Panama History : From Precolumbian Era to Today

Explore Panama's history: Precolumbian era to contemporary times

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Panama History

Pre-Columbian Period: The oldest traces of pre-Columbian cultures found in Panama date back more than 10,000 years

When the Spaniards arrived, it is estimated that between 600,000 and 1 million indigenous people lived in the region; different tribes coexisted according to a certain hierarchy.
1501-1539: Discovery and conquest of Panama: Christopher Columbus reached Panama on his 4th voyage in October 1502

On February 24, 1503, he founded the first Spanish settlement in continental territory: Santa María de Belen.
1539-1821: Colonial regime: Panama was part of the Spanish Empire from 1538 to 1821

1821: End of Spanish domination: on November 21, 1821, Panama obtained its independence by integrating Great Colombia

In 1855, the State of Panama is created and federated with New Grenada (now Colombia).
1880: creation of the Panama Canal: on 1 January 1880, the Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps began work on the Panama Canal, but soon gave up due to heavy human and financial losses

It was the United States that subsequently resumed work

The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty of 18 November 1903 gave the rights to operate and build the canal to the Americans.
1903: creation of the State of Panama: Panama separates definitively from Colombia and becomes a fully-fledged state.
1968: coup d’état of Omar Torrijos: General Omar Torrijos is the subject of great controversy

Some see him as a dictator, others as the person responsible for important social progress

On October 11, 1968, he came to power in a coup d’état

He was then “head of state” and not president

In 1977, he signed the Torrijos-Carter Treaty with US President Jimmy Carter, allowing Panama to regain sovereignty over the canal

However, this did not take effect immediately

Torijos remained in place until 1981, when he died.
1985: Manuel Antonio Noriega in power: in 1985 Manuel Noriega, a former CIA agent, becomes General of the Armed Forces of Panama

Between 1984 and 1990 he is considered the head of state, although he does not have the official title

In 1989, when presidential elections were due to take place, Noriega cancelled them.
1989: US intervention against Noriega: after the cancellation of the presidential elections in 1989, the United States invades Panama to overthrow Noriega

His rival Guillermo Endara (Solidarity Party, right) then becomes the president of the country

He ruled the country until 1994.
1999: Panama regains control of the canal: on 31 December 1999, following the Torrijos-Carter Treaty signed in 1977, the United States restores control of the canal to Panama

2004: Martín Torrijos elected president: on 2 May 2004, Martín Torrijos (centrist coalition “New Party”), son of Omar Torrijos, becomes president of Panama

2014: Juan Carlos Varela is elected president: conservative party.


A land of passage and settlement

According to the Panamanian anthropologist Reina Torres de Arrauz, the Isthmus of Panama has always been a land of passage, or a bridge between the cultures of the north and south of the continent, as well as the Caribbean.

It is estimated that human presence in the isthmus dates back several tens of thousands of years and the first permanent settlements were established 11,000 years ago.

The first Spanish expeditions

The first expedition to approach the lush coasts of Darién was that of Rodrigo de Bastidas in 1501.

The Spaniards who followed the northern coast of South America and then the coast of Darién, believing they were already in Asia, were looking for a passage to the Indies.

The sailors did not find this mythical strait but met “Indians” …

and gold!

One year later, Christopher Columbus set off on his fourth and final voyage to the New World.

He too is looking for a strait.

The expedition undertook the reconnaissance of the Central American coast from Cape Gracias a Dios (in present-day Honduras) to Darién.

Each coastal breach can be a passage to the west.

In particular, Columbus explored the Bay of Caraboro (renamed Almirante), the Chiriquí lagoon and the coasts of Veraguas .

The journey continues to a native locality where the fleet runs aground after a violent storm.

Columbus, amazed by the place, baptized the place Porto Bello (“pretty port” in Italian which, hispanized, will become Portobelo).

The expedition rested there for a while before returning to the Veraguas gold region to try to found a colony: Belén.

It is a failure, the conquistadores, hungry for gold and women, are chased by the natives and the expedition will finally fail in Jamaica.

Conquest and colonization

In his plan of conquest and colonization, the King of Spain decided in 1508 to divide the lands of the New World in two, the continental part of which was then called “terra firma” (any land that cannot be circumnavigated by caravel, as opposed to the Caribbean islands).

The territories east of the Gulf of Urabá constitute New Andalusia.

To the west of the gulf is Castilla de Oro governed by Diego de Nicuesa.

In 1510, he tried to establish himself in a welcoming bay that he named “Nombre de Dios”, but very quickly the conquistadores had to abandon the place, driven out by poisoned darts.

They went further east and founded Santa María la Antigua del Darién.

The locality, today in Colombian territory, is considered the first colonial city of continental America.

The discovery of the southern sea

Leaving Santa María del Darién on September 1, 1513, Balboa, at the head of an expedition of 190 conquistadores, a few scouts and a thousand indigenous porters, plunges southward into the inhospitable Darién forest.

On September 25, after three weeks of strenuous marching and clashes with local tribes, the adventurers saw the mouth of a vast expanse of water from the top of a hill.

On September 29, Balboa took possession, in the name of the Spanish crown, of “the seas, lands, coasts and islands of the south, and the kingdoms and provinces attached to them.

The South Sea will be renamed “Pacific” by Magellan in 1520, because of the calm weather the navigator enjoyed during his ocean crossing between Tierra del Fuego and the Philippines.

The discovery of the South Sea is certainly the most important chapter in the history of the conquest, after the great “discovery” of Christopher Columbus in 1492.

This new stage unfortunately heralds great catastrophes for the peoples of the Andes.

In June 1514, Pedro Arias de Ávila (Pedrarias Dávila) was appointed governor in place of Balboa.

This sexagenarian is known for his cruelty.

Contrary to the instructions of the crown, which advocated a gentle conversion to Catholicism (as much as it could be at the time), thousands of Indians were massacred or forced into slavery.

Foundation of Panama City

On August 15, 1519, Pedrarias seized a small fishing village in the South Sea, called by the indigenous Panamanians Panamá, which means “abundance of fish”.

The town became an important ecclesiastical and commercial centre and the starting point for expeditions to the north and south of the continent.

Francisco Pizzaro took the direction of expeditions to the Pacific and embarked south in 1524 and again in 1526.

He discovered Peru in 1528 and soon discovered the riches of the Inca Empire.

Panamá then saw tons of gold, silver and precious stones from South America, not to mention the pearls harvested in the neighboring archipelago.

But things became more complicated at the end of the 16th century with the arrival of pirates and freebooters in the Caribbean Sea…

Indeed, this concentration of wealth did not leave the great naval powers indifferent.

England, France or Holland gave intrepid sailors (often former pirates) “letters of marque” or “racing” authorizing them to attack the ships and trading posts of an enemy nation.

Portobelo and the fort of San Lorenzo were attacked many times during the 17th century.

After the final destruction of Portobelo in 1739 by Vernon, the Spanish crown eventually imposed the Cape Horn route to reach its western colonies in South America.

Portobelo, deprived of fairs, emptied of its population, while Panama fell into decadence.

At the beginning of the 19th century, a project for the construction of an inter-oceanic canal proposed by the scientific explorer Alexander de Humboldt could have revived activity, but the time had come for the emancipation of the American colonies and it was not until the 1850s that the isthmus emerged from the economic slump.


At the beginning of the 19th century, a few years after the independence of the United States (1783) from Great Britain, and the French Revolution, the idea germinated in Latin American Creole bourgeois circles (the descendants of Spanish colonists, sometimes mixed with Indians and Blacks), of an “emancipation” of distant Spain.

Taking advantage of the Napoleonic Wars on the Old Continent and the military weakening of Spain, the process of independence began in 1810 and quickly spread throughout Latin America.

Thus, on November 10, 1821, “el Primer Grito de Independancia” (the First Cry of Independence) resounded at the Villa de Los Santos.

This revolt by a group of peasants led by Colonel Segundo Villareal in the Azuero Peninsula marked the beginning of the emancipation movement in several localities: Natá, Penonomé, Ocú and Parita.

It ended on November 28, 1821 in Ciudad de Panama, with the solemn proclamation of independence from Spain by a junta of civilians, military and clergy.

The Spanish troops withdrew without fighting.

From the construction of an iron line to the canal

The discovery in 1848 of gold veins in California revived the activity of the small Colombian province in just a few months.

The gold seekers, coming from the eastern United States and Europe, preferred to avoid going to the Far West via the dangerous North American plains where dreaded Indian tribes lived.

The isthmus, the narrowest part of the continent, became the main route for adventurers.

It was then that an American shipping company, the Panamá Railroad Company, began building a railway line from 1850 onwards, linking Panamá to “Aspinwal Colón”.

The work attracted a workforce from all over the world, with a majority of Jamaicans and Chinese.

The first trains started running in 1855 and it took only 4 hours to cross from one ocean to the other.

But engineers from America and Europe set themselves a new challenge: to link the two oceans without even getting off a ship.

The success of the Suez Canal, inaugurated in 1869, had drawn the attention of the scientific community to the possibilities of other inter-oceanic canals around the world.

Projects abound in the United States and Europe.

Panamanians feared that the waterway would be built in Nicaragua.

The opportunity is too good.

In 1903, a junta of conservatives and liberals launched a separatist movement under the unofficial protection of the United States in exchange for the signing of a new treaty for the canal.

The Colombian troops who had come to stop the rebellion were neutralized in Colón, without any real fighting and without the intervention of American warships anchored off the coast.

Panama’s independence was proclaimed on November 4, 1903 (the National Day was instituted on November 3).

Three days later, the United States recognized the new state.

Work resumed and the canal was finally completed in 1914.

This technological feat is considered at the time as the eighth wonder of the world, because of its spectacular achievements: the Gaillard breakthrough with millions of tons excavated in the cordillera, the engineering structures (its locks are still in operation) and the imposing Gatún dam which gave birth to the largest artificial lake in the world at the time (after having swallowed up hundreds of villages and necessitated the displacement of 50,000 people).
On August 15, 1914, as Europe threw itself into the war, the steamer Ancon made the first official crossing of the Panama Canal.

Political instability

Very quickly, the discriminatory regime set up in the Canal Zone (separate fountains and toilets for blacks and whites, wage conditions according to skin colour, etc.) offended Panamanians and fuelled nationalist sentiments.

There is less and less support for the foreign military presence, as well as for the behaviour of American companies like the powerful United Fruit Company, which holds the best land and disregards the rights of farm workers in the banana plantations.

Nevertheless, the country experienced a certain prosperity during the Second World War, with the massive arrival of soldiers spending without counting and the realization of major works providing jobs (military bases, airports, pan-American and trans-American roads).

However, on January 9, 1964, a student demonstration degenerated and the consequences of this event were considered a major step in the process that would lead a few years later to the retrocession of the canal.

1968-1981: the nationalist and popular revolution

In May 1968, populist Arnulfo Arias was elected President of the Republic for the third time.

A few months later, he was overthrown in a coup d’état staged by young officers of the National Guard.

The aim of the junta was to change the balance of power in the country, confiscating power from the traditional oligarchy and giving it to the people.

General Torrijos ruled the country with an iron fist from 1969 to 1981 under the guise of puppet presidents.

Profound social reforms in education and health led to a halving of illiteracy and infant mortality in ten years.

On the economic front, an agrarian reform led to the expropriation of large land holdings which were redistributed to small farmers grouped into cooperatives.

There were also nationalizations, major road improvements and the creation of the International Banking Centre.

In terms of foreign policy, Panama is one of the so-called “non-aligned” countries.

It has privileged relations with the countries of the anti-colonialist and anti-American movement (Cuba, Salvador Allende’s Chile, etc.) and at the end of the 1970s supported the guerrilla movements in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
In 1973, taking advantage of a UN meeting in Panama, Torrijos exposed his people’s demands concerning the canal to the whole world.

Negotiations on the question of a restitution of the canal, initiated in 1964, will accelerate in 1977 with the election of Jimmy Carter to the American presidency, leading to the signing of the Torrijos-Carter treaty on September 7, 1977.

The text, which was triumphantly received in Panama and throughout Latin America, provides for the gradual “retrocession” of the canal and the area by the year 2000.

As early as 1979, the country recovered more than 60% of the territory of the Canal Zone (military bases, ports and the railway line).

But on 31 July 1981, Torrijos died in a plane crash above the Coclé mountains, an accident whose causes still remain a mystery .

The Noriega dictatorship

A fuzzy period follows Torrijos’ death.

Generals and puppet presidents succeeded one another until the elections of May 1984.

Nicolas Barletta, Torrijos’ former collaborator and World Bank President for Latin America, won the elections with only 1,713 votes in favour.

The opposition spoke of fraud but the United States supported the Chicago-trained economist.
But less than a year after his election, President Barletta was “resigned” by Manuel Noriega, commander-in-chief of the National Guard.

To the dictatorship’s classic recipes (muzzling of the press, repression of opponents, corruption), he added arms, drug and visa trafficking and set up a vast money-laundering network.

December 1989: the “just cause” operation

On the night of December 19-20, 1989, just before the Christmas holidays, the United States launched, in the name of a “just cause”, the largest military operation since the Vietnam War.

Guillermo Endara was officially proclaimed President of the Republic on December 20, 1989, the day of the invasion.

He inherited a country ruined and eaten away by insecurity, corruption and trafficking of all kinds.

Endara succeeded in restoring democracy and bringing the country out of the economic isolation in which it had been plunged since 1987.

Political instability continued until a woman came to power.

Mireya Moscoso, the widow of President Arnulfo Arias (1901-1988), won the presidential elections of May 1999 with 44% of the votes.

At 53 years of age, Mireya is the first woman to lead the country.

From the beginning of her mandate, she had the immense privilege of honouring the handover of the canal on December 31, 1999 at noon.

From 2000 to today

Mireya Moscoso’s record is mixed.

The 2004 elections saw the return to power of the PRD.

Elected with 47% of the vote ahead of former president Guillermo Endara, Martín Torrijos benefited greatly from the prestige of his late father.

The young president will benefit from an unprecedented economic boom during his four years in office but will not succeed in reducing social inequalities and insecurity.
May 2009 thus saw the victory of the candidate of the liberal right, Ricardo Martinelli (61% of the votes), at the head of the ‘Alliance for Change’.

This multi-billionaire entrepreneur launched a vast programme of major works aimed at modernising infrastructures (roads, airports, etc.) throughout the country but especially in the capital, with the controversial Cinta Costera III project (viaduct around the Casco Viejo) and the more intelligent project of a metro, the first in Central America, the first line of which will be inaugurated in April 2014.

On the social front, relations with civil society, trade unions and the press have seriously deteriorated.

Several demonstrations against social and environmental reforms (mining reform) degenerated, leaving several people dead.

More positive for the country was the reduction in poverty, which officially fell from 32% in 2010 to 25% in 2014.

Economically, the country has maintained strong growth but has become heavily indebted (the debt increased from 11 to 17 billion dollars in 5 years).

While the balance sheet is rather good, the elections of May 2014 are a surprise compared to the polls, Martinelli was already seeing his runner-up José Domingo Arias as head of state and his own wife as vice-president! But it is Juan Carlos Varela, his former vice-president and worst political enemy, who is elected with 39% of the votes, ahead of Domingo Arias of the Cambio Democrático party (32%) and the former mayor of the capital Juan Carlos Navarro of the centre-left PRD (28%).

A real slap in the face for the outgoing president.

The main challenges of his mandate are the pursuit of growth and the reduction of social inequality and poverty, which are still very high.
The year 2016 has been doubly talked about on the international scene.

First, the Panama Papers affair, a system of international tax evasion.

First, he pretended to negotiate, when the sanctions threatened to be lifted, by agreeing to play the game of transparency.

It even pledged to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) automatic exchange of information process by 2018.
However, on August 5, 2016, Nobel Prize winner in economics Joseph Stiglitz and anti-corruption expert Mark Pieth, by resigning from the committee created after the scandal, denounced a certain lack of transparency.

The committee, composed of 4 Panamanians and 3 foreigners, had been set up to address the problems of opacity in Panama’s financial system.

Both men reported “censorship” in the publication of their findings.

According to them, the executive branch was under “pressure from the business community”.

The government had announced a few days earlier that the president alone would decide whether or not to release the findings.
Another important date in 2016 will be the completion of the canal’s expansion in general jubilation.

Delayed due to major strikes in 2012 and 2013 and financial disputes with the consortium of international companies in charge of the work, the new canal was inaugurated in June.
After the Martinelli tornado, Varela represents calm and the Panamanians are not really used to it?

All the more so as in the first quarter of 2016, the unemployment rate in Panama exceeded that of the international financial crisis of 2009.

As a result of the economic slowdown, it fell from 5.2% in August 2015 to 5.6% in March 2016.

More than 100,000 Panamanians are unemployed.

The next elections will be held in Panama in 2019.

Time to make Panamanians forget the antics of Martinelli – who suddenly left the country.