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 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.
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…