Political Premises of Panama Canal Construction

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With a troubled and problematic past, Panama and the United States did not end their feud after the finalized construction of the Panama Canal. The sovereignty of the United States over the middle of Panama’s territory and the canal caused numerous social, economic, and political problems between both countries. Panama was socially and racially segregated with the gold and silver rolls payment system. The isthmians were unemployed because many immigrants working on the canal site settled themselves in the country after finishing duties. Lastly, the country was economically and politically repressed due to the lack of financial benefits and control of the canal, especially the various strategic locations taken by the US for operational purposes. Besides, the new Panamanian government was requested to pay high water rates considering the economic stagnation. These events caused the creation of the 1930s Panamanian nationalism and patriotism movement led by the Arias Brothers.

Before the movement took place, Panama could not benefit from international trades without access to the ports in the canal and Colon. Moreover, the opening of American businesses in the Canal Zone interfered with local suppliers and affected the economy of Panama negatively. The US businesses were run by a corrupt system since it allowed non-employees to buy goods from these shops and sometimes with identifications of fellow employees. People preferred to buy goods from the US stores since pricing was cheaper by 30% and did not have to pay import taxes. American businesses profited more than local businesses. Furthermore, Panamanian housing was not suitable, and they mostly lived in ghettos (La Huelga De 1920 En La Zona Del Canal).

On the other hand, Americans enjoyed a strategic defense of the United States coasts as it improved the use of its naval fleet from East to West and covered North and South America, as well as the Caribbean and the Pacific. From a commercial perspective, the geographical location of the Panama Canal outlines the main routes and their impact on distance, timing, and weather. To clarify, the US imperialist beliefs and dominance were reigning over the Panamanian government power and Americans were requesting more land for the canal to operate efficiently (“Los 100 Años Del Canal De Panamá).

As Americans requested more benefits and perks in Panama, the isthmians were in discontent and demanded changes since the US was intervening in political affairs and asking for more. Americans took this as a lack of desire on part of the Government and Panama people to protect the Canal and the hemisphere. They claimed that people never read the agreements signed and people in power convinced them to fight a patriotic cause of resentment with skillful propaganda (PEOPLE OF PANAMA STOP CANAL PACT E4). As a result, the 1930s Panamanian nationalism emerged. The movement was influenced by the fascist European ideologies. This was when the infamous Arias Brothers, Harmodio Arias Madrid and Arnulfo Arias Madrid, began to change the course of history and fate of the Panamanians from the moment they took the lead of the government and started a movement (La Ciudad De Panamá En La Década De 1930).

The first brother, Harmodio, was a Panamanian politician, diplomat, lawyer, and journalist. Arias graduated from Cambridge University with a degree in Law and Political Science, in light of bringing new ideas and proposals to his homeland. His political career began within the Liberal Party, within which he became a deputy and Minister of the Interior. In 1931, Arias took over the provisional government with his brother by his side after the nationalist revolution of January 2 of the same year, which deposed President Florencio Harmodio Arosemena. The following year he was democratically elected president of Panama. Given his presidency, Arias established the foundation of the Panama America newspaper (Agudo).

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As president, he developed a work plan for public works that promoted the construction of schools, public offices, and sanitary works. In 1933, he made a trip to Washington to negotiate a new treaty on the Panama Canal to lay the foundations of the future Alfaro-Hull Treaty. During this time, the University of Panama was founded in 1935 as the first university in the isthmus. The treaty was in the works to obtain greater benefits for Panamanians. By signing the Alfaro-Hull treaty, he increased his contribution to Panamanian development to $ 430,000 for the use of Panamanian land and succeeded in suppressing the free movement of US troops in Panama. According to the New York Times, American media newspapers were well aware of the anti-American feelings, Panama becoming an American colony, and discrimination against Panamanians. Some congressmen such as Albert J. Engel said the action was brought by “the communist movement” and that a new site for a canal should be in the works (Panama Says No E2). Unfortunately, Harmodio didn’t get reelected in 1936.

Followed by Harmodio’s footsteps, Arnulfo Arias or Fufo Arias attended University of Chicago and Harvard Medical School. Fufo became one of the most influential and renowned characters in Panamanian history. He joined a patriotic organization called Accion Comunal, a revolutionary movement by a group of Panamanian intellectuals supporting interests who objected the social, economic and political differences in the Canal Zone. It rejected the foreign governmental model and did not want American intervention in internal affairs. Fufo believed this created an inability for Panamanians to have opportunities for development (Alfaro).

During the government of his older brother Harmodio (1932-36), he was Head of the Department of Health, Minister of Agriculture and Public Works, and for some time the Ambassador of Panama in Europe. Fufo was three times president of Panama and several times overthrown; from June 1940 to October 1941, November 1949 to May 1951, and finally from October 1 to 12, 1968, when he was overthrown by a coup done by the military state. During his last reign as president, he established the conservative Constitucion de 1904 and decreed in 1941. Followed by this, the Caja del Seguro Social was founded and the law of family heritage was established as well as the right to vote for women. The building of this institution made people for some time to forget the racist bias of which the Panamanian leader was accused (El Presidente De Los Periodos Inconclusos).

He established “El Partido Panameñista” doctrine as the solution, which focused on the research, the study of geography, history, culture, flora, and fauna of Panama. According to Arias, Panameñista teaches that Panamanians must exalt their native language (Spanish), folklore, the work, and craft. As long as other cultures do not overshadow the Panamanian culture. The doctrine is accepting of all foreigners in Panama, but that they should recognize the Panamanian culture first. During these periods of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, El Panameñista is identified with interiorano azuerense but indigenous and Afro-Caribbean cultures were excluded from the 'Panamanian identity.' The doctrine has racist layers materialized in the Constitución de 1941. All in all, it was considered a nationalistic xenophobic party since Arias was well aware of Panama’s immigration situation and the presence of heterogenic foreign groups since the building of the railroad. (Molina, Urania Cecilia, et al.)

Under those circumstances, he was becoming a symbol of the military dictatorship and oligarchy to the point of being compared to Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi Party. By censoring the media, nationalizing businesses and houses, and prohibiting the use of English in the country, Arias put in jeopardy immigrant’s citizenship and civil rights. According to the New York Times, he was a hater and critic of the US policy in Panama on behalf of his nationalist beliefs. Washington avoided comments on the crisis live in Panama since the US was “one of strict nonintervention” (PANAMA ARRESTS FORMER PRESIDENT 5). Fear that the country would fall in the wrong hands, many choose to oppose his way of governing, including his brother. The people did not resonate with his believes and his idea of being the president for perpetuity or in other words a dictator. Arias implemented radical changes and fighting against national police, military at the time (Arias Urges Panamanians To Battle Military Regime 1). He was overthrown by a coup led by Omar Torrijos and marked the start of the military dictatorship in Panama ((El Presidente De Los Periodos Inconclusos).

El Panameñista nationalism at the time had a contradictory character. It was progressive on the one hand and reactionary on the other as it was utilized and controlled under a colonial statute by the US. As an ideological element, it acted to withstand the American cultural shock and fight for canal rights and sovereignty. As a reactionary instrument, it served for racial discrimination against Afro-Panamanians, indigenous communities, and Chinese immigrants to better the race (Beluche). Fufo said the following statement, “That's why we see with horror a black English-speaking cloud occupy new neighborhoods of our main city and spread through its suburbs in Las Sabanas, Pueblo Nuevo, Río Abajo and in each corner of our villages, towns and cities a yellow spot that has crowded with his commercial methods of cuartillo and his diet of rice and 'chop suey' the businesses of the hands the Panamanians ” (Lopez).

This nationalistic movement has influenced the mentality of many Panamanians in the past and now in the present. Many follow the doctrine and party but are not aware of the xenophobic ideals shining through the urge of maintaining the Panamanian identity with the famous phrase “Panamá Es Para Los Panameños'. El Panameñista has shaped the history of the Panamanian government and played an important role in the invasion of the country and other upcoming events. Maybe if Fufo Arias was not so open about his xenophobic and racist morals, people would have had his back, but he was blind-sighted by his ego and power. Nonetheless, his intentions of establishing the Panamanian culture was necessary to unite the people and solidify the identity of those who identified as Panamanians and did not want to feel like a colony once again.

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