As the Panama Railroad was being built in the wake of the 1848 California gold rush, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, founders of the modern communist workers movement, wrote about Panama’s place in the expansion of capitalism worldwide.
“It is a mere 18 months since the Californian gold mines were discovered, and the Yankees have already started work on a railway, a large highway and a canal from the Gulf of Mexico, steamships are already making regular trips from New York to Chagres [on Panama’s Caribbean coast], and from Panama to San Francisco,” they noted in a February 1850 article.
“The main trade route to the Pacific Ocean, which has only now really been opened up and which is becoming the most important ocean in the world, will henceforth cross the Isthmus of Panama,” they wrote in a subsequent article. “The growing traffic between Asia, Australia and America is demanding new, large-scale steamship services from Panama and San Francisco to Canton, Singapore, Sydney, New Zealand and the most important port-of-call in the Pacific Ocean, the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii].”
In a presentation at the recent conference here of the International Society for the Study of Chinese Overseas (see accompanying article), Panamanian historian Berta Alicia Chen noted that in the early 1850s, as many as 1,500 Chinese indentured workers were brought to Panama as part of what was known as the coolie trade. They toiled alongside workers from Jamaica, Ireland, India and other countries in building the Panama Railroad. Thousands of these workers — estimates range from 6,000 to 12,000 — died from deadly job conditions, yellow fever, malaria and other diseases. Hundreds of Chinese committed suicide rather than remain subjected to bonded labor.
The Panama Railway, completed in 1855, accelerated the building of a canal across Panama. In the 1880s the first attempt, undertaken by French capitalists, ended in bankruptcy and with the death of some 22,000 workers from disease and job injuries.
As Washington consolidated its reach as an imperialist power with colonies and markets in both oceans, the Panama Canal project became vital to the interests of the U.S. ruling families. In 1903 U.S. Marines were sent to the isthmus to “support” Panamanians fighting for independence from Colombia. The U.S. government imposed a treaty on the newly established country, giving Washington rights to build and operate a canal “in perpetuity” — including the five-mile swath of land on either side — and to use U.S. troops anywhere in Panama to maintain “order.”
Cutting through jungle and rock, some 56,000 workers — nearly half of them Barbadians and other West Indians — were involved in the herculean feat, which took a toll of another 5,600 lives before the canal’s completion in 1914.
The U.S. imperial masters imposed Jim Crow-style segregation in their colonial enclave. While U.S.-born Caucasian workers were hired on the “Gold Roll,” Black workers were put on the “Silver Roll,” which meant lower wages and segregated housing, schools and other facilities. Under the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Chinese immigrants were barred from the Canal Zone, and the Panamanian government followed Washington’s discriminatory anti-Chinese policies.
Struggle for national sovereigntyU.S. military forces repeatedly intervened in Panama over the decades. The struggle for Panama’s national sovereignty intensified in the wake of the 1959 victory of the Cuban Revolution and the rising wave of anti-imperialist struggles throughout Latin America.
A turning point occurred Jan. 9, 1964 — commemorated today as Martyr’s Day — when Panamanian students entered the Canal Zone, tried to raise the Panamanian flag, and were attacked, triggering two days of mass protests. Zone police and U.S. soldiers fired on demonstrators, killing 21.
In the aftermath of the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, and with revolutionary struggles intensifying in Nicaragua and elsewhere in Central America and the Caribbean, Washington decided the political cost of maintaining the Canal Zone as a U.S. territory was too great. In 1977, the U.S. and Panamanian governments signed treaties relinquishing control of the canal and Canal Zone to Panama by 2000.
In 1989, when U.S. forces invaded Panama and seized then head of state Gen. Manuel Noriega in order to impose a more subservient government, they used the U.S. military bases still located in the Canal Zone.
With the final reversion of that territory to Panama a decade later, the 14 U.S. bases were closed and the U.S. Southern Command was relocated to Florida.
Panama Canal expansion underscores trade rivalry
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