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Which came first, Panama or its canal?
( 2003-11-03 16:03) (Agencies)

As Panama turns 100 Monday, a question lingers: Which came first, Panama or its canal?

Historians argue Panama was destined for independence even without American help, but U.S. influence since the country's birth has shaped its history and character.

It was just three years ago the United States ended a military presence that began with the battleships that kept Colombian troops at bay on Nov. 3, 1903, the day Panamanians declared their separation from Colombia.

A Panama Canal employee walks across a bridge over a gate of the Miraflores Locks Saturday, Oct. 4, 2003. A series of lock compartments fills with water, lifting the ship 26 meters above sea level.  [AP]
Over the next 93 years, the United States put down its imprint, often to the resentment of Panamanians. It built the Panama Canal, strengthened the canal's strategic position in the hemisphere and used Panamanian land as a training ground for its troops. At one point, Washington had 130 military installations here.

The U.S.-run Canal Zone became a "Little America" culturally and racially separate from Panama, and Washington approved Panamanian governments. The waterway, which opened Aug. 15, 1914, was administered by a Washington-appointed commission.

The result is that Panamanians are still trying to shake off a "black legend" that portrays their country as the product of U.S. expansionism, says Miguel Antonio Bernal, a university professor and lawyer.

"We have to resolve our internal contradictions," he said. "What are we going to do now that we have our territorial integrity? Are we to be at the service of the canal or vice versa?"

He feels the centennial celebrations are too "light," saying Panama's leaders missed "an opportunity to establish the basis for a true national identity."

Monday's festivities include parades, a meeting of presidents from the region, and other special guests, including Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The long U.S. presence was cemented 15 days after Panama's declaration of independence. Phillipe Bunau Varilla, a Frenchman acting as an agent for Panama, was given authority by Panama's government to seek U.S. support for the country's new independence. But he went beyond that authority and signed a treaty giving the United States a 10-mile-wide strip from the Atlantic to the Pacific for building the canal.

Bunau Varilla then presented the deal to Panamanian leaders, who had little choice but to accept it even though some felt it violated Panamanian sovereignty.

Historian Celestino Andres Arauz says the reaction of Panama's first president, Manuel Amador Guerrero, was: "At least we won't have yellow fever anymore."

The United States eliminated malaria and yellow fever and created a Center for the Investigation of Tropical Diseases, installing sewer systems and water pipes that made Panama the first country in the region where it was safe to drink out of the tap.

The treaty stated the United States would "guarantee and maintain Panama's sovereignty" and gave Washington the right to intervene in Panama to maintain public order.

It was not until 1921 that Colombia finally recognized Panama's independence in exchange for $21 million paid by the U.S. government. That same year, Panama adopted the dollar as its official currency.

In more recent times. many Panamanians bridled at the power of the Americans. In January 1964, Panamanian students tried to enter the Canal Zone and clashed with police and U.S. troops. Nearly 20 Panamanians died.

Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos and President Carter signed new canal treaties in 1977 calling for the United States to leave Dec. 31, 2000, and turn over administration of the canal to Panama.

"The United States left, but its ghost stayed," said Andres Arauz.

The U.S. presence kept Panama free of the social upheavals that wracked other Central American countries. Panama now has a banking system similar to that of Switzerland, its free trade zone does a brisk business, and the canal brings in more than $900 million a year.

But the country also is branching out beyond the canal. Income from tourism, which was ignored by military regimes of the past, now rivals the canal's revenues.

Although the U.S. troops left, the American shadow isn't gone. The Carter treaties include a pact allowing the United States to intervene if the canal is threatened.

On Dec. 20, 1989, the first President Bush sent 24,000 soldiers into Panama to oust dictator Manuel Noriega. Government officials have said 500 people died, but human rights groups estimate the number is much higher.

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