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COMBAT IN PANAMA : Panamanians Have a Long History of Dependence on U.S. : Diplomacy: Intervention goes back to Teddy Roosevelt's 'big stick' policy.

December 21, 1989|STANLEY MEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Panama was born of American military intervention--President Theodore Roosevelt even advanced his "big stick" policy at its creation--and for 86 years this small nation has served as one of the leading examples of the use of American imperial might in the Western Hemisphere.

Even if welcomed by almost all segments of society within Panama itself, President Bush's dispatch of troops to the isthmus Tuesday night is likely to revive deep-seated resentment within many other Latin Americans toward the gringo intruder that has tried for much of this century to order life in the Americas.

Indeed, some of the best-known imperial words have come out of the Panama experience, the most pungent spoken a few years ago when then-Sen. S. I. Hayakawa of California, talking about the Panama Canal, insisted: "It's ours. We stole it fair and square."

Shortly before the American-supported rebellion that gave Panama independence from Colombia in 1903, Roosevelt was preaching "an old adage which runs, 'Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.' "

The rupture of Panama from Colombia was the first incarnation of the adage.

When Roosevelt later proclaimed that, in the rebellion against Colombia, the people of Panama "rose literally as one man," a skeptical senator remarked: "Yes, and the one man was Roosevelt."

After leaving office, Roosevelt had no modesty about his role in Panama. "I took the isthmus," he boasted to a University of California meeting in Berkeley in 1911.

The history of Panama is a history of dependence upon the United States--a dependence that has sometimes churned into violent resentment. The American removal of Gen. Manuel A. Noriega from power, though it likely reflects the will of the Panamanian people, is sure to reinforce their dependence.

Panama would not be an independent country if Colombia had not balked at ratifying a treaty with the United States over the proposed construction of a canal across the isthmus of Panama, the narrowest neck of land between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

The Spanish-American War had convinced the United States that a canal was vital; it simply took too long for ships to sail around Cape Horn from the one ocean to another. The Colombians wanted more money from the United States and were suspicious that the treaty would not guarantee their sovereignty over the land around the canal.

The Colombians might have been soothed with more diplomacy and tact, but Roosevelt was infuriated by their stubbornness. He described the Colombians as a "corrupt pithecoid community" and encouraged a rebellion by the province of Panama.

On Nov. 3, 1903, an American warship sent its sailors ashore to fight Colombian troops, and the Panamanians declared their independence. Within a week, nine other American warships arrived in Panamanian waters. There is little doubt that the rebellion would have been crushed without this American power standing by.

The United States quickly recognized the independent government of Panama and negotiated a new treaty that allowed the United States to dig its canal across the isthmus. The canal was built in 10 years in what was regarded as one of the great engineering feats of the era.

Tropical illness took a great toll during construction. Although new Army sanitation techniques improved health conditions, more than 400 workers died in the last year of work before the first ship moved through the canal in 1914.

From independence in 1903 until the late 1930s, Panama was little more than a protectorate of the United States. America dispatched troops often, occupying the United Fruit Co. banana plantations in Chiraqui in 1918, for example, after rioting broke out there, and sending troops to Panama City in 1925 to protect the Panamanian president from rebellion. The United States even controlled the immigration policy of Panama, ensuring that many English-speaking West Indians could enter the country to work on the canal.

This kind of direct control ended after World War II, but the United States still acted like a colonial power in the U.S. Canal Zone, servicing it with its own police, shops, post office and courts. Panamanians speeding on Canal Zone roads would be ticketed by American police and brought before American judges, even though they were driving in their own country. The contrast between the middle-class American wealth inside the Canal Zone and the Panamanian slums just outside contributed to smoldering resentment.

That resentment erupted in rioting in 1964 when Canal Zone officials refused to allow Panamanian youngsters to hoist a Panamanian flag on a pole in front of a Canal Zone school. Bloodshed led to the negotiations that produced the Canal Zone treaty, which will turn the canal over to the Panamanians at the end of the century.

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