45 years ago, today : Op-ed
The privileged geographical position of Panama, since the times of the Spanish Empire, was essential for its expansion, and developed the transit system that dominates the world today. This geographical position enabled the construction of a transcontinental railway, in the middle of the 19th century, because of the California gold rush.
The Isthmus of Panama was therefore appealing to the French company that built the Suez Canal in 1869. It started the waterway in Panama but failed in 1889, and when the completion of the water route was presented as something essential for world trade, the United States tried to negotiate with Colombia, Panama being part of that country. However, that negotiation was rejected, which caused Panamanian economic and political groups to conspire to establish an independent country.
The independence of Panama from Colombia is associated with the construction of the canal through the isthmus, resuming the works that the French had begun. However, without considering the comprehensive development of the isthmus, the Hay-Bunau Varilla treaty was signed 18 days after independence was declared, a treaty no Panamanian signed, since Phillipe Bunau Varilla was a partner of the French Canal who only intended to protect his interests. The terms were “in perpetuity.”
From then on, a quarrel began against the treaty, especially because of the establishment of the Canal Zone, a 5-mile strip on both sides of the waterway, with its own government, prison structure, post office, shops, foreign to the Panamanians. The most egregious aspect was the control of the two main ports at the entrance to the Canal.
The dissatisfaction of the Panamanians grew as the years passed and it snapped in 1964 when a group of students crossed the border that separated the colonial enclave with the rest of the country to raise the Panama flag at the Balboa High School, seeking the fulfillment of an agreement that established that the two flags would be hoisted in the Canal Zone. The result was a confrontation that left 22 dead and the breakdown of relations between the two countries, which did not resume until the United States agreed to negotiate a new treaty.
From then on, a new treaty was renegotiated under the conditions of eliminating the main causes of conflict. The main one was the perpetuity with which we had ceded our geographical position, and the other ones were the existence of a colonial government within our territory with all its jurisdictions, the military presence, and the direct and indirect economic benefits that came from the usufruct of a foreign territory.
In 1970 the military government headed by General Omar Torrijos formulated the struggle for liberation and national decolonization. The United Nations Security Council met in Panama in 1973, and presented a motion favorable to our country’s claims, but it was vetoed by the United States (one of the five permanent members). This act internationalized the Panamanian struggle because it drew the attention of international public opinion.
Panama had to deal with complex negotiations from 1964 to 1977 when the Torrijos Carter Treaty was signed. We celebrate the 45th anniversary of its signature this Sept. 7.
The Tack-Kissinger declaration of 1974, comprised of 8 points, defined the road map to follow. The points included rescinding the Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty, the agreement on a fixed date for the return of the canal, and the end of US jurisdiction in Panama. In 1975, on Contadora Island of the Pearl Archipelago, a support group for the negotiations was created, made up of Costa Rica, Colombia, and Venezuela, with Mexico joining later.
1976 was the most difficult year of the negotiations. In January, General Torrijos denounced what was known as the “fifth border”, which is what the Canal Zone was.
In September 1977, at the headquarters of the Organization of American States (OAS,) in the presence of the leaders of Latin America and the Caribbean, two treaties were signed: the Permanent Neutrality Treaty and the Panama Canal Treaty. Its ratification was not easy before the US Senate and it was approved with 68 votes, one more than it needed for approval.
Thanks to the commitment of Democratic President James Carter, this historic agreement was reached, and the principles of non-intervention were included. It was an extraordinary victory.
The great victory is summed up in the facts that perpetuity disappeared; the canal concession was cast into oblivion; and sovereignty returned to the nation, eliminating the Canal Zone and all its colonial functioning institutions. Thanks to that treaty, the 14 military bases that had been established in our territory were dismantled. We have managed to increase the income from the Panama Canal and since December 31, 1999, Panama manages its geographical position and owns its canal.