Panama: Made In U.S.A.

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Panama was somewhat isolated from Bogotá and nursed secessionist sentiments. Among the potential rebels in the small Panamanian elite class was a seventy-year-old railroad-company physician, Dr. Manuel Amador Guerrero. Dr. Amador, as he was called, was eager to share in the business boom that the canal’s construction would bring to Panama. Colombia’s decision outraged the doctor and his company colleagues profoundly. It appears—the details were purposely obscured—that they organized a revolutionary junta and made contact with William N. Cromwell. And on August 26, 1903, Dr. Amador boarded a steamer and came to New York.

The doctor had an appointment with Cromwell—allegedly to secure help in raising six million dollars for arms for the insurgents. But Cromwell learned that Colombia was aware of the plot and was having Amador tailed, so, with lawyerlike caution, he disappeared on a business trip to Paris. However, the disappointed Dr. Amador received a message that Mr. Bunau-Varilla was also in town and wished to see him.

Bunau-Varilla sympathized with the doctor’s distress at finding William Cromwell—and his six million—gone. “Let me reflect,” he said. “I shall try to find a solution.” Then he took off for Washington and a round of meetings, culminating in an interview with Theodore Roosevelt on October 9 and one with Hay a week later. On Saturday, October 17, Bunau-Varilla met Amador and overwhelmed the old man with brisk instructions to take home to his junta. There would be no six million, no long armed struggle; but if the plotters would “act” quickly, the United States would be supportive. How, Amador asked, would they “act” with five hundred Colombian troops on the isthmus? Simple, said Bunau-Varilla. They could be bribed. A hundred thousand dollars would do it, and Bunau-Varilla would personally guarantee to provide the money out of his own pocket, if need be. The Frenchman promised to provide Amador with a flag, a constitution, and a declaration of independence, which he would work up over the weekend. One more thing: The new government’s first act should be to appoint him minister plenipotentiary in Washington. The date of the revolution was set for November 3.

The revolution began on Tuliesday at precisely 6:00 P.M. By 1:00 P.M. on Friday the United States had recognized Panama.

On the appointed day, a Tuesday, the machinery began to clank. Precisely at 6:00 P.M., having successfully bribed the Colombian garrison as well as the police and fire brigades, the junta proclaimed Panama’s independence. Shortly thereafter the USS Nashville hove in view in Colon Harbor. By 1:00 P.M. on Friday the United States had recognized Panama.

The story was still not quite done. Over the ensuing weekend the new, provisional Panamanian government decided to send a three-man delegation (Dr. Amador, Carlos Arosemena, and Federico Boyd) to Washington with “instructions” for Minister Bunau-Varilla. Instructions indeed! Bunau-Varilla was vexed but equal to the occasion. Swiftly he saw Secretary Hay once more and told him that speed was of the essence.

Hay got the message. Almost at once he authorized Bunau-Varilla to draw up a treaty. And Bunau-Varilla proceeded to draft one so breathtakingly generous that he knew Hay and the Congress would do anything to speed its completion. It gave Panama the same amount of money that Colombia had rejected. It also promised to widen the Canal Zone to ten miles. Panama would “grant” the zone “in perpetuity.” The United States would have “all the rights, power and authority within the zone...which [it] would possess and exercise if it were the sovereign of the territory...to the entire exclusion of the exercise by the Republic of Panama of any such sovereign rights, power or authority.”

Delightedly, Hay concurred in all this while the Panamanian emissaries, completely uninformed, were at sea on the way to New York. At 6:40 P.M. on November 18, while a train carried the Panamanians toward Washington, the treaty was signed in Hay’s home. Bunau-Varilla, happy with the result of his work, went down to the railroad station to meet Amador and Boyd and tell them what he had done. He recalled that the doctor “nearly fainted upon the platform.”

Small wonder. It took three-quarters of a century before changing times and ideas could get the treaty replaced by one that will restore Panamanian sovereignty eleven years from now. That is why even anti-Noriega Panamanians would not welcome Americans in arms on their shores, and that is why the current American government is, for now at least, willing to respect those feelings.