The history of Panama has been shaped by its strategic location between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean. The native Cuevas and Cocole tribes quickly disappeared after the Spanish arrived with their weapons and diseases in the early 16th century. Panama City, on the Pacific coast, thrived as Spain conquered and plundered Peru. Caravans loaded with gold traveled overland across the narrow isthmus from Panama City to be loaded on galleons bound for Spain.
However, this wealth attracted pirates and, in the early 1700s, Panama’s Caribbean shore was dotted with so many pirate strongholds that shippers chose instead to sail around Cape Horn to Peru. Panama’s importance rapidly declined, and Spain did not contest its inclusion as a province of Colombia when that country won its independence from Spain in 1821.
Panama, Traces of the Conquerors Remain
The Isthmus of Panama was visited by the Spanish conquerors for the first time as the result of an expedition organized by a wealthy solicitor from Triana, Rodrigo de Bastidas, in 1501. Bastidas traversed the north coast from the Gulf of Darien, through the Kunas Islands, to what is today known as Portobello. After collecting a wealth of gold and pearls, Bastidas had to suspend his expedition due to the poor condition of his ships and return to Spain with only a portion of the treasure.
Panama, Where Spain Founded the First City
On October 10, 1502, Christopher Columbus arrived on the coast of Veraguas and was mesmerized by the gold jewelry worn by the Indians. Several weeks later, on November 2, the discoverer came upon a beautiful protected bay, which he baptized with the name Portobelo. It was on Panamanian soil that Spain founded the first city on solid ground: Santa Maria la Antigua del Darien. On September 25, 1513, Vasco Nunez de Balboa discovered the southern sea and connected the Pacific Ocean with the Caribbean Sea for the first time, forever sealing Panama’s fate and strategic importance as the bridge of the world. Toward the end of the 1500s and throughout the 1600s, Panama was an important center for conquistadors, smugglers and famous pirates such as Henry Morgan and Francis Drake, who pillaged and destroyed cities.
Panama Cuts Ties with Spain and Joins the Americas
In 1821 the isthmus gained its independence from the Spanish crown and became part of Simon Bolivar’s Gran Colombia. This military leader convened a caucus in Panama in 1826 with the objective of creating a great confederation between Gran Colombia, Central America and Mexico. But he was never able to realize his dream. Gran Colombia was dissolved and Panama became part of Nueva Granada.
The first transoceanic railway was built between 1850 and 1855, connecting the two coasts in less than two hours. In 1880 the French began construction of an interoceanic canal under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps. But they failed in their attempt, as the workforce was plagued by debilitating diarrhea, malaria, yellow fever and typhus, and above all, due to serious financial problems. In 1903, Panama gained its separation from Colombia.
The Panama Canal, a Great Work of Human Ingenuity
The United States government in 1914 completed the Panama Canal, one of the wonders of the modern world. As a result of the Torrijos-Carter agreements, it was transferred to full Panamanian control on December 31, 1999. The Canal measures 52 miles long from Colón, in the Caribbean, to Panama City on the Pacific coast. A ship can cross the canal in an average of eight to 10 hours. Once across, ships either ascend or descend some 26 meters through three locks: Gatún, Pedro Miguel and Miraflores. It took 10 years to build the Canal with a local labor force of over 75,000 men and women, at a cost of approximately $400 million dollars. The Canal was opened to maritime traffic on August 15, 1914. Since that time over 700,000 ships have crossed it.
In 1968, the commander of the Panamanian National Guard, Omar Torrijos Herrera, seized control of the government. Although he ruled as a populist dictator, Torrijos Herrera is revered as a hero of Panama because he negotiated the treaty with the United States returning the canal and the Canal Zone back to Panama on January 1, 2000.
After Torrijos Herrera’s death in 1983, General Manuel Noriega became head of the Panama Defense Forces. When Noriega’s party lost the 1989 elections, Noriega’s cronies physically attacked the winning candidate on national television, and Noriega remained in power with the income provided by drug trafficking. In December 1989, Noriega appointed himself dictator and formally declared war against the United States.
The next day, a U.S. soldier was killed by Panamanian soldiers and the most powerful country in the world sent 26,000 troops into the streets of Panama City and Colon. Thousands died in the fighting, and Noriega claimed asylum in the Vatican Embassy. The Vatican staff finally released Noriega into U.S. custody, partly to stop the assault of loud rock music that U.S. loudspeakers directed at the embassy compound both day and night. Noriega was arrested, tried, and convicted on money laundering charges and sent to prison for a 40-year sentence.
Still suffering from his beating by Noriega’s cronies, Guillermo Endarra, the winner of the 1989 election, finally took office, but corruption and social unrest were hallmarks of his regime. Ernesto Perez Balladares (El Toro) won the 1994 election with largely fulfilled promises to fight corruption, improve Panama’s economy, and implement nationwide health services. Running with the campaign slogan, “The Canal Is Ours” Mireya Moscoso, the widow of a popular former president and head of the conservative Arnulfista Party, won the presidency in 1999 and celebrated with her people when the year 2000 dawned with the canal finally belonging to Panama.