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
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
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
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
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
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
...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
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
(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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
division in the ruling party was the source of the “intellectual
anarchy” which frustrated Bunau-Varilla's negotiation
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
historicals, on the other hand, “dream of a return to the social
conditions of Philip the Second and the
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
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
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
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
Bunau-Varilla. Panama: The Creation, Destruction and
Resurrection (London: Constable & Co., Ltd., 1913.), p.183.
- Ibid., p.213.
- Selections from the correspondence of
Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, 1884-1918, I, p.453. March
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.
op. cit., p.36.
- Bunau-Varilla, op. cit.,
- 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.
p.279. Articles III and IV.
- Loc. cit. Articles II and
- Ibid., p.286.
- Bunau-Varilla, op.
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.
- Loc. cit. July 13.
- Ibid., p.146.
- Theodore Roosevelt,
An Autobiography (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1913),
- 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.
- 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.
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.
op. cit., p.285
- Ibid., p.302.
- Senate Documents, op. cit.,
- 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
- 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.
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.,
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
- 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.
- 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.,
- Angel Rubio y
Muñoz-Bocanegra, La vivienda rural panameña (Panama:
Banco de urbanización y rehabilitación, departamento de
información, estadística y archivos, 1950), p.45.
op. cit., p.447.
- Sosa, op. cit., p.307.
- Ibid., p.308.
Documents, op. cit., p.296.
- Edwards, op. cit.,
- Biesanz, op. cit.,
- Rubio, op. cit., p.44.
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