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Conferencia Sobre Diciembre 20 1989

Invited by Universidad de Panama in the context of the First University Forum: “Impact and Consecuences of the Invasion of Panama on December 20, 1989: Historical, economical and political aspects”.

by Eduardo Morgan Jr.

December, 2009

In ten days, on December 20, we will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the bloody and painful armed intervention by the United States, and on the 31st of this month, we will celebrate a decade of being a fully independent country, masters of our wealth and free of foreign military bases.

Today, I take this honorable invitation from the President of the University to review our relationship with the U.S. Empire, analyze how it seized Panama and what the common struggle of several generations, and of those which led them to that glorious December 31, 1999, was, and how we prevented the events we remember today from spoiling that date.

History books, and those that chart the evolution of the planet, speak of the importance of our Isthmus, which, as it emerged from the ocean, changed Earth’s geography, climate and flora and fauna. The geography and location of our Isthmus as a narrow border between the two great seas made Panama one of the most strategic places for military powers and global trade. Let us remember the founding of Panama City, the first in the American Pacific, as well as the Portobelo fairs, during the Spanish Empire. Let us also remember the Crossings Road, which utilized the Chagres route; the Royal Road, which started in Portobelo; and the Mallarino-Bidlack Treaty, the nascent American Empire’s first step, when Panama was a Colombian province, to ensure the use of the Isthmus for its expansion, which in turn led to our birth as an independent republic under the protection of the Empire.

Panamanian patriots were confident that independence would ensure canal construction and the rebirth of the nation as a major world communications hub, with great commercial development and prosperity for all Panamanians. Hence, the important provision for us in the treaty the United States imposed, through collusion between John Hay and Philippe Bunau-Varilla, was the one that excluded from the grant Panama and Colon, the terminal cities of the Canal, as well as their ports.

To the great surprise of Panamanians, the U.S. immediately took the first steps to establish a colony. It was not a concession, a Free Zone inside Panama for the exclusive purpose of building, operating, and defending the Canal, as was interpreted by Panamanians, but a colony, plain and simple, with its own laws, taxes, courts, post offices, third-party business authorized by the Canal Zone’s new government, and even with foreign consulates to promote international trade.

The American attitude provoked an immediate reaction by the Panamanian government with arguments based on the letter and spirit of the treaty. This interpretation never changed during the Hay-Bunau-Varilla years. On January 19, 1904, the nefarious Bunau-Varilla signed, on John Hay’s request, the ignominious letter that, with the pretext of interpreting the treaty, snatched from us our ports and turned the cities of Panama and Colon into bona-fide ghettos. The ports of Panama and Colon were always the current ones, where merchant ships anchored, and the piers were those in La Boca, the Canal’s pacific terminus. In Colon it was the same. But Bunau-Varilla and Hay, in order to wrest them from Panama, arranged it so that in Panama it would be the current Fiscal Pier, only used by sloops and in high tide, and in Colon, something similar. This not only constituted theft, but a cruel joke. In the case of Panama City and Colón, the letter signed by Bunau-Varilla said: “In my opinion the term ‘Panama City and Colon’ corresponds to the real space effectively covered by the two clusters of houses, and cannot be understood to relate to a defined administrative area covering a theoretical surface.” He added: “I believe the U.S. is not obligated to cede one inch beyond the actual area covered by the clusters in both cases and that no protest may emerge if it prevented a suburban area to be added to the actual area for the cities’ further development.

This letter, which officially stripped us of access to the sea and relegated the terminal cities to simple and poor ghettos, was unknown to the Panamanian government and was used by Hay as a tease when the Panamanian Ambassador, Jose Domingo de Obaldia, delivered on August 11, 1904, the extensive formal protest over the occupation of the ports, tariff setting, and the establishment of customs and post offices in the Canal Zone, making it clear the reasons why those actions were in violation of the treaty.

Hay’s cynical response begins: “Before I provide an official response I ask if your comments were written taking into account Mr. Bunau-Varilla’s note of January 19 last, on the issue of the interpretation of certain points of the treaty. For your convenience I enclose a copy of it. “

With this, the new republic’s dreams of prosperity begin to fade, and so begins the struggle for the recovery of the benefits from our geographical position.

There was no desire on the part the United States for Panama to benefit from the existence of the Canal. They never involved Panamanians in the work of the canal and the contempt they expressed against our countrymen was offensive. It’s shocking to read the book PRIZE POSSESSION, by English teacher John Major, which is based exclusively on U.S. sources, including files from the former Canal Zone, as well as the book THE CANAL BUILDERS: Making America’s Empire at the Panama Canal, by Julie Greene, University of Maryland history professor, published this year, to realize the selfishness, ill treatment, discrimination, and, often, contempt of the United States towards Panama and Panamanians.

The great power’s selfishness reached incredible heights when the Defense Department asked the State and Treasury Departments to avoid, at all costs, procurement by Panama of a loan with the guarantee of the so-called posterity millions BECAUSE FOR THE CANAL’S DEFENSE IT WOULD BE INCONVINIENT FOR THE UNITED STATES THAT PANAMA POSSESS GOOD ROADS AND INFRASTRUCTURE. This was a project conceived in 1911 to build a road or railroad that would connect Panama City with the city of David. At that time the only existing means of communication in the Isthmus was the railroad between Panama and Colon. It is depressing to read in the annals of American diplomacy about the efforts and threats by the U.S. ambassador in Panama to force compliance with his instructions. But that’s not all. History recalls U.S. opposition to a candidate for President because of his black ancestry. This also revealed the racial discrimination that prevailed in the Canal Zone, which was not officially abolished until the Remon-Eisenhower Treaty in 1955, although, as Major states, it was promptly ignored by Zonians.

The Great Power completely restricted Panama’s access to the sea. We were a landlocked country and could not even build a road or railway between the two oceans, for through the Treaty they granted themselves the exclusive monopoly of inter-oceanic communication. The only scraps they gave us were selling our agricultural products to the area’s occupants, though even on this they placed huge barriers. Over time Panamanian protests began to bear fruit and, taking advantage of FDR’s Good Neighbor policy, the Arias-Roosevelt Treaty of 1936 was signed, eliminating the protectorate and the right of intervention; it was also agreed that the canal was finished and therefore the United States would not continue to occupy land at will under the guise of Canal construction, operation, or defense. Furthermore, the annuity was adjusted from $250 thousand to $430 thousand, taking into account the removal of the gold standard.

With the Treaty of 1955, the annuity was raised to $1 million 930 thousand, i.e. an additional $1 million 500 thousand, but this increase was nullified in part by their demand for the elimination of the 75% tax on liquor sales to the Canal Zone (worth $900.00). They also renounced their monopoly on inter-oceanic roads and rails.

While Panama maintained pressure for a greater share in the profits from the Canal and recognition of its sovereignty over the Zone, the world witnessed an important evolution towards the right of countries to benefit from their natural resources. These changes are evidenced in the oil concessions in Mexico, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia and, of greater interest to Panama, in what happened with the Suez Canal. From a tiny share, oil-rich countries managed to acquire majority stakes in profits, and the same happened with the Suez Canal, which was eventually nationalized by Egypt in 1956 under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

On November 3, 1959, a mass planting of Panamanian flags took place in the Canal Zone, which caused serious riots when Zonian police intervened. However, the seeds were already sown and they sprouted that same year, with Eisenhower’s statement recognizing nominal sovereignty and the right to a visible sign, a flag, at a site within the Zone. Our flag was raised for the first time, alongside the U.S. flag, in Shaler triangle, next to the National Assembly, on Canal Zone grounds.

In 1961, President Robert F. Chiari pressured John F. Kennedy for a new treaty that would eliminate the perpetuity, recognize its full sovereignty in the Zone, return the ports to their jurisdiction, and require the flag on ships transiting the Canal and in all public places where the American flag was raised.

An event of utmost importance for the Panamanian struggle was the famous United Nations Resolution of December 14, 1962, which recognized the permanent sovereignty of peoples and nations over their natural resources. These events led to new efforts in Panama for the United States to recognize and value their rights as the sovereign over Canal territory.

January 9, 1964 marked the beginning of the end of the struggle for our independence. The heroism displayed by the students of the National Institute, the popular uprising in spite of police and military aggression, the dead and wounded, the destruction of property, and President Chiari’s breaking of relations with the Empire, an unheard of act of protest, internationalized the problem of Panama. The United States could no longer hide the inequities committed against Panama, much less in the middle of the Cold War in which they played the good guy and the Soviet Union the evil empire.

Negotiations that began during the administration of Marcus A. Robles resulted in three draft treaties, which meant a radical change the U.S. position of maintaining their rights in perpetuity at all costs. A date of termination was agreed, along with a greater Panamanian share in the benefits and participation in management. There was talk of a sea level canal that would still be administered by the U.S. and the reversion to Panama of the locks canal. An important caveat was that the American military presence was to be maintained in perpetuity in Panama, and that the sea-level canal would not be ceded until 2067.

October 11, 1968 is a key date in our history. Contrary to what its detractors say, dictatorship became the genesis of Panamanian democracy. The coup was the result of an election scandal in which unelected deputies and councilors were appointed and their credentials delivered the day they took office. Until then, there was no democracy in Panama because we had no electoral process to ensure its purity. Fraud was the buzzword. The new government’s first act was to appoint a new electoral court, people who were trusted by Panamanian society, as well as an Advisory Board to draft a new Electoral Code so as to ensure the purity of suffrage and the electoral process. This Board was composed of notable men led by an exceptional figure: the jurist Richard J. Alfaro.

Omar Torrijos became the leader of the new government. His overriding goal was the complete independence of Panama and the recovery of the Canal and the usurped geographical position. For this purpose he set a deadline: the end of the century. He surrounded himself with the best minds, regardless of whether they belonged the left or the right. He reformed Panamanian society to create a strong middle class. With the 505 municipal representatives, he granted the people a stake in power. Farmers and workers became his concern, and so did education, as he strongly supported the (Institute for the Formation and Use of Human Resources) IFARHU and the Santa Maria la Antigua University: the National University needs competition, he would say. He understood that Panama is, first and foremost, a service economy, and created the International Financial Center. He provided his full support to businessmen and to the Free Zone. He reformed our merchant marine to make it more respected and to increase its contributions to the national economy. He created the (Institute for Hydraulic Resources and Electrification) IRHE and promoted hydroelectric plants, envisioning the future growth of the country. The development was amazing and the country had a new look. On the international arena, he endorsed movements that sought to end the dictatorships that subjugated and impoverished Central American countries. He reestablished relations with Cuba and created the Contadora group, which sought to bring peace to the area. Gradually he earned the respect and support of the Presidents of neighboring democratic countries: Costa Rica, Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico. He helped consolidate the independence of Belize and earned the respect of European countries and members of the Third World. He achieved worldwide attention with the Security Council meeting held in Panama in 1973, in which the U.S. vetoed a resolution that recognized Panamanian sovereignty over all its territory. All this was part of his strategy for success in his primary mission: the complete independence of our country. Torrijos managed to turn the issue of Panama into the cause of the entire region, and achieved the support of major European countries and Israel in its preparatory stage for the final treaty with the U.S. Along the way he earned the respect of Jimmy Carter and several other American leaders, which was key to the final outcome of the Panamanian drama. He persuaded the American military that the canal was indefensible and that its protection was guaranteed by the affection Panamanians have for it. He also convinced the U.S. that what mattered was not owning the Canal but being able to use it.

If anything influenced the U.S. to finally agree to give back the Canal, it was Torrijos’s message that his generation was ready to perform the ultimate sacrifice to achieve full sovereignty. Torrijos was serious and the world was duly informed of the inequities in Panama, so that the cost of future violence in Panama, where the status quo maintained, would be too high for U.S. prestige and its good name. Having persuaded two-thirds of the U.S. Senate that doing justice by Panama was worth more than jeopardizing their political survival was a historical phenomenon that will hardly ever be repeated. One day the country will recognize Omar Torrijos for the outstanding figure he was.

To achieve this he was conferred special powers for six years. He wanted nothing more than the country’s perfect democratization. He ordered the withdrawal of the military, and this is so true that he did not attend the flag-raising ceremony in Ancon Hill when the treaties came into effect. He did not wish to overshadow the President, but instead that the Panamanian nation receive the message. The political party was founded to contest the coming elections, with direct voting for President, and he made clear that the National Guard would not be belligerent. “Elections have to be won with votes, not boots,” he said. Torrijos was well aware of his environment, the universe of those around him. So when talking about his retirement from the Guard, he let it be known that when he left he would take all his staff with him. He did not wish to leave behind any temptations and was convinced that the country was now ready for full democracy.

His death disrupted the road map to democracy. As he expected, the colonels’ ambitions corroded democracy and even their own National Guard. The country, admired for its epic and victorious struggle against the Empire, became a pariah nation. Left to govern was a dictator with no desire other than money and power and, to make matters worst, on the CIA payroll. He felt secure and thought he could do as he pleased. Panama took a lead role in the Iran-Contra scandal. He supported and trained them. All this to please the CIA and gain its support. It was a total negation, the antithesis of Torrijos. But the dictator debased himself. A horrible crime, the murder by beheading of a beloved and well-known physician, marked the beginning of his end. American public opinion turned against him. The U.S. State Department negotiated with him to leave the country under its protection, but he declined because he believed he was protected by the CIA. Then came the internal conspiracies and the dictator degraded himself even further with the murder of officers involved in the coup, who had spared his life. Before this, the Panamanian people and had retaken the democratic path and decided to remove him from power through the May elections, in which more than 80% voted against him. Realizing the catastrophe, he destroyed, yes, destroyed the elections. He declared himself head of government and provoked the bloody intervention that we remember today.

Our relationship with the United States does not end with the recovery of the Canal and the departure of its army from Panama. This relationship is maintained, not only through the Neutrality Treaty, an agreement necessary to regain our full sovereignty and peaceful enjoyment of our geographical position, the source of our wealth. The fact is that the U.S. is and will continue to be, at least for this generation, the world’s leading power, not only in the military and economic fields, but also in cultural and scientific ones. The secret of its hegemony lies in its great universities that educate the country’s elite, without wealth being a deciding factor. Not only did they land on the moon over 40 years ago, but they still win most of the Nobel Prizes in the sciences and arts. Yet, like all empires, it puts its interests first. In Panama we know this better than anyone. During its dominion of the Canal, its selfishness towards Panama was overwhelming. After the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, it never acknowledged or tried to clean up the toxic waste in San Jose Island, nor the mines and explosives that contaminated several Canal Zone sites, which they used for military exercises. Today it has its sights set on our financial center and our system of corporations, and to pressure us they utilize the OECD Cartel and non-ratification of the FTA. They are trying to eliminate the influence of global organizations like the IMF and the UN through the creation of the G20, where only countries they invite may participate. So we must be aware and prepared, for the fight is not over.

However, let us not forget there are in American society organizations and people with deeply rooted democratic beliefs and respect for right of the weakest. Without a Jimmy Carter and the 68 Senators who, ignoring their reelection, chose the political risk of doing justice by Panama, the story would have been very different. During the Panama Canal transition, the actions of then acting Secretary of the Army and Chairman of the Board of the Canal, Joe Reeder, were key to put the Zonians back in their place.

What I wish to emphasize tonight is the common thread in the struggle of all generations, from the founding fathers to Omar Torrijos, including Guillermo Endara, to achieve total independence and the recovery of our wealth and geographical position, both usurped by the great military and economic power. That common thread which led the founding fathers to not give into threats of returning us to Colombia, and which forced President Theodore Roosevelt to send to Panama his Secretary of War and later President William H. Taft to sign a modus vivendi with Panama; which inspired Harmodio Arias to demand and ensure that the U.S. would not continue doing what it pleased in Panama on the pretext of building and defending the Canal; which inspired President Remon to yell: “neither millions nor charity, we want justice”; which prompted the patriots led by Aquilino Boyd and Julio Linares to plant flags in the Colonial Zone; which beat in the hearts of the Martyrs of January and their fellow students to hoist our symbol, fearless of the confrontation with a colonial police; which led thousands of Panamanians in Panama and Colon to invade seized land without regard for the bullets of the U.S. Army; which led to Robert F. Chiari to sever relations with the great Power; which led Omar Torrijos on a generational struggle to set the date for the birth of our total independence, for the delivery our Canal, for the departure of the bases occupied by the world’s most powerful army; which enlightened Guillermo Endara to refuse to negotiate military bases after the bloody intervention that put him in office; this common thread, gentlemen, is called Dignity, and we must always keep it as guide in any negotiations or confrontation with the powerful.

Returning to the anniversary that brings us here today, we must take the occasion to request the National Government to once and for all identify our dead, and that this task be included as one of the objectives of the next census, so as to remember those who have shed their blood to refine our independence. Their names must be engraved with a fine steel chisel on a wall surrounded by a park so that each December 20th, not just their families, but all citizens may honor them as they deserve it, whether they were unsuspecting victims or those who fought against the intervention.

Our history, like that of many countries of this hemisphere, is littered with acts that violate our sovereignty, with interventions, annexations, blockades and invasions. The important thing is that the strength of our principles, the struggle for national identity, based on our dignity and pride as Panamanians, and the defense of the values we grew up on and in which we believe, remain the elements that unite us and with which we identify ourselves in the building a promising destiny. This will be our legacy to future generations.

Thank you very much.

Eduardo Morgan Jr.

December 10, 2009

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