104 Years of the “Separation” of Panama

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Building roads or hiding behind the forest


If for Colombia every Latin American country belongs to its own identity, in the case of Panama there is a very special relation. The subject is not easy and it touches a painful history, a history that both countries have to face together in order to built a better future. How Colombia sees Panama? Let us try an approach.

By Albeiro Rodas – En español

Panama is one of the smallest countries of the Americas, but its name is one of the most famous at the same time. Anybody around the world knows where is Panama and it is due to a very simple and important fact: the Inter oceanic Canal of Panama through where global economics pass by from Ocean to Ocean. You can talk to some people in Asia about Panama and they have a kind of idea, as they have an idea of Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia and Cuba. Most of the merchant ships of the five continents cross the Canal and then that is Panama for many of them. But Panama is not only a Canal and it means many other things that many people in other continents think: it has the meaning of what has been history in the Americas.

The Republic of Panama

Panama City is the capital of the country which total dimension is 75,517 km² (29,157 sq mi) with a total population of about 3 million according with a census of 2000, it is to say that it has the population of the Metropolitan Area of Medellin or half the population of Bogotá. The country is located in the tropical area with an average temperature of 27°C (80.6°F). Only two countries have borders with Panama: Costa Rica at its north and Colombia at its south, west and east if we count the sea borders by the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The literacy rate is 90% and the official currency is the Balboa (1 balboa = US$1). It was the first Latin American country to introduce dollars to its economy.


The history of Panama es an independent state started on November 3, 1903 when it was separated from Colombia. Soon afterward, the new and first government gave to United States the area of what is today the Canal in order to construct it and exploit it. The total area of the land given to the US sovereignty was 15 kms wide for 80 kms long to connect the two Oceans. The works of the construction of the Canal started in 1904 and it was ended in 1914. In 1921 Panama has to face a war against Costa Rica. In 1921 Colombia recognized Panama as an independent nation, although the Isthmus has never been removed from the Coat of Arms of the Republic of Colombia. In 1936 Panama and US signed an agreement about the Canal. In 1942 US proposed to Panama more military bases in the region while there are political instability in the country. In 1962 and thanks to President Kennedy, the Panamanian flag is placed for the first time in the Canal area, but in 1964 the US troops repressed students who tried to hoist the flag in the Canal area. Panama broke relations with US and started a fight to review the 1903’s Agreement. More political instability, military government, military constitutional reforms. In 1974 US and Panama started a way to renegotiate the 1903’s Agreement that conducted to an Agreement between President Jimmy Carter and President Omar Torrijos to give back the Canal to Panama in a gradual way until December 31, 1999. More political instability until the military govern of Manuel Antonio Noriega. In 1988 US imposed economic sanctions to Panama and to Noriega who is accused of drug trafficking. December 20, 1989, US invaded Panama and Noriega is taken to Miami where is condemned t 490 years in prison for drug trafficking. In 1993 is abolished the Panamanian army. December 31, 1999, US left Panama and the Canal is given to the national administration


Panama and Colombia


Although Panama is seem today as a Central American country, it was not ever like that. It is now 104 years of life as an independent country and it is only 104 years of been considered a Central American country, but Panama was linked to South America for more than 400 years.

When we talk about the Gran Colombia, that was today Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama, you can understand from a simplistic view that Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama got a kind of “independence” from Colombia – even the name “Colombia” is included in what was that former country. When you check the history carefully, you get to understand that it was not an independence fact, but a separation, one from each other, at least in what was the case of Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador. It is also called the “Dissolution of the Gran Colombia” in which three parts – Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela -, ended the contract they did sign in the Constitution of Angosturas and the creation of the Republic of Gran Colombia. That “Dissolution of the Gran Colombia” is not easy to understand and it has a lot causes and consequences. But at least you have to know that even if the three parts belonged to a same body, there were a historical identity of the three parts that were joined to form the Vice royalty of Nueva Granada: Venezuela with Caracas had its own body, Nueva Granada with Santa Fe de Bogotá had its own body and Ecuador with Quito had its own body and the three parts were joined and they remained together during the Colonial Time. The importance of Caracas, Santa Fe de Bogotá and Quito kept an equilibrium in the political system of the Spaniards and the join during the War of Independence was almost harmonic. Until here, I am not mentioning Panama as a part.


The reason why Panama is not mention as a part of that colonial and independence body of Nueva Granada is simple: Panama was a part of one of the three parts. Panama was a part of Nueva Granada, today Colombia. About the name of “Colombia”, we have to say that it was a generic name that became exclusive to Nueva Granada after the Dissolution of the Confederation. But “Colombia” was understood as the together of the three parts – Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.


Intentions to show a Panama as a different part of Colombia during the Colonial Times and during the 19th century can be done, but they come from those who want to justify the separation of Panama. According with that theory, Panama was always a kind of “other thing” different to Colombia. However, Panama as a province of Nueva Granada, was as much province as any other province and it was a Colombian state as it was Popayan or Cartagena de Indias. Any pretension that there were suggestions of a separated Panama before 1903 can be answer in any other suggestion from other provinces and states of Colombia of being separated from Bogotá like Popayan, Santa Marta and even Antioquia.


Many could think that Ecuador and Venezuela separated from Colombia and it was something like that, but it is not complete. It was a dissolution of a body, the Republic of Gran Colombia. In this sense, Ecuador and Venezuela did not separate from Colombia, but Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia separated from the Republic of Gran Colombia and it was one by one: first Venezuela, second Ecuador and third Colombia. The dissolution was most of the time pacific and less traumatic. Today, the tree countries feel linked to each other in a common history, but few people would think that the ideal is to rebuild the Republic of Gran Colombia – it would be something like the unification of Germany and Austria under the tyranny of Hitler. In the case, the dissolution was a natural political process. In the case of Panama, no.


The history of the “Separation of Panama” from Colombia is an excellent model of how has been the history of Latin American during the 19th and 20th century. But it is a history that we can not forget in the development of our region. To forget history is to be condemned to repeat it and even worst. This chapter of the Latin American history should be studied carefully by the new generations in the entire region as an example and model of our own political mistakes and odd interventions.


Panama from Colombia: A Road


This history is also a key for development. Being so painful, our nations have to face it in order to create a best future. It is not only that our countries did share a same history, but we belong to the same tree and then we have a big responsibility to each other. When Panama is looking for a dynamic participation in the Andean Community (CAN), it is being wise, since South America is its nearest root and not Central America. Panama shares with South America many common elements, more than its history of been a part of Colombia more than 100 years ago. It has a regional position, it shares a very important forest with South America, the Darien that is an ecological reserve and belongs to both countries and a common folk in the aboriginal people that lives the Darien region with the Bi national Park of Katios.


In this sense, the matter of a road to unite the two countries has been an item of a long discussion. The most important reason to delay it has been the ecological and environmental one in the fear to damage the Darien Forest that has been declared a Patrimony of Humanity in 1983 by UNESCO. Three years before, in 1980, Panama created the Darien National Park with an area of 597,000 hectares to preserve the biodiversity of an unique and delicate region. The idea of building a road to unite Panama with Colombia by land does not like to many ecologist groups, especially from US and Europe that argue that the work would put in danger the forest.


The other reason to delay the project for almost a century in the conclusion of a continues road to unite Alaska with Tierra de Fuego, is that the territory is settled by an aboriginal people, the Kunas. A road not only would endanger their culture, say some sources, but they have also victims of political violence in the Colombian side. For some observers, the project is of the interests of economic groups that are looking their own benefits without any concern to for the natives and the ecology. For the Panama side, the fear to a direct connection with Colombia would represent the coming of illegal migrants to the country and the consequences of the Colombian conflicts, as they were the answers of a direct proposal of President Uribe in 2005 to President Martin Torrijos. In that time, the director of the National Police of Panama, Gustavo Pérez, said to La Prensa that a road with Colombia would cause a lot problems of security for the country related with drug trafficking and terrorism, kidnapping and more money to increase the police presence in the area. According with this person, a road with Colombia would be something like a road with the hell.


In 1996 INVIAS, a Colombian official institute for the control of transport, introduced the results of a study done by the American Union Temporal Ecology and Environment Inc and the Colombia Hidromecánicas Ltda where there were 13 possibilities for the construction of the road and 6 of them were recommended in a way that ecological impact would be affected as less as possible. In that time the coast of such project according with the study would be among US$ 231 and 549 million and it would not affect the National Park of Katios.


Fears to Migration? From where to where?


Many Panamanians see the construction of a road with Colombia with fear. The image of a violent country is not free. The Atrato and Uraba regions, side to the Panamanian border, have been on the media as a scenery of violence and battles among guerrillas and paramilitaries that affected the native population of aborigines and Afro-Colombian peoples. Many of them have crossed the forest taken refuge in Panama in the last decades.


Contrary to that, a road with Panama could mean also a development for one of the most impoverished regions of Colombia, the Choco State. No notorious works of infrastructure have been done for one of the first regions in the production of gold and other resources of Colombia. Roads to Quibdo from Bogotá, Medellín or Pereira are completely undeveloped. A road to Panama would bring to that region an open to development if the project is thought in from the way of social promotion. Development means also peace and presence of the State. In this way, migration to Panama from displaced people by violence could be end if those people see their region integrated not only in the national development by in the regional development. Contrary to the fears of Colombians going to live in Panama, there is a more reasonable perspective: Panamanians coming to work in Colombia. An international road would put Panama City to easy access to a very big and important industrial center: Medellín. The only Metropolitan Area of Medellín has the population of the entire Republic of Panama. It is easy to guest that such a center would attract people from a small country, as you can find already many Ecuadorians in Colombia.



Of course the worry for ecology must be a priority. The protection of a natural park does not mean the completely abandon of this one in the wild. The remain of the Darien Forest as an untouchable place has made it as an excellent refuge for that social evils like terrorism, drug trafficking, smuggling and others.


Building walls is very easy. Hiding the other behind a forest is even easy. Building bridges and roads to unite the peoples is difficult. Even more difficult when we do not want to face the history. A road among Colombia and Panama is not only an economic fact for both countries and for the Americas, but is the rejoin of two places of the world that belong one to each other.


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