Pre-World War II

  • While Panama is part of modern day Central America, it is often not associated with Central American history because it did not become its own nation until 1903, when it gained independence from Colombia.(32)
  • The United States was the primary cause for Panama’s independence in 1903.  Because the U.S. had agreed that Panama would be the ideal spot for a canal leading to the U.S., the American government needed access to the Panamanian isthmus.  By persuading and funding an independence movement in Panama, the newly formed nation signed a treaty with the U.S. allowing it to build a canal through a strip of Panamanian land that was leased to them.  In return, the U.S. vowed to maintain order and independence in the new country of Panama.
  • The canal was finished in 1914 and was a great benefit to U.S. commerce with Latin America and Asia.  Not only did it considerably cut trade costs with foreign countries, but it also gave the U.S. a military stronghold against European opposition in Central and Latin America.
  • While these commercial and military motives for building the canal were obvious, the U.S. still tried to hide them behind the idea that their moral obligations led them to help bring independence to oppressed peoples that were incapable of obtaining self-governance by themselves.(33)
  • The building of the canal in the U.S.-occupied Canal Zone brought many workers to this Panamanian land to help construct the large canal.  The U.S. depicted it as a carefree environment where white, Americans were building the canal.  The truth was that the majority of the workers employed by the U.S. in Panama were black people, many of whom had come to Panama from various places in the Caribbean in search of work.  A racial caste system was enforced and any black people in the Canal Zone were relegated to inferior living situations, education, pay, and working conditions.  After the canal was finished, these conditions continued on for the people that continued to live there.  It wasn’t until the 1950’s that the overt racism and segregation in the Canal Zone saw any real change for the better.(34)




post-world war II


  • It is apparent that U.S. intervention in Panama revolved almost exclusively around the Panama Canal and the Canal Zone that came along with it.  Tensions between Panamanians and Americans had existed ever since the U.S. started working on the canal.  Much of this had to do with anger on the part of the Panamanians at the fact that the U.S. was occupying land within Panama’s borders.  These tensions turned violent in 1964 when an altercation arose between Panamanian students and U.S. marines in which 21 Panamanians were killed and hundreds more were wounded.  This incident really set the stage for the reconsideration of U.S. control of the Canal Zone.
  •  The 1977 Panama Canal Treaty gave sovereignty in the Canal Zone back to Panama.  The U.S. had realized that it no longer needed to occupy the Zone, as its trading habits had shifted as well as its military needs.  The U.S. was still able to maintain some military bases there, but that was the extent of it.(35)

  • The use of military bases by the U.S. in Panama has also helped in their counterinsurgency efforts in other Central American countries.  United States military officers have done a lot of training of rebels and contra armies on U.S. occupied Panamanian land in order to assist in their efforts to install puppet governments and enforce their ideal of democracy.(36) While Panama has often been overlooked, it has been vital to the U.S. in terms of expanding control throughout Central America as well as the rest of the world.

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