Panama Unchained: After the Dictatorship and U.S. Protectorate

AHA Session 251
Conference on Latin American History 74
Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Columbia Hall 3 (Washington Hilton)
Gene Bigler, University of the Pacific and Humphreys College
Profiling Panama before and after Noriega’s Return
Margaret Scranton, University of Arkansas at Little Rock
The Eleven-Day Presidency: Panama 1968
William Francis Robinson, Vanderbilt University
Gene Bigler, University of the Pacific and Humphreys College

Session Abstract

During the past half-century, the Central American nation of Panama has undergone radical alterations, domestically and internationally. These changes included a military dictatorship (1968-1989), a new treaty governing the Panama Canal (1977), a U.S. invasion (1989), and the turnover of the canal to national ownership and operation (1999). Remarkably, the country has landed on its feet, so to speak, and now boasts an economic boom, continued democracy, and rising prestige in global affairs. This success was due to both the talents and resiliency of Panama’s leaders and to the careful disengagement effected by the U.S. government. This panel brings together four specialists on Panama’s recent history to discuss and analyze this extraordinary story.

The 1968 coup broke a number of precedents in Panama’s history, especially the establishment of a military government in violation of the constitution. How the coup occurred, U.S. involvement in the process, and the 21 year dictatorship that ensued form part of the legacy, especially subsequent Panamanians’ abhorrence of military interference in politics. The initiatives of the military, its leaders’ idiosyncratic styles, the role of the United States as it negotiated the 1977 Treaties, all shaped the experiences of ordinary Panamanians. The 2011 return of the last dictator, Manuel Antonio Noriega, provides a moment to look back on and assess that episode in the nation’s history.

Poor Panamanians largely watched their leaders’ actions from the bottom rungs of the social ladder, but after the return of democracy they increasingly charted their destiny, through quinquennial elections and periodic referendums. A substantial number of poor rose into the ranks of the lower and middle class in the past twenty years, and their engagement in national affairs provides insights into the reasons for the national success story.

Since the turnover of the canal in 1999, Panama has held two national elections, in which opposition parties won the presidency. It has undertaken a major expansion of the Panama Canal that promises both domestic prosperity and a much larger share of world shipping when inaugurated next year. Multi-national firms have converted Panama into a major economic hub for the hemisphere, driving extraordinary growth of the GDP. In all this the United States, which imposed protectorate status on Panama for most of the twentieth century, has remained largely on the sidelines. Of the dozens of “decolonizations” in the past half-century, this has been perhaps the most successful. This panel will interest specialists in U.S. foreign relations, international trade, Latin American history, and Panama.

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