Panama: Random Facts and Trivia

Some random facts and trivia for the country of the world Panama, the history of the Panama Canal, the U.S. role, School of the Americas, the San Blas Islands.



The Panama Canal remains an impressive engineering feat. Instead of the 7,000-mi. journey around Cape Horn, there is a 50-mi. passage through the Canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

From Colonial times, there had been recurring interest in a transisthmian canal. Sites in both Nicaragua and Panama were contemplated and by 1901 the U.S. had decided on a Nicaraguan route as the more practical. However, the French, who had begun work on a Panamanian canal in 1881 (under the direction of Ferdinand de Lesseps, who also built the Suez Canal), offered to sell their rights to the U.S. for $40 million. The French effort had failed, due to disease, corruption, and high costs, and was bankrupt. The U.S. agreed to the purchase, provided that Colombia would also agree, since Panama still belonged to Colombia.

The Colombian Senate, however, refused to ratify the agreement, and President Theodore Roosevelt, unwilling to wait, encouraged Panamanian revolt for independence. In addition, U.S. Naval Forces prevented Colombian ships from landing troops in Panama to quell the uprising. On November 18, 1903, Panama, now a U.S. protectorate, signed a canal agreement with the U.S. Colombia's resultant bitterness over the high-handed U.S. intervention marred relations between the countries for some time.

The Canal was formally opened July 12, 1920, though it had been in limited use since 1914. Average passage time is about 8 hours, and control of the ship is handed over to special canal pilots.

The continued existence of the Canal Zone as a U.S. enclave in the heart of a foreign country is an increasingly hot political issue, both in Panama and in the U.S. General Torrijos insists that the U.S. presence will not be tolerated much longer by Panamanians. U.S. defenders of the status quo believe that the Canal is vital to U.S. defense, and that the Panamanians are not competent to operate the Canal. Sen. Storm Thurmond, who introduced a sense-of-the-Senate resolution opposing return of the Canal, stated, "We bought it; we paid for it; it is ours."

A further thorn, not only for Panama but for all of Latin America, is the U.S. Army-operated School of the Americas. Through this institution, the U.S. Army provides military training to Latin American armed forces personnel. Twenty-nine thousand officers and enlisted men have graduated from its program since the school was established in 1949, having learned combat methods and counterinsurgency tactics. Many members of the military governments in various Latin American countries today were trained at this school, including General Torrijos himself.

The San Blas Islands, an archipelago of 360 islands off Panama's Caribbean coast, is home to the Cuna Indians, whose culture and handicrafts are distinct from anything else found in Panama. Their culture, which may predate the Christian era, provides for communal owner-ship of the islands. However, the coconut groves, which bring their only source of income, are owned and worked individually. Coconuts are the local currency, and are traded for any needs supplied from the mainland. Their customs forbid intermarriage with outsiders--in fact, strangers are not allowed to spend the night on the islands. The women wear the family wealth in the form of heavy gold jewelry.

The women of San Blas are also well known for their creative needlework panels, known as molas. The mola is approximately 16" by 24", rectangular in shape, and worked in "reverse applique." In this technique, multiple layers of brightly colored cloth are cut away and the edges turned under the stitched to form a fabric "sculpture." The panels are worn in matching sets to form the front and back of a blouse. Increasing foreign interest in the mola as an art form has sent the prices up and, in some cases, the quality down. The introduction of sewing machines on the islands may further endanger the quality of the molas, and tourists are rushing to buy them before the craft disappears.

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