect the zone without the prior consent of Colombia.21 In effect, the treaty guaranteed Colombia's nominal sovereignty over the canal while granting the United States powers which approximated de facto sovereignty. This last aspect of the treaty aroused the deepest outrage in Colombia, making Herrán an object of ire, as one Colombian senator insinuated: “The gallows would be a very light penalty for such a criminal.”22 After ratification in Washington on March 17, the treaty was submitted for the approval of the Colombian senate.

Public opinion in Colombia was pronounced in its opposition to the Hay-Herrán accord's treatment of sovereignty.23 On July 9, the American minister in Bogota, A.M. Beaupré, informed Secretary Hay of proposed amendments brought to him by General Rafael Reyes. These changes were relatively mild: Bunau-Varilla's company would pay $10 million for the right to transfer and the Article XXV down payment would be increased to $15 million.24 Even though the sovereignty issue was not challenged, Hay nonetheless responded that neither amendment “would stand any chance of acceptance by the Senate of the United States.”25 This hardline stance notwithstanding, on August 3 the Colombian senate approved a law to modify the treaty by excluding the Spooner Act, allowing private agreements, and treating rights conceded to the U.S. as being in the nature of a tenancy, along with other modifications restricting the use of resources surrounding the canal.26 On August 12, after five hours of debate, the Hay-Herrán treaty was rejected.

The possibility of the treaty's rejection had been anticipated by the Department of State. As early as June 9, Hay sent an ominous message to Beaupré to be related to the Colombian minister of foreign affairs: “The Colombian government apparently does not appreciate the gravity of the situation...action might be taken by Congress next winter which every friend of Colombia would regret.”27 [Italics added.] The threat implicit in this memorandum need not have been an allusion to the impending November revolution, but something more along the lines of a proposal Roosevelt intended to recommend to Congress. Rather than “submit to extortion,” Congress should either take the Nicaraguan route, or buy the rights from the New Panama Canal Company without Colombia's approval, and begin construction.28 Roosevelt favored the latter course of action, due to the well-established technical advantages of the Panama route.29 Regardless of whether politically severing the isthmus was even considered at this point, it is clear that Colombia was required to accept the unmodified Hay-Herrán Treaty one way or another.

Meanwhile, family circumstances brought Bunau-Varilla to New York.30 He had, by this time, been toying with the idea of Panamanian secession; his September 2 article in Le Matin eerily detailed the events of November a week before Roosevelt summoned John Bassett Moore to Oyster Bay to formulate his policy.31 Given these facts, it seems clear that the idea of aiding a Panamanian secession was Bunau-Varilla's. It appears unlikely, however, that Bunau-Varilla had already resolved to carry out this plan. That his discovery of Panamanian secessionist Dr. Manuel Amador Guerrero in New York was by chance is confirmed by Amador's communications to Panama. Aimlessly searching for financial support, Amador wired the single word “Desanimado” shortly before his September 23 meeting with Bunau-Varilla at the Waldorf, after which he wired “Esperanzas.”32 A Panamanian canal would be of great benefit to local merchants and politicians who would rather have $10 million at their disposal than in the hands of the Colombian or Nicaraguan regime.33 The man who would become Panama's national hero was perceived by Bunau-Varilla as a naive old man who had wildly unrealistic ideas about how to lead a revolution. Amador asked for an outrageous $6 million to buy arms and pay troops, having procured a blockading fleet by a “Captain Beers.”34 This shady individual (whose real name was discovered to be Cromwell by a 1912 committee of Congress) was unable to fulfill his promises,35 so once more the revolution's success was in jeopardy.

Once again, the ambitious Frenchman turned to the United States for assistance, this time in a rather indirect manner. In writing a letter to Prof. Bassett Moore (which outlined how the Treaty of 1846's clause guaranteeing the “right of way” across the isthmus might be employed to justify occupation of the canal zone), he hoped to “filtrate” information to the President.36 Apparently, the strategy was successful; on the ninth of October, Bunau-Varilla was, for the first time, granted an audience with the American executive. According to Bunau-Varilla, Roosevelt was surprised to hear his forecast of a revolution, and gave indications that he had entertained the “right of way” theory until then. While making no promises of any sort, Roosevelt made clear that a Panamanian revolution would be a fortunate event.37

With this implicit approval (as it was perceived by Bunau-Varilla), the affluent Frenchman was able to obtain (October 15) a $100,000 bank loan (an achievement which amazed the unworldly Amador), an amount sufficient to equip an army of 500 men. Once independence was recognized, the Panamanians could expect the $10 million down payment to finance an expanded army.38 No detail of planning was trusted to Amador. Bunau-Varilla, by his own account:
...prepared the proclamation of independence, a methodical plan for military operation, as well as the arrangements for the defence of the Isthmus to be effected within the first three days, and finally a cipher code allowing Amador and myself to correspond secretly.39
In addition, Mme. Bunau-Varilla designed the flag (later modified)40 of the new Republic, while her husband insisted on a November 3 deadline for action.41 All that remained was to see whether Bunau-Varilla's judgment of American intentions was accurate.

Needless to say, the Frenchman's confidence was not misplaced. A day before the revolution, a message was dispatched42 (received November 3) to the U.S.S. Nashville: “In the interests of peace make every effort to prevent Government troops at Colon from proceeding to Panama. The transit of the Isthmus must be kept open and order maintained.”43 At 3:40 p.m. on November 3, an uprising on the Isthmus was reported.44 A junta comprised of secessionists José A. Arango, Federico Boyd, and Tomás Arias headed an army “numbering fewer than 1500 men.”45 The Colombian warship Cartagena was actually permitted to land 400 troops, but the railroad refused to transport them. By November 6, without loss of life (save a man killed by brief Colombian shelling),46 the revolution ended. Hay was informed that all was “peaceful,” and that the junta chose Bunau-Varilla to be “appointed officially confidential agent of the Republic of Panama at Washington.”47 Later, he would be granted the additional titles of envoy-extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary. On the sixth of November, Secretary Hay established relations with the Panamanian people, who “by an apparently unanimous movement” had secured their independence; he also relayed Roosevelt's exhortation to the Colombian government to recognize Panama.48

As remarkable as the quickness of the Americans' actions is Colombia's slowness to grasp their intent. On November 6, General Reyes proposed to send 2000 Colombian troops to Panama; in return for U.S. collaboration, Colombia would either declare martial law and ratify the treaty by decree, or call an “extra session” with “new and friendly members next May to approve the treaty.”49 This last-ditch effort to bargain with the U.S. has been construed as an admission that Colombia could have approved the treaty at any time,50 though it is by no means obvious that ratification by decree would have been feasible before the secession, an event which precipitated (as one may expect) a “great reaction of public opinion in favor of the treaty.”51 Naively expecting U.S. approval, Colombia had raised an army ten thousand strong by November 11, only to receive Hay's message of the 6th through Beaupré the following day.52 Finally realizing that the Americans would not permit the landing of troops, the Colombians voted 10-1 in council to hand Beaupré his passport (implying a severance of relations) and openly protested the recognition of Panama.53

3  Legal Issues: The Treaty of 1846 and “Neutralization”

The main source of protest was the United States' apparently blatant violation of the Bidlack-Mallarino Treaty of 1846. General Reyes was the chief envoy sent to Washington to petition this grievance. As he saw it:
Conforme al citado Tratado, se aseguró á los Estados Unidos el tránsito á través del Istmo por los medios de comunicación que entonces se conocían ó que pudieran conocerse después, y en cambio éstos garantizaron á Colombia su soberania sobre el territorio del Istmo de Panamá.54 [Italics added.]
Reyes' characterization of the free transit on the isthmus as being given in exchange for the guarantee of Colombian sovereignty is fully justfied by Article XXXV of the treaty. In the first point the United States is guaranteed “the right of way or transit across the Isthmus.”55 But, in line with Reyes' thinking is the following point: “And, in order to secure, and as an especial compensation for the said advantages, the United States guarantees...the rights and sovereignty” of Colombia over the Isthmus [Italics added].56

Of course, one could make the argument, as Hay did, that Colombia violated the treaty first by failing to maintain the civil order necessary to guarantee free transit across the isthmus. Yet if such a violation did indeed exist, the United States was bound by the fifth point not to “authorize any acts of reprisal nor...declare war against the other on complaints of injuries or damages” without a formal presentation of proofs.57 Colombia heeded this provision in sending Reyes to argue that the treaty was violated, rather than declare war on the United States. The United States, on the other hand, in preventing Colombian troops from landing, had clearly committed an “act of reprisal” if not a declaration of war. The treaty of 1846 does not leave the United States a legal basis for its actions, a fact which Bunau-Varilla implicitly acknowledged in abandoning his scheme of using the “right of way” clause as a “way out”58 on the grounds that the theory “was too abstract to appeal to a great democracy.”59

Another often-cited legal foundation for the Panama incident is the so-called principle of neutralization. The model of this concept is the Suez Canal, which is neutral to all nations. Article III of the Second Hay-Pauncefote Treaty (1901) essentially parrots the Suez Canal Treaty in this respect. It asserts, moreover, that “no change of territorial sovereignty...shall affect the general principle of neutralization.”60 These changes from the First Hay-Pauncefote Treaty (rejected by the U.S.) which simply gave the United States “exclusive right of providing for the regulation and management of the canal”61 (with a host of stipulations), were fought for by the McKinley administration against what Roosevelt delicately termed “the stupidity of England.”62 The first treaty had been begrudgingly conceded by Lord Pauncefote to replace the Clayton-Bulwer treaty of 1850 which had denied “extensive control” of the canal to both Great Britain and the United States.63 These unilateral concessions were made possible by the stresses to which the Boer War subjected the British government.64 With the ratification of the second treaty, the U.S. was poised to resolve the canal issue as it pleased, and in the name of international interests. As Reyes remarked:
Desde ese día, quedó decretada la perdida de Panamá...si no trataba con los Estados Unidos en la forma que lo hizo...Herrán como Ministro de Colombia en el tratado Herrán-Hay en 1903.65
This may be somewhat overstated, as Roosevelt probably did not have his policy fully formulated at that point, but the treaty would, in fact, prove to be a critical diplomatic turning point. The neutrality of the canal would justify the “expropriation of sovereignty for international utility.”66 What is omitted, of course, is that at no point did Colombia agree to the principle of neutralization; it seems to have been, as Reyes indicated, a foregone conclusion that she would accept it. Admittedly, the word “neutrality” is used in Article XXXV of the Treaty of 1846, but in an entirely different context. “Neutrality” is defined as open transit, and the defense of Colombian sovereignty is considered a direct consequence of neutrality. Furthermore, neutrality is to be guaranteed to Colombia by the United States, not the other way around. On all seven occasions between 1846 and 1903 in which American troops intervened on the isthmus, they did so with prior approval from Colombia, with one exception in 1902, after which Colombia protested and Hay expressed regrets, denying “any intention to infringe sovereignty or wound dignity of Colombia.”67 Thus the U.S. saw itself as bound to defend Colombian sovereignty against foreign aggression and internal strife to guarantee the canal's neutrality.

4  The “fifty-three revolutions in fifty-seven years”

This brings us to an extra-legal, yet nonetheless powerful, argument for American abridgement of Colombian sovereignty: the alleged incapacity of Colombia to manage its own affairs. Roosevelt's characterization of South America as “a squabbling multitude of revolution-ridden States”68 is later qualified to distinguish “the great and prosperous civilized commonwealths, such as the Argentine, Brazil, and Chile” from “certain–not all–of the tropical states” which “have been a prey to such continuous revolutionary misrule as to have grown impotent either to do their duties to outsiders or enforce their rights against outsiders.”69 Even Panamanians acknowledged that the right to property was often impossible to protect.70 Dr. Rafael Nuñez (president of Colombia 1883-4) conceded, “The maintenance of public order was the exception, and war the rule.”71

It was no secret that the Isthmus had been devastated from a half-century of insurrection and civil war. Almost a decade after the 1903 revolution (which itself inflicted no casualties), the Panamanian landscape still had visible scars of prolonged combat:
In the province of Cocle, I have ridden into deserted villages, seen the charred ruins of many a hacienda, and more neglected farms then cultivated ones. When you ask about them, the people shrug their shoulders and say: “The revolution.” It is a country of widows and orphans.... There have been seven years of uninterrupted peace since the secession but the country is still understocked with farm animals. The people have not yet gotten free from the habit of thought which told them that their live stock would be stolen every few years one way or the other.72
While the results of the Panamanian conflicts were uniformly negative, their causes were varied and complex. Not all of them were secessionist-driven, and in many cases it is difficult to distinguish political conflict from family feuding.

Furthermore, of those insurrections that were secessionist in nature, the reasons for secession were not always related to a sentiment of Panamanian nationalism, somewhat undermining Secretary of State Elihu Root's claim that Panama was an historically sovereign entity.73

For example, the short-lived 1830 secession of Panama was simply a response to the anarchy created by the collapse of Colombia's constitutional government.74 This independence lasted about two months; a longer “estado libre” endured from 1838 to 1840.75 The political chaos of 1852 has been described by Panamanian historians as very non-political in origin, and propelled by “...dos familias igualmente honorables, peros separadas por antagonismos más personales que políticos...”76 The opposing political affiliations of the two families were entirely incidental. The dominating parties at the time were the Liberals, who favored federalism and anticlericalism, and the Conservatives, who preferred a more centralized government with Church participation in government and education. These differences would be a source of division decades later, but can hardly account for the upheavals of the 1850s.

To further illustrate this point, a coup in Bogota in 1858 led Panamanians José de Obaldía and General Tomás Herrera to defend the constitutional government of Colombia with the Panamanian garrison. “Desguarnecido el Istmo, surgieron numerosas bandas de malhechores que robaban y asesinaban...”77 Here we have examples of riots on the Isthmus which exist only because of a power void left by the anarchic state of the republic. These “bandas de malhechores” were whom the U.S. armed forces were sent to counteract, not secessionists. This was done at the request of the Acting Governor of Panama (the Governor was democratically elected since 1853).

Some violent incidents would have been just as unavoidable with an independent Panama, as in the case of “La tajada de sandía” on April 15, 1856. A somewhat inebriated American citizen found himself in a fistfight with a Panamanian fruit vendor from whom he had taken a slice of watermelon without paying a real. His American friends offered to pay, but in the confusion local villagers came to defend the vendor with machetes, and soon a gunfight ensued. The outnumbered Americans retreated to a train station where fifty to sixty pistols were stored, along with their women and children. When the police arrived an hour and a half later, they helped the villagers in their siege and took the train by storm, killing sixteen. Further outbreaks of violence between Panamanians and Americans were prevented by diplomatic negotiations which resulted in a payment of $400,000 in gold.78

A separatist revolutionary movement arose in 1860 as the result of efforts by the Conservatives to pass an electoral law that would perpetuate their political majority.79 Once again, open revolt was used in response to the abuses of national government officials, rather than a profound sense of Panamanian nationalism. The following year, a federal government was established; New Granada became the United States of Colombia, with Panama as one of its states.

In 1873, however, we see a return to revolts incited to resolve personal disputes, as General Correoso (ex-president of Panama) fomented revolution in an effort to depose the newly reestablished Neira administration.80

Perhaps the most significant of all the upheavals of the late nineteenth century, and the most frequently cited by defenders of the U.S. policy in Panama, was the Liberal revolution of 1885, or rather, the Conservative reaction which led to Colombian Constitution of 1886. This document converted the states of Colombia into Departamentos causing it to be regarded as “una Constitución centralista”81 and resented for its “proscripción del elemento nativo de puestos públicos.”82 In this period, the Conservatives “desconocieron o burlaron a sus adversarios en la práctica...todos los derechos del ciudadano,” such as the freedom of press and thought.83 This led to a revolution headed by the Liberals in January 1895 which was “dominada sin grandes esfuerzos al cabo de dos meses.”84 After the suppression, the prohibition of liberalism became “más absoluto.”85 This oppression instigated a civil war, “la mas larga y sangrienta de las muchas que han agotado a Colombia.”86 Very few Panamanians supported the government with arms.87 The “Constitución centralista” of the Conservatives had served to alienate the Isthmians, yet it should be noted that the Liberal uprisings in Panama were part of a general movement throught Colombia against the Conservative regime. Though Colombia may be rightly accused of being unable to maintain political order in Panama (or the rest of the country, for that matter), there is hardly any strong evidence for the claim that Panama was “historically sovereign” (though, like the other states of Colombia, it enjoyed a high degree of autonomy until 1886).

From an examination of the diverse causes of the disturbances on the Isthmus in the last half of the nineteenth century, it is clear that if they are to be used as an argument for U.S. intervention, such an argument must be detached from claims of bringing a history of secessionism to fruition. Many of the “revolutions” were senseless riots in the wake of political anarchy; others were motivated by personal grudges or political differences that transcended Panamanian politics. Even less plausible is the alleged inevitability of the revolution, given Bunau-Varilla's account of the exhaustive precautions necessary to ensure the success of such a hopelessly undermanned, underfinanced enterprise.

5  Colombian factionalism

With this historical basis, let us examine what circumstance in Colombian politics could require the U.S.'s paternal intervention. While the 1885 liberal revolution is the main pillar of Sercretary Root's claim that Panama was “historically sovereign,” the political friction between the two nations would emerge as the result of a a less spectacular event; the schism of the Conservative party in 1891. The new faction, the históricos, would eventually be led by Vice President José Manuel Marroquín.88 This division in the ruling party was the source of the “intellectual anarchy” which frustrated Bunau-Varilla's negotiation attempts.89 Such was his contempt for Marroquín's “historicals” (who overthrew Sanclemente's government on July 31, 1900)90 that he glorified the nationalist Conservatives as open-minded men desirous of Liberty.91 The historicals, on the other hand, “dream of a return to the social conditions of Philip the Second and the Inquisition.”92 If Bunau-Varilla's view of the two factions seems somewhat skewed by his financial interests, it was certainly an improvement over Roosevelt, whose failure to recognize any factionalism in Colombia's ruling party is the most plausible explanation for his belief that “the Colombian dictator had used his Congress as a mere shield, and a sham shield at that.”93

The perception that the Colombian senate was a “sham shield” was largely a product of Marroquín's efforts to distance himself from the debate. Herrán took orders only from Marroquín, so it is reasonable to expect that the president would endorse the treaty. Strangely, in the critical moments of the senate's deliberation, Marroquín expressed his neutrality: “It is not my intention to allow my opinion to weigh in this matter.”94 The senate leader, Joaquín Vélez, was an histórico; since the president's faction controlled the congress, Beaupré was led to “believe that any legislation sincerely desired by the Government will pass.”95 Unfortunately for Marroquín, in his anxiety to obtain the canal for Colombia (as Nicaragua remained a threat), he had entered into a treaty that compromised Colombian sovereignty, a detail which many senators felt to be in violation of the constitution.96 In effect, Marroquín had alienated himself from his party, which had no intention of ratifying an unpopular treaty for his sake. This widening rift became even more evident with his appointment of José de Obaldía as governor of Panama. This appointment was fiercely attacked in the senate, and only the president's son defended the action.97 His silence during the treaty debate may therefore have been merely pragmatic; it would have been clearly to his disadvantage to link his political fortune to that of the treaty. The nationalists, led by Senator Caro, also opposed the treaty, partly in reaction to the patronizing tone of the Hay memorandum.98 The nationalists gave every indication that they wished to deal a blow to the Marroquín government in rejecting the treaty.99 With this sort of opposition (which resulted in the unanimous rejection of the treaty),100 Marroquín made a politically prudent decision in acting like Pontius Pilate (as Bunau-Varilla colorfully remarked)101 and later sending Reyes to make his appeal. Rather than a shield, the Colombian senate was Marroquín's greatest obstacle; yet, through tactful maneuvering he was nearly able to obtain the canal for Colombia nonetheless.

6  Panama: before and after

It is certainly noteworthy that nowhere in any of the negotiations described were Panamanian interests taken into consideration. Bunau-Varilla claimed to have acted in the interests of the Colombians, yet did not hesitate to turn against them, confident that he would “be approved by the civilised world.”102 Primarily concerned with the construction of the canal, he turned to the revolutionary movement simply “because it was the only way to preserve the entire scheme from dissolution.”103 Roosevelt, the perennial opportunist, collaborated with the Frenchman, if only indirectly. The myriad legal and historical justifications for the actions were just rationalizations which disguised the United States' real interests. Roosevelt characterized as “hypocrisy...for any man to say both that we ought to have built the canal and that we ought not to have acted in the way we did act.”104 The Colombian government, also concerned with the construction of the canal, had a host of internal political wranglings which ultimately resulted in national catastrophe. The Panamanian interests were not represented by any party in this dispute.

Identifying “Panamanian interests” is not a straightforward task, as most Panamanians were occupied in subsistence agriculture (as they would continue to be for decades afterward),105 leaving them little time to take any interest in politics.106 This indifference was evident in the example of the peasants of Coclé, and may also be inferred from the elitist nature of many of the “revolutionary” movements which were actually power struggles among politicians and generals. This is not to say that the Panamanians were neutral, only that there was a great disparity between the views of the Panamanian people and their political representatives, both before and after the 1903 revolution.

The economic benefits of the canal were desperately needed, so a considerable number of Panamanians supported the Hay-Herrán treaty.107 The Panamanian representation, however, voted with the majority in opposing the accord.108 The secessionist junta was similarly detached from Panamanian interests in appointing a foreigner, Bunau-Varilla, as its minister plenipotentiary. Thus it occured that the head of the New Panama Canal Co. entered into a treaty with the United States on November 18. The Hay-Bunau-Varilla accord essentially restated the terms of the Hay-Herrán treaty, with a provision for Panamanian independence.109 Their previous support of the Herrán treaty notwithstanding, the Panamanians developed an “almost universal hatred of the Gringos” upon suddenly finding that their country had been sold.110

Colombian concerns regarding the treatment of sovereignty turned out to have been justified; the canal zone was American territory for all intents and purposes for decades to come. As one American observer in the 1950s put it: “Fourth of July Avenue [delineating the zone's boundary] might as well be the Grand Canyon.”111 The contrast between the American “Zonians” and their Panamanian neighbors was indeed remarkable; while the canal zone was largely suburban, the Panamanians continued to live in the shoddy haciendas their pre-revolutionary ancestors had used. Subsistence agriculture remained the norm; without improvement in farming methods, they were forced to begin the rapid destruction of tropical lands.112

J.D. Richardson, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, XIV (New York: Bureau of National Literature, Inc., 1933?), pp.6663, 6718. Roosevelt's First and Second Annual Messages to Congress. December 3, 1901 and December 2, 1902.
Samuel Lewis. Apuntes y conversaciones (Panama: Editorial Minerva, 192-.), p.64. “...the Republic of Panama rid itself, in perpetuity and in benefit of the United States, of that latent power of nature, from which it had derived its existence until then, or in other terms, of the only productive force which it had exploited since the discovery of its territory.”
U.S. Document 4627, 58th Congress, 2nd Session, 1903-04, House Documents, I (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904.), p.133. Beaupré to Hay, Bogota, March 30, 1903.
Philippe Bunau-Varilla. Panama: The Creation, Destruction and Resurrection (London: Constable & Co., Ltd., 1913.), p.183.
Ibid., pp.192-3.
Ibid., p.213.
Selections from the correspondence of Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, 1884-1918, I, p.453. March 14, 1900.
Ibid., p.505. September 19, 1901.
Howard C. Hill, Ph.D., Roosevelt and the Caribbean (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1927), p.36.
Bunau-Varilla, op. cit., p.178.
Ibid., p.247.
Hill, op. cit., p.36.
Bunau-Varilla, op. cit., p.221.
Ibid., p.225.
U.S. Document 4627, op. cit., p.140. Hay to Beaupré, November 11, 1902.
Ibid., p.141.
Senate Documents, 63rd Congress, 2nd Session, XV (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1914), p.278.
Ibid., p.287.
Ibid., p.279. Articles III and IV.
Loc. cit. Articles II and III.
Ibid., p.286.
Bunau-Varilla, op. cit., p.272.
Juan B. Sosa and Enrique J. Arce, Compendio de Historia de Panamá (Panama: Casa Editorial del “Diario de Panamá,” Morales & Rodriguez, 1911), p.306. Officially adopted text for teaching in Panamanian schools.
U.S. Document 4627, op. cit., p.163.
Loc. cit. July 13.
Ibid., p.196.
Ibid., p.146.
Theodore Roosevelt, An Autobiography (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1913), p.572.
Ibid., p.573.
Bunau-Varilla, op. cit., pp.288-9.
Roosevelt-Lodge correspondence, II, op. cit., p.74. January 6, 1904.
John and Mavis Biesanz, The people of Panama (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955), p.469. “Discouraged” “Hopes”
Ibid., p.468.
Bunau-Varilla, op. cit., p.292.
Ibid., p.293.
Ibid., p.305.
Loc. cit.
Ibid., p.315.
Ibid., p.320.
Ibid., p.322
Ibid., p.323.
U.S. Document 4627, op. cit., p.247.
Ibid., p.231.
Loc. cit.
Ibid., p.264.
Ibid., p.272.
Ibid., p.233.
Ibid., p.225.
Ibid., p.225.
e.g. Roosevelt, An Autobiography, op. cit., p.557.
U.S. Document 4627, op. cit., p.225.
Ibid., p.228.
Ibid., p.229. November 14.
Reyes, op. cit., p.14. "In accordance with said Treaty, the United States was assured of transit across the Isthmus by means of communication then known or those which could be realized later, and in exchange [the United States] guaranteed to Colombia her sovereignty over the territory of the Isthmus of Panama."
Treaties, Conventions, International Acts, Protocols, and Agreements Between the United States and Other Powers, 1776-1909, I, compiled by William M. Malloy (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1910), p.312.
Loc. cit.
Ibid., p.313.
Bunau-Varilla, op. cit., p.285
Ibid., p.302.
Senate Documents, op. cit., p.293.
Ibid., p.290.
Roosevelt-Lodge correspondence, I, op. cit., p.486. March 30, 1901.
Senate Documents, op. cit., p.272
See Reyes, op. cit., p.15 and Roosevelt-Lodge correspondence, I, op. cit., p.446. H.C.L. to T.R., February 2, 1900.
Reyes, op. cit., pp.15-16. “From that day, the loss of Panama remained decreed...if [the Colombian government] did not deal with the United States in the form that Herrán did as Minister of Colombia...in the Herrán-Hay treaty of 1903.”
Bunau-Varilla, op. cit., p.311.
Hill, op. cit., p.45.
Theodore Roosevelt, American Ideals and Other Essays (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1903), p.19. “True Americanism,” from The Forum, April 1894.
Roosevelt, An Autobiography, op. cit., p.547.
Lewis, op. cit., p.211.
Edwards, op. cit., p.453.
Ibid., p.459.
Senate Documents, op. cit., p.584. This assertion was made in defense of the U.S. government's refusal to submit to international arbitration. February 10, 1906.
Sosa, op. cit., pp.210-1
Ibid., p.223. “free state”
Ibid., p.232. “...two families equally honorable, but separated by antagonisms [which were] more personal than political...”
Ibid., p.235. “[With] the Isthmus unguarded, [there] arose numerous bands of evildoers who robbed and murdered...”
Ibid., pp.240-2. “The slice of watermelon”
Ibid., p.247.
Ibid., p.261.
Ibid., p.285. “a centralist Constitucion”
Ibid., p.289. “proscription of the native element from public office”
Ibid., p.292. “disclaimed or cheated their adversaries in the practice of...all the rights of a citizen”
Loc. cit. “suppressed without great effort at the end of two months”
Ibid., p.295. “more absolute”
Loc. cit. “the longest and bloodiest of the many which have exhausted Colombia”
Ibid., p.299.
Sosa, op. cit., p.293.
Bunau-Varilla, op. cit., p.216.
Sosa, op. cit., p.299.
Bunau-Varilla, op. cit., p.216.
Loc. cit.
Roosevelt, An Autobiography, op. cit., p.557.
Bunau-Varilla, op. cit., p.269.
U.S. Document 4627, op. cit., p.155. June 23, 1903.
Sosa, op. cit., pp.308-9.
U.S. Document 4627, op. cit., p.192. Beaupré to Hay. September 10, 1903.
Ibid., p.182.
Ibid., p.194.
Sosa, op. cit., p.309.
Bunau-Varilla, op. cit., p.269.
Ibid., p.295.
Ibid., p.217.
Roosevelt, An Autobiography, op. cit., p.570.
Angel Rubio y Muñoz-Bocanegra, La vivienda rural panameña (Panama: Banco de urbanización y rehabilitación, departamento de información, estadística y archivos, 1950), p.45.
Edwards, op. cit., p.447.
Sosa, op. cit., p.307.
Ibid., p.308.
Senate Documents, op. cit., p.296.
Edwards, op. cit., p.476.
Biesanz, op. cit., p.9.
Rubio, op. cit., p.44.

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