Torrijos-Carter Treaties

By William “Doc” Halliday

Are you familiar with the Torrijos-Carter Treaties?  I believe you are, even though you may not recognize the name.  There are two separate treaties December 31st is the nineteenth anniversary of the completion of the second of those treaties. 

Many United States citizens were opposed to the treaties.  They felt that this was tantamount to giving Alaska back to Russia, or giving the Louisiana Purchase back to France.  But perhaps we should start at the beginning. 

On September 1, 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa led a group of 190 Spaniards and approximately 1,000 local Indians south from Santa María la Antigua del Darién across the Isthmus of Panama.  In late September (25th or 27th) he sighted the Pacific Ocean alone from a peak.  Four days later Balboa and his men reached the shore of the ocean and he claimed it and all lands that touched it for Spain.  Almost immediately (in historical terms) a search began for a natural waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans began. 

Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was also Charles I of Spain ordered the Panama regional governor to survey a route to the Pacific following the Chagres River in 1534.  This was the first survey for a proposed ship canal through Panama, and it more or less followed the course of the current Panama Canal.  At the time the survey was completed, it was the surveyor’s opinion that it would be impossible for anyone to accomplish such a feat. 

In 1848, gold was discovered in California which resulted in a tremendous volume of trans-isthmus business.  This created an impetus for the development of the Panama Railway which was initiated in 1850 and began operations along its entire length in January 1855.  The United States interest in a canal across the Central American Isthmus was intensified, but was not solely directed at Panama. 

In 1879 the International Congress of Geographical Sciences voted in favor of the construction of the Panama Canal.  Ferdinand de Lesseps who had successfully completed construction of the Suez Canal took on the task.  He initially thought he could build the canal without locks, but in what turned out to be the final days of the effort it became increasingly obvious to the French that the sea level plan would not work after all.   Gustave Eiffel, builder of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, was approached about building canal locks.  However it was too late.  The venture failed before the changes could be made.  When the venture failed, Ferdinand de Lesseps and his son Charles were charged with fraud and mismanagement and each sentenced to five years in prison in 1893. 

In 1894 a second French firm took over the assets and attempted to complete the project.  They abandoned their efforts that same year. 

Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century the United States had been interested in the building of a canal.  However, they had favored a route through Nicaragua.  In the late 1890s Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla began lobbying American lawmakers to buy the French canal assets in Panama, and eventually convinced a number of them that Nicaragua had dangerous volcanoes, making Panama the safer choice. 

In 1902 the United States purchased the assets of the French company.  The Hay–Herrán Treaty (Jan. 22, 1903), was rejected by the Colombian government (the area was part of Columbia at this time) as an infringement on its national sovereignty but primarily because Columbia considered the offered payment insufficient.  With the indirect approval of the U.S. government and the shielding presence of the U.S. Navy in nearby waters, Panama declared its independence from Colombia on November 3, followed by de facto U.S. recognition three days later. 

On November 18, 1903 the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty was agreed to.  This treaty gave the United States a strip 10 miles (16 km) wide across the isthmus for canal construction in perpetuity. The United States was allowed to govern and fortify this Canal Zone. In return Panama was guaranteed its independence and received $10 million outright plus an annuity of $250,000 beginning nine years later. The treaty was ratified by both countries in 1904, and the Panama Canal itself was completed in 1914. 

The workers had to face a variety of problems, including difficult terrain, hot, humid weather, torrential rainfalls and widespread tropical diseases including yellow fever and malaria.  Over 25,000 died during the construction of the canal including the efforts of both the French and the United States. 

In 1964 there was a dispute over the rights of Panamanians to fly their flag in the Canal Zone.  The dispute erupted into riots and diplomatic relations between Panama and the United States were severed for several months.  Over the course of several years negotiations continued between the two countries for new treaties.  There was a coup in Panama and elections in the United States. 

The negotiators decided that their best chance for ratification in the United States was to submit two treaties.  The two treaties were signed on September 7, 1977 and given to the U.S. Senate. The first, the Neutrality Treaty, stated that the United States could use its military to defend the Panama Canal against any threat to its neutrality, thus allowing perpetual U.S. usage of the Canal. The second, called The Panama Canal Treaty stated that the Panama Canal Zone would cease to exist on October 1, 1979, and the Canal itself would be turned over to Panama on December 31, 1999.

And thus the terms of the second of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties were completed 19 years ago. 

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