The Strange Affair Of The Taking Of The Panama Canal Zone

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Bunau-Varilla made it his business to meet any and all Americans with an interest in isthmian affairs and canal construction. By chance he encountered two of them in Paris at a restaurant one night in 1900. Over the wine and the sauces, the voluble Frenchman poured out his usual stream of pro-Panama propaganda, with that zeal achievable only by those to whom the truth is never in doubt. Soon after, an invitation was arranged for him to come and lecture on the subject in the United States.

Arriving in Cincinnati on January 17, 1901, Bunau-Varilla lectured before that city’s Commercial Club. Then a luncheon for prominent businessmen of Cleveland was set up by his friends, and it was there that he met Herrick. Back in New York, he dashed off a booklet, “Panama or Nicaragua,” personally paying for the printing and distribution of fifteen thousand copies. And then more lectures —in Chicago, New York, and Princeton.

The meeting with Hanna capped these weeks of effort, especially when the Ohio senator made a date with Bunau-Varilla for an interview in Washington. Hanna was a portly Cleveland businessman, and though he was sixty-four years old, his wide eyes and slightly protuberant ears gave him something of the expression of a perpetually attentive adolescent. In 1896, as McKinley’s campaign manager and fund raiser, he had been cruelly caricatured by opposition cartoonists as a fat plutocrat. But by 1901 he was committed to such modern viewpoints as accepting and recognizing labor unions—and empire. And he was one of the undisputed powers in Republican circles.

Therefore, at the interview Bunau-Varilla bombarded him hard. Did the senator know that the Panama route was shorter? Healthier? Easier to complete than Nicaragua, thanks to France’s head start? Above all, safer. Nicaragua (said Bunau-Varilla, brandishing statistics) was notoriously susceptible to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Panama was the obvious route of choice, of necessity, of wisdom, of destiny.

Senator Hanna had no doubt heard it before, from pro-Panama members of the Walker Commission and from Cromwell. But what mattered was not who convinced Hanna but rather that, by April of 1901, he was converted. The friends of Panama had made an impressive gain.

Scene II. Washington, July, 1901

Dr. Carlos Martinez Suva looked briefly out of the window of the Colombian embassy, then turned back to his half-packed suitcases. He would soon be off to the high, thin air of Mexico City as a delegate to the second Pan-American Congress. It would be more pleasant there than in the sultry heat of Washington, and he would escape that undercurrent of patronizing that any cultivated Latin-American diplomat sensed in the capital of the Colossus of the North. No matter how formal the courtesies, one was considered a “dago” ambassador from a powerless and insignificant state.

Nonetheless, Dr. Suva was not happy with his government for removing him from Washington at a crucial stage in his negotiations. It was undoubtedly because he had been telling them things they did not wish to hear—a classic case of punishing the messenger with bad news.

But Suva was no ordinary envoy. A former minister of foreign relations, he was a close friend of Colombia’s president, José Marroquin. Both of them were academics: Suva held a doctorate in political science, while Marroquin, who wrote satire and poetry, was a university professor of literature who had turned to politics late in life. Both men represented a Colombian elite, supported by fortunes earned through ownership (or inheritance) of Colombian coffee plantations and cattle ranches.

Marroquin had been vice president but had taken power in a coup in July, 1900. Though he was automatically assumed by the Americans to be a dictator, he was actually in a precarious position. He took office after two years of a civil war between Colombia’s political parties (one episode in a long history of constitutional turmoil), which had shattered the economy and cost a toll in human life estimated at something between 100,000 and 250,000. With revenues down and costs up, huge deficits had been incurred, leading to the usual inflationary devices that had rapidly made the peso all but worthless. To heal these wounds and ensure tranquillity money was needed. And if the United States would pay for the privilege of completing the canal through Panama, it was urgent to find out how much and set the wheels in motion. To do these things Marroquin had sent Suva to Washington early in 1901.

Silva soon found, in his talks, that he faced most delicate and difficult problems. The United States might in the end close with Nicaragua and offer nothing to the Republic of Colombia or the New Panama Canal Company. Indeed, one argument for Nicaragua was that it was free of the added complication of negotiation with a private concern. Secondly, if the United States did in fact elect to build a Panama canal, it would want a degree of control over the right of way that could be humiliating to Colombia. And thirdly, the United States, in the end, had the power to take what it wanted; making it an offer was something like holding out a morsel to a tiger. The tiger might merely shake its head in the negative, or it might snap off the entire hand.