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Betraying the dream: Let's face the truth about Panama as a 'sovereign nation'

Let’s take a hard and honest look at some of our key mistakes in
Panama. So far, such glimpses as we have been allowed have certainly
failed to examine the case from the perspective of the entire century,
as one in which America rose to world dominance, or from the perspective
of the approaching century in which the questions of who and what form
of government will dominate are still — despite what some say glibly
about the end of the Cold War — unsettled. What answers will there be
in Panama?

Our first mistake was made by President Teddy Roosevelt, the Rough
Rider himself. He decided to back a group of provincial insurgents who
wished to separate themselves from a remote, unresponsive and oppressive
government in Bogotá and establish their own nation, independent of
Colombia, which was treating them no better than the original Spanish
colonial overlords.

They were seeking to follow the original dream of Simon Bolivar and
of San Martin to be truly liberated and free. They had already tried to
achieve independence, at that point, some two hundred times before.
With our “big stick” behind them, they finally succeeded. But this only
came about because the Colombian Senate had repudiated a treaty with the
U.S. to build the Canal. As a result Roosevelt decided to back the
long-held aspirations of the Panamanian insurgents against the Colombian

Despite the revisionists who wish to fit this into then-dominant
empire building on the European model, a closer examination reveals that
it was something else altogether — an echo of our own rebellion against
our colonial overlords in Britain and certainly of the revolutions led
by Bolivar and San Martin against the Spanish empire. This was a
laudable purpose, but, with only about 250,000 people at the time, the
Colombian province of Panama was not a good candidate to become a nation
state on its own without significant further development parallel to our
own. The ensuing history has demonstrated this on more than one

These were brave patriots of what was to become Panama, make no
mistake. They did not see us as bringing them into an empire. In fact,
they wanted very much to be like us in what they saw as the parallel
vision of the great liberators of Latin America. We now have come to
the final betrayal of their dream with the new isolationism of Bill
Clinton, who turns his back on their tradition of aspiring to
constitutional republicanism even as he seeks continually to undermine
our own founding document and vision.

Looking back with 20/20 hindsight we can see that it would have been
much better to create in Panama a territory such as Hawaii, bringing it
more into the political structure of the U.S. while it developed itself
amidst the great changes of this century. With this choice we could
have kept open the option for ultimate independence under our protective
shield, statehood, or some intermediate status of alliance with the
U.S. In the early flush of our own success, we thought that any group
of people wanting to throw off an oppressive and distant government
could create a “little America” if we just gave them a little bit of
armed backing. It hasn’t worked that way. By simply assuming that
Panama would become a nation without the kind of relationship we had
established earlier with Hawaii, we failed, in the end, to provide the
people with any option that was realistic.

At the point where Jimmy Carter rushed in with his hasty treaties, we
had worked not only with Panama but with other nations of the hemisphere
to attempt to remedy this lack. President Bush, however, seemed intent
on throwing away that effort in favor of the tainted results leading to
Operation Just Cause in response to Noriega’s threat to the Canal,
followed by threats to it by the extremely corrupt and extremely
sophisticated penetration of the corrupt Balladares administration in
Panama by China through 1997’s Panamanian Law No. 5 — which is clearly
a threat to the Canal but has the cooperation of President Clinton in
every respect.

After the first passage of Law No. 5 in Panama there were a steady
succession of “baloney slicing” additions to it, each featuring further
combined efforts between Balladares, who was a personal friend of Bill
Clinton, and the Hutchison Whampoa efforts on behalf of the Chinese
interests — particularly the China Overseas Shipping Company, the
commercial maritime arm of the Peoples’ Liberation Army. In each
instance the envelope was pushed to see if the Panamanians would accept
it. The Chinese and Balladares knew that Bill Clinton would be able to
keep the American people in the dark, but with the Panamanian people it
was not so easy. They could see.

An example was the joint venture between Balladares cronies and
Hutchison Whampoa interests to take over former U.S. Albrook Military
Airfield. It was the people of Panama who loudly raised the question of
why a ports company (Hutchison Whampoa had created a subsidiary Panama
ports company) needed a military airfield. The Chinese communists then
backed down — at least temporarily, just waiting for America to bow out
of the picture.

The second error was related to the first. The Canal Zone, as
created, was a culture of white “Zonians.” The Zonians immediately
developed a culture of their own, apart from the rest of the Panamanians
— reflecting the thoughts and mores of those servicing a giant public
works project, albeit a vital one, apart from public of the land where
it was located. Their privileges were then handed down from one
generation to the next.

Those were the days of a heady progressivism, when it was thought
that a dose of self-governance and democracy was a cure-all for any who
aspired to become a nation. It was an era in which Republicans were
seen as “owning” the minority vote, before Woodrow Wilson resegregated
America in the name of liberalism, the Klan reached the zenith of its
power, and the scene was set for the American civil rights revolution of
the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The statist racism of Wilson and later the
southern wing of Franklin Roosevelt’s coalition was tailor-made to make
the situation worse, not better. Instead of an integration of diverse
cultures, we fostered segregation, even as we showed them the American
dream in operation.

But, as always in the Caribbean and Central America, things were not
as simple as they seemed. Inside the Zone were many Caribbean blacks
from the English speaking islands who played a huge role in building the
Canal. They became part of the “white” Zone because they were English
speaking, and their descendants have gone through the same
discrimination and dispossession as the white Zonians. The Panamanians
themselves, in the more complex racial stratifications of the Caribbean,
are often viewed by large segments of the Colombian population as dark.

This white country within a country (in a manner of thinking, if not
of actual composition), as the century marched forward with revolutions
and the dying of empires and the casting off of traditional governments
in favor of radical experiments, slowly became a political time bomb
that played directly into the hands of those who were determined to
bring down everything that this country represented by way of a promise
for all mankind. The Zone became increasingly a fenced-off enclave some
10 miles wide and 50 miles long that was isolated from the host nation
around it.

Ironically, the Panamanians, while seeing the Zone and observing its
mores, became, more so than their brethren in the rest of Central
America, entrepreneurial in the American Sense of Uncle Sam and Yankee
trading. They became deal makers and seizers of opportunity, often
finding all sorts of entrepreneurial nooks and crannies created by the
huge traffic flowing through the Canal and the businesses attendant upon
it, such as ships stores, cargo financing, servicing the huge support
bureaucracy it created — even as the opportunity for those who would
exploit “racial” envy increased. Panama’s per capita income, although
low, became the highest in the region.

Then came our civil rights revolution. It was rooted and based, as
expressed by our Supreme Court, in our Constitution as looked at anew.
We had to face the social reality that “separate but equal” was not and
could not be “equal.” Our civil rights revolution based in our
Constitution came at the tail end of the international movement after
World War II in which the overt barriers to diverse societies began to
crumble as a revolt against the old type of European colonialism. This
was the same colonialism against which we in the Americas had rebelled
two hundred years before and which here in the U.S. had led to the
world’s first true “opportunity society.” We were trying to extend the
opportunity society to American blacks. But no such society existed in
what was called the “Third World.”

At least there seemed to be a kinship between our civil rights
revolution and the ways in the Third World being sought to integrate old
societies that had been Europeanized to some extent under colonial rule
with an expanding and increasingly global economy. People were at first
seeking to increase integration in order to have assimilation within
existing national boundaries and not lose the benefits of the European
connection. Initially there seemed what proved to be deceptive
similarities between our own struggle to eliminate the last overt traces
of the overreaction to Reconstruction that had led to the resegregation
by Woodrow Wilson and the massive resistance to integration by the old,
solid Democrat South known as Dixie — the South of Theodore Bilbo,
Richard Russell, John Stennis and William J. Fullbright, of the early
Byrds (Harry and Robert) and Strom Thurmond as a Demo- and Dixie-crat,
and, as a senator, of Lyndon Johnson and for the most part, Albert Gore

In Panama in particular the rhetoric of this post World War II
liberation from European dominance tended to provide political grist for
those becoming dictators, Torrijos and Noriega. It obscured the
original dream of Panamanians to become a constitutional republic at
least like — if not part of — our own. It was also a powerful lever
of manipulation for those who would promote, not an integrated and
diverse society, but one of black racial dominance and revenge upon
those perceived as North American and white, a vision which could not be
more dramatically opposite to that pronounced in the U.S. itself by Dr.
King. These same segregationist Southerners, mostly Democrat, were also
among the big defenders of our continuing possession of the Canal. It
was a natural target.

Thus, the question became one of whether the original idea of this
New World — one free to take the best of European heritage and improve
it after having thrown off Europe’s colonial yoke in the 18th and early
19th centuries — was to be expanded as seen in the vision of Dr. King
to include non-European societies or whether socialism and class envy
would prevail.

Unfortunately, the vision which had impelled the breaks from England,
France and Spain and which, with us, led to the Constitution became lost
in a misnamed “New World Order” of Third World revolutionary rhetoric
combined with cynical exploitation by the former European colonizers.
This was not the New World of this hemisphere at all, but in Marxist
guise, the continuation of the class conflicts and lack of opportunity
of the Old World of Europe. It was filtered through revolutionary
rhetoric of Marxist thought in which nation after nation was “liberated”
but none ever became free.

In the U.S. we got rid of the old Jim Crow laws. In Panama the
claims of establishing “equal rights” led, first to the dictator
Torrijos, who then died in what most Panamanians regarded as very
suspicious fashion to be succeeded by the now-jailed dictator Manuel
Noriega. With Noriega the populist Third World rhetoric of equal rights
rapidly degenerated into pure gangsterism, totalitarian control and drug
running. Suddenly many Panamanians discovered just how much like us
they had become, because resistance was widespread and key elements of
Panamanian society began to speak out against his depredations in a
manner that would not have occurred in a Third World country that had
not become so infused with U.S. ideas, even given the isolation of the

Thus, in Panama, we set the stage for a cyclical alternation between
failed populist dictatorships allying with thuggish mini-totalitarianism
on the one hand and control by a landed aristocracy scarcely
distinguishable from the societies of 18th century Europe on the other.
Many among the landed families have themselves wanted to break this
cycle, but have not found a viable way to do so. Many in the class of
entrepreneurs which the Zone’s presence has bred, many who have, whether
by choice or coercion, become citizens of both our countries, many even
among ordinary Panamanians who have simply learned or been observant
have shared this desire. But Panama has not the size and infrastructure
and resources to do what we did in this country, and today the
requirements are greater than during that of our own development.

Our abandonment of Panama in the fervor of Clinton’s and Carter’s new
isolationism dooms any such dreams among those who would seek to break
this cycle by means that would avoid either the brutality of another
Noriega-like dictatorship or the stagnant control by a handful of
privileged families controlling 90-some percent of the land, keeping it
a non-opportunity society. With this abandonment, Panama will be unable
to keep its sovereignty long enough to implement any such plan.

In the process, the wealthy elite families, who have now seen their
candidate elected as the new president of Panama, will lose the
sovereignty of Panama — which they were quick to invoke in order to get
elected — to some combination of the Colombian, Marxist
narcoterrorists, the drug lords, the Colombians themselves, and the
communist Chinese controlling the Canal ports, gradually all of its key
functions and, ultimately, the Canal itself.

The struggle for Panamanian sovereignty and independence has again
been defeated by the lingering forces of Old World, class-structured
colonialism — only this time in the guise of anti-Yankee rhetoric and
the “New World Order.” But make no mistake, this “New World Order” has
nothing to do with the hopes that created our New World here in the
United States, and nothing to do with anything resembling such
sovereignty for Panama as we enjoy still in the United States.

The dreams of Bolivar and San Martin will again die, along with our
desire to extend our American dream of a truly New World (not the
falsely named New World Order) to the pivotal point in Latin America
where our way of life, for almost a century, even with the mistakes we
made, created a hope for something better — something that would break
the cycle of Old World class control and supposedly “new” Marxist class
control, both of which, in the end, are just the same old lack of

Panama has no sovereignty at this time; let’s stop fooling
ourselves. And the illusion that it does, though a useful political
trick in Panama for those who would use it to win elections, will not
save it at this hour. The only thing that will is calling attention to
the coming disaster by holding up the present flawed treaties and law in
the courts of this country as regards the final turnover of the Canal
itself which, for almost a month yet, is still legally U.S. property and
territory. If the infirmity of these treaties be such that they were
never fully formed and valid in the first place — and that is a serious
likelihood — then something can still be done to save the sovereignty
of Panama.

But court action is the only way before us at this time and the only
way in which ordinary citizens of either nation can effect that outcome
regardless of elected leadership — in both countries — having now
clearly failed their respective constituents.

Lt. Gen. Gordon Sumner Jr. (USA Ret.), at the time of the Panama
Canal treaties, was the head of the Inter-American Defense Board as the
American military officer assigned to that strategic post. After
resigning, he was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to be our
ambassador-at-large to Latin America, a post in which he served during
the 8 years of the Reagan presidency. Currently he is head of Latin
American and Pacific Affairs for U.S. Defense – American Victory in
Washington, D.C.