The Panama Canal - Part 2 of 3

1890-1904: Theodore Roosevelt resumes the project

Given the failure of the French initiative, the United States, under the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt, took up the project of an inter-oceanic canal. The U.S. Navy was gradually gaining worldwide hegemony and after the war against Spain in 1898, Washington concluded that a canal in Central America was essential to ensure the maritime supremacy of the rising world power.

Roosevelt and Congress decide to reconsider all the options: the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico, Nicaragua and Panama. In carefully studying the reasons for the phenomenal failure of the French project, the Nicaraguan route for the canal was gradually gaining preference in U.S. public opinion, and it was considered the American option.

Lake Nicaragua, the largest in Central America, represented the best option from the standpoint of the emerging maritime power. In this body of navigable water, the amount of land to be dug and excavated was similar to what would be the case in Panama, but with major advantages, such as greater proximity to the principle ports of the United States and a less dense rainforest, and therefore, a lower recurrence of fatal diseases.

Nevertheless, when everyone took for granted that the canal would be built in Nicaragua, another figure emerged, Phillipe Bunau-Varilla.

Bunau-Varilla, who years previously served as chief engineer of the French project in Panama, made the construction of the canal in this same location his life's project. With the help, albeit involuntary, of a prominent lawyer and lobbyist, William Nelson Cromwell, and despite the overwhelming support for the Nicaraguan project, Bunau-Varilla dedicated himself full time to getting the United States to acquire the Panamanian project from French hands.

Due to their efforts and dedication to a cause, Bunau-Varilla and Cromwell could be considered pioneers of the lobbying industry in the United States. Their lobbying efforts paid off, by convincing President Roosevelt and eventually the Senate, that the canal should be built in Panama, despite the undeniable advantages offered by Nicaragua.

What followed is a terrible episode in the history of our hemisphere. Convinced that the Colombian government was just seeking a slice of the piece of this massive project, through the unorthodox efforts of Banau-Varilla, Panama declared its independence from Colombia -- an act staged from New York, with the new state, of course, being immediately recognized by the United States.

The book is worth reading for the details of this unfortunate episode in the history of Latin America. The diplomatic details of the revolt were meticulously planned from room 1162 of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and the treaty for the transfer of the Canal and the declaration of independence of the new republic were drafted. As a result, Banau-Varilla ironically called this hotel room the "cradle of Panamanian independence."

On November 5, 1903, Porfirio Meléndez declared in Colón that we separated from our Colombian brothers without hate or joy. The following day, at 12:51 p.m., Washington formally recognized the new republic. One hundred years later, Panama is a truly independent nation that with great sacrifices and diplomatic efforts managed to regain sovereignty over the Canal Zone. Nevertheless, reaching this point had a high cost for this young republic, which gradually is becoming a regional economic power.

Part 2 of 3