Space and Empire at the Panama Canal: A Centennial Assessment

AHA Session 122
Conference on Latin American History 30
Friday, January 3, 2014: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Columbia Hall 7 (Washington Hilton)
Michael Conniff, San Josť State University
Michael Conniff, San Josť State University

Session Abstract

On the 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal's 1914 inauguration, this panel brings together new works which highlight the Canal’s importance for the history of political ideas and governmental practices in the Americas. The Panama Canal was built at a turning point in the history of U.S-Latin American relations and at moment when the U.S. government experimented with new types of economic, social, and administrative interventions. This panel examines how U.S. imperial intervention in Panama created new economic, political, environmental, and urban geographies as well as reconceptualized Latin America and the Caribbean in the American imagination.  

            Paul Sutter’s paper examines the role of Canal construction in the evolution of an environmental imaginary of  "tropical anxiety" and "tropical triumphalism," which shaped U.S. health policies in Panama and the material history of the Canal's construction. This tropical imaginary, framed as the conquest of tropical nature and disease, helped justify U.S. expansion and intervention in Latin America. Marixa Lasso’s paper examines how ideas about the tropics affected U.S urban policies in the Canal Zone. They helped erase the modernity of Panama's urban past by recasting its towns as backward tropical spaces in need of development. These urban ideas helped justify massive population displacements, while at the same time creating a new language of urban differences that would eventually be central to discourses on development and underdevelopment. From a different spatial perspective, Lara Putnam’s paper explores how the Panama Canal contributed to the creation of a new geography of black radicalism.  Excluded by Panamanian nativists, West Indian immigrants imagined themselves as part of a larger community who struggled against the geopolitics of white supremacy. West Indian immigrants in Panama fostered a new culture of transnational black radicalism and contributed to the growth a circum-Caribbean black press in close contact with the U.S. Negro Press. Finally, Noel Maurer’s paper examines how the Panama Canal provided a space where the U.S. federal government was able to run one of the largest public investments of its time, which would have important military and economic consequences.

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