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(English) History Shall Not Repeat Itself

By Eduardo Morgan Jr.

In the month in which we commemorate our most important national holidays, there is an infamous date that we must never forget: November 18, 1903, the day of the signing of the Hay – Bunau-Varilla Treaty. 

Philippe Bunau-Varilla, Panama’s first ambassador to Washington, was an extraordinary man. The book ‘Con Ardientes Fulgores de Gloria’ describes in detail his personality, his many achievements, his passion for the construction of the Canal, on which worked as a young man, as well as the help he provided Manuel Amador Guerrero so that U.S. support would ensure Panama’s much desired independence. It is precisely these attributes that make his actions so heinous: negotiating, in haste and in secret, the treaty that turned us into a protectorate, with a foreign colony in the middle of our territory, and depriving us so infamously, for nearly a century, the enjoyment of our geographical position.

 Panamanians had hoped that the Herran – Hay Treaty, already approved by the U.S. Senate, would be the one signed with Panama. Yet, Bunau-Varilla was only interested in building the Canal, not in the fate of Panama. The Frenchman and John Hay forgot the Herran – Hay Treaty and, instead, expeditiously drafted and signed – at night and in Hay’s home, to present to the Panamanian envoys Federico Boyd and Manuel Amador Guerrero as a fait accompli – a new, much more onerous text than the treaty negotiated by Colombia. Herran – Hay guaranteed Colombia’s sovereignty, and on all salient points the word sovereignty was the most often repeated.

 On the contrary, in Hay – Bunau-Varilla sovereignty is mentioned only to say that, in the Canal Zone, the U.S. would have all the rights of a sovereign state and Panama would be completely excluded from them. Even more perversely, it gave the United States the right of eminent domain over the entire country. It could, in the exercise of this right, take any part of Panama’s territory on the grounds that it was needed for the Canal. The 10-kilometer Canal Zone was widened to 10 miles, increasing it by 60%. The U.S. was also granted a monopoly on inter-oceanic communication across Panama and the right to establish military bases. While the Herran – Hay Treaty provided for the involvement of Colombian judges and the creation of mixed tribunals, Bunau-Varilla signed a treaty under which Panamanians would be judged by U.S. judges in the Canal Zone.

 The Hay – Bunau-Varilla Treaty was the total denial of the equity that should prevail in international law, becoming the model, par excellence, of an unfair treaty. It was so predatory that it became a permanent embarrassment for the great world power, an embarrassment that only grew with the advancement of humanity towards a more just world and the United Nations’ recognition of the inalienable right of States over their natural resources. There can be no doubt that, in the end, the treaty’s injustice worked in our favor, for it was the mediate cause of reducing its perpetuity to less than 100 years, as well as of the signing of the Torrijos – Carter Treaties, which culminated the generational struggle for the improvement of our independence and the recovery of our greatest asset, our geographic location.

In 1903, the fledgling republic was left with no other choice but to ratify the treaty signed by Bunau-Varilla. History shows he was instrumental in applying U.S. pressure over Panama, even forcing us to have the iniquitous treaty, as if it were a beauty queen, paraded throughout all of the Republic’s municipalities to be ratified by the Municipal Councils, with praises to Bunau-Varilla and United States.

However, the governing Junta was left with the consolation that, since the cities of Panama and Colon, and their harbors, were excluded from the grant, they at least ensured that shipping would be the country’s economic driver. How wrong they were!

From January 19, by way of a letter to Hay, our Ambassador, Bunau Varilla, under the pretext of interpreting the Treaty and to dispel any doubts in the U.S. Senate, had not only given away our ports, but had also effectively turned the cities of Panama and Colon into ghettos, so implementing the great scam that has never been recorded in our history books: as interpreted by Bunau-Varilla, the ports that the treaty accorded us were the pier and the public market, with the cities comprising only the areas already built.

Thus, Panama and Colon were completely surrounded by the Canal Zone. It was ironic when Bunau-Varilla stated, in his interpretation letter, that it would be left to the United States to cede the areas for the cities’ growth. It never did, and 1914 it was necessary to exchange the banks of Lake Gatun, five miles to each side of the Canal, for the community of Las Sabanas. This way, we at least could travel to Chepo without having to go through the Canal Zone.

This ignominious letter should be taught as part of our history. Panamanians must always remember it and remain alert, lest we suffer a similar fate to that of our founding fathers.

In exchange for the Canal, Bunau-Varilla castrated our geographical position and handed the U.S. the future development of our country.

Hopefully we will never again falter under foreign pressures, putting at risk the economic future of our nation. If we do, the struggle and sacrifice of so many generations to regain our sovereignty and independence would loose validity as the most dignified and beautiful chapter in our history, and we would return to the infamous time when our country yielded to others.

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