Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Beyond United States Hegemony: Colombia's Persistent Role in the Shaping and Reshaping of Panama

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Beyond United States Hegemony: Colombia's Persistent Role in the Shaping and Reshaping of Panama

Article excerpt


Panama is both a state and a nation. As a state, we know it as the Republic of Panama, the small S-shaped country that lies between Central and South America. As a nation, we know it as a people (Panamanians) who inhabit the Isthmus of Panama, and who became associated during the twentieth century with a fiery brand of developmental nationalism. The nationalist impulses of Panamanians led to numerous clashes with the United States over what was viewed as the imperialist occupation of part of Panamanian territory (the Canal Zone) and eventually to the return of both the canal and the Zone to Panama in 2000.

Both the Panamanian state and Panamanian nation were shaped over the centuries in ways that have been described by historians, political scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists.1 Many of the forces that have shaped both entities are domestic and relate to the concrete historical experiences of the various peoples who inhabited the Isthmus, the nature of material economic conditions, opportunities that they encountered in this uniquely situated geographical space, and additional factors such as climate and topography. At the same time, it is also true that Panama's openness to the world exposed it to a wide variety of external influences that also played an important, indeed some might say critical, role in shaping and reshaping both the Republic and the people.

The thesis of this essay is that, in spite of the general impression that the United States has been overwhelmingly influential on the Isthmus, Colombia has also been an extremely important and enduring external force, shaping and reshaping both the juridical entity that we call The Republic of Panama and the socio-cultural entity that we call the Panamanian nation. While the causal importance of US hegemony (particularly during the early twentieth century) should not be underemphasized, attention also needs to be paid to the historical role of Colombian influence over the broad sweep of time.2

More specifically, I argue the following four main points below:

1 Colombian material power, norms and culture played an important role during both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in shaping Panama into a new liberal state and associated nation. During various phases of Panama's historical development, one of these forces may have been more important than the others and indeed some may have been occasionally absent. However, there has never been a period in Panamanian history where Colombian influence was not present in some important form or fashion.

2 Although Colombian state power (as influenced from the capital city of Bogota) shaped Panama in extremely important ways at certain critical historical junctures, more important and enduring normative and cultural influences came from Colombia's northern Caribbean coast and particularly from the old colonial city of Cartagena. Within the historically changing structure of the Colombian state (successively known as Gran Colombia, Repiiblica de la Nueva Granada, Confederaci6n Granadina, Estados Unidos de Colombia, and Repiiblica de Colombia), the external constant in terms of Colombian influence over Panama was normative and cultural influences emanating from that country's Caribbean coast.

3 Panama's nineteenth-century independence movement was heavily influenced by northern Caribbean coastal (Costeno) liberal nationalism. Following Panamanian independence in 1903, the influence of these Costeno normative and cultural forces persisted well into the twentieth century in ways that both helped shape key institutions within the emerging "hard" Panamanian state and contributed to the national resistance movement against US military, political and cultural domination.

4 Following a century of United States ascendancy in Panama, Colombia is once again emerging in the twenty-first century as a critical external force in Panamanian affairs, a process in which power is being exercised and cultural influence renewed within a framework of what I will call Colombianization. …

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