How the U.S. stole Panama – Part 1

As few people know, Panama as an independent country came about due to the disingenuous actions of the U.S. government in the early years of the 20th century. Prior, it was part of Colombia and acted as its own department within the country. It’s important to know how the underhanded actions of the U.S. led to what has been called ‘the rape of Panama’. It is important to note that long before the Colombian Panama there was a Spanish Panama which you can read about in Part 2 (link at the bottom).

The Basics

The Hay-Herran Treaty was a treaty signed on January 22, 1903 between Secretary of State John M. Hay of the United States and Dr. Tomás Herrán of Colombia. Had it been ratified, it would have allowed the United States a lease that was to remain in force in perpetuity on a 6-mile wide strip across Panama (which was then part of Colombia) for $10 million and an annual payment of $250,000. It was ratified by the United States Senate on March 14, but it was not ratified by the Senate of Colombia, and did not go into effect.

It has been considered by later observers that this happened mainly because Herran had negotiated the treaty with little government or legislative oversight. It has also been mentioned that many of the politicians and congressmen found the amount offered to fall short, considering that the United States was willing to pay $40 million for the New Panama Canal Company.

The United States government was not willing to renegotiate the treaty with Colombia or alter the amounts involved and soon gave its support, both political and military, to a planned uprising in Panama, which led to its independence and to the eventual construction of the Panama Canal.

The Details

Upon the ratification by Colombia, Secretary Hay specifically said that no time should be taken for further discussion of the treaty, that it must be signed and accepted immediately or the deal was off. Someone in Washington must have been familiar with the Colombian senate and the way in which things were easily drawn out. Knowledge of this fact would mean that the treaty, if ratified immediately by Colombia, effectively tried to treat Colombia as a chump, for lack of a better word. As Colombia failed to come to a quick agreement on the matter,  plan B was therefore to take the canal by force while also taking advantage of the popular ‘Panamanian’ uprising going on at the time.

The department of Panama actually had attempted to sucede from Colombia on various occasions and it was the Thousand Days War between 1899 and 1902 which gave rise to the final attempt for independence. Upon the ‘failure’ of the Colombians to ratify the Hay-Herran Treaty,  in 1903, President Roosevelt sent in the U.S. warship Nashville. U.S. soldiers landed, and declared Panama an independent nation. In November 1903, during a mere 17 day period, Panama proclaimed its independence and concluded the Hay/Bunau-Varilla Treaty with the United States. The treaty granted rights to the United States “as if it were sovereign” in a zone roughly 10 miles wide and 50 miles long. In that zone, the U.S. would build a canal, then administer, fortify, and defend it “in perpetuity.” In 1914, the United States completed the existing 52 mile canal.

The man referred to in the new treaty, Bunau-Varilla, was a French engineer and soldier, newly employed by the very company (Panama Canal Company) to be contracted to build the Panama Canal. Now it starts to become clear how the U.S. ended up getting exactly what it wanted out of the deal. In simple terms, they wanted the canal and therefore intentionally undervalued it in order to pay Colombia less than its worth. Next, they used a popular uprising to give merit to and support for their taking of the canal while dealing not with the Colombian governement, but with a Frenchman who “coincidentally” happened to work for the company they wished to hire.

It gets worse

A few years after Roosevelt passed away, the U.S. being oh-so generous, decided to offer an apology to Colombia via a “gift” of $25 million in 1921. Colombia, wishing for continued relations with the U.S. (being an important recipient of Colombian exports), accepted the apology. The gift carried with it a stipulation though, which stated that Colombia must allow Standard Oil into the country. Fortunately for Standard Oil, the 360 mile-long pipeline they built, turned them into the largest (read: richest) oil producer in the world at the time. In the end, Colombia lost Panama and much of their oil reserves for the one-time fee of $25 million dollars. I wonder how much the U.S. made from it all…

Here’s Part 2

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15 thoughts on “How the U.S. stole Panama – Part 1

  1. I agree with the article in its entirety with only one exection. Standard Oil was already the world’s largest oil company and the oil reserves of Colombia at that time were a miniscule part of their world wide operations. Other than that, I wish more Colombians were taught this story in their own schools because the past two generations know nothing about what happened. I believe if they knew that they would feel differently about having the US open military bases on their soil.

  2. As an American having lived in Panama and now in Medellin, I was made aware of the story of the Panama Canal a few years ago after reading the book, A Path Between the Seas. I too have found it interesting that the ast majority of Colombians, Panamanians and Americans don´t know the real story behind the Panama Canal.

    • I agree, Justin. It is quite interesting. A family member read it and asked me “aren’t you being a bit harsh on the US?” and I responded by saying these are just the facts. Thanks for your input.

  3. Por favor…The U.S. has been doing these types of things
    since their creation. Just ask native Americans, Spain, France,Mexico,Cuba,Philippine Islands,etc, etc…

  4. Sixth grade history class in the US. Nothing new that I did not read 40 years ago. The US has a long history of abusing central and Southern American countries. Read, Confessions of an economic Hitman and it will cover the most of the 20th century. Yes I studied history in the US but never in a public school.

    • I very highly doubt that is 6th grade history, especially because I went through it and did not learn this, nor does any fellow American I know, know this. At best, a 6th grade teacher might vaguely mention the notion in passing. I’m familiar with Economic Hitman, it’s a good read. Thanks for commenting.

  5. Adam,
    You probably had a public school education. I read and could speak Latin by the time I was in sith grade. I went to an excellent private school. The shameful thing is that Colombians to do know this history and it has been intentionally left out of their history because textbooks are decided upon by the government. I don’t appreciate being called a liar especially since that was the year we focussed on Yellow Journalism and I remember it well. I am far from being senile.

    • Obviously, I did not call you a liar, or else I would have used that terminology. My statement was directed towards education in public schools and based on everyone I’ve ever met. Your initial comment seemed a bit ‘uppity’, at least the first two sentences of it and my initial comment was to show that such knowledge is very far from common, if we are referring to the commoners, or rather, the majority. I have no knowledge of private school education so I cannot speak to that. Regards

  6. “I very highly doubt that is 6th grade history, especially because I went through it and did not learn this, nor does any fellow American I know, know this. At best, a 6th grade teacher might vaguely mention the notion in passing.” Well, Adam, 32 students in Mrs Selman’s 6th grade history class in 1972 in the back woods of Houston, Texas were all aware of this fact. You can ‘highly doubt’this because for whatever reason you choose, but that is your decision. All 32 of us also read the Conquest of Gaul in its original 3rd person biographical style written by Julius Caesar in Latin in 7th grade history. Each of us also had to build a replica bridge to scale of the bridge he used to cross the Rhine. Try taking the late 1800 Kansas 8th grade graduation exam. It is on the internet and as a 50 year old man, I aced it. I was raised in a much different background from you and was also well educated by my parents in addition to my regular school classes. I do not understand why you have to be so skeptical that someone might have had a strong history background at a young age. I have done the same with my own daughters as I feel it is very important for them to know more than one side of a story and that history you read is mostly written by the winners and does not always reflect the truth. Pax vobiscum.

  7. the little squabble about what was or was not taught in 6th grade history is the perfect example of how knowledge is ‘controlled’.
    having attended several private schools when younger I was floored when for my last year of high school, and last family relocation, I attended a public school. it was the best lesson ever learned.
    public education next to poverty is the worst form of violence.

    history is written by the conquerers.
    rarely do monied interests go into battle without a carefully orchestrated plan of attack.
    presidents are the PR puppets of those with real power who never get voted out of office.
    the story of the Panama Canal, oil, school curriculum, was all written in stone long before the Columbian govt had a chance to see the agreement.
    strip out all the minor players and theatrics & follow the money. it was a set up, like all profitable business deals, from the get go.

  8. Based on a year and a half in Colombia, I have to agree with Claudia that a lot of Colombians are well aware of our assistance in creating Panama. History is indeed written by the victors, but that doesn’t mean the vanquished forget what happened.

  9. USA STOLE the Panama Canal to COLOMBIA because took advantage of internal problemos Colombians ; Supposedly the US wanted to help Panama to ” INDEPENDENCE ” and I wanted was harnessed to so ,steal the Panama Canal .So from the beginning of the century they BEGAN to penetrate our borders EMPIRE monopolistic companies , which in its first onslaught occupied thousands of hectares in the basin of the Caribbean Sea and the Middle Magdalena other many thousands . In the department of Magdalena he was installed as master the United Fruit Company. And in the area of ​​the concession Seas around Barrancabermeja , the Tropical Oil Company, a subsidiary of Standard Oil of New Jersey.

  10. If the informatíon in the article is factual (a similar version is posted on Wikipedia), then the answer is no, Colombians did not learn it at school; the Colombian history textbooks totally omitted the details of this chapter. all that we learned is that Panama was sold to the US for US$25 million. yikes! In the end, the unhappiness of the Panamenian people with the Colombian central government was actually the catalyst for loosing Colombia’s most strategic region to the US.

  11. I have to chime in because it’s funny how the US is always the BAD guy even though we are the ones who end up paying millions of not billions of dollars to the other country. How about putting some blame on your evil greedy politicians that let this happen?

    I remember (not all the details) reading and being taught about it also in grade school, yes public school. How about focusing on the present and future instead of looking who to blame for the past?

    You know there are countries doing the same thing right now such as Russia, China and several places in the middle East who are taking over other provinces? What country has not taken over another country or province at one time or another in the past to get to where they are? It’s history and it’s interesting but it does not make any one country worse than another IMO. It’s the past. Lets learn to be better in the future and we wont get there by trying to fix the past, only by learning from it.

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