Several countries in the Americas are celebrating in 2021 their two hundredth anniversary of a break with Spain that did not always mean celebrate in 2021 their two centuries of a break with Spain that did not always mean independence. final

This year, several American nations are commemorating two centuries of their separation from Spain, recalling a process that took place in all the Spanish possessions in continental America within a few years of each other. In some cases, it was a process of successive independence, as was the case with Guatemala, which later belonged to the Mexican Empire and then to a Central American republic, and Panama, which was part of Colombia until the 20th century. But even later, both countries experienced direct interference by the United States, in episodes that were very decisive for the region as a whole.

Ceremony of submission of the Panama Canal to the Panamanian authorities, 31 December 1999

article / Angie Grijalva

During 2021 several American countries celebrate their independence from Spain, the largest and most festively celebrated being Mexico. In other nations, the date of 1821 is qualified by later historical developments: Panama also commemorates every year the day in 1903 when it broke with Bogotá, while in the case of Guatemala that independence did not immediately imply a republic of its own, since together with its neighbouring nations in 1822 it was nominally dependent on Mexico and between 1823 and 1839 it formed part of the United Provinces of Central America and the Federal Republic of Central America. Moreover, US regional hegemony called into question the full sovereignty of these countries in subsequent decades: Guatemala suffered the first coup d'état openly promoted by Washington in the Western Hemisphere in 1954, and Panama did not have full control over its entire territory until the Americans handed over the canal in 1999.

Panama and its canal

The project of the Panama Canal was important for the United States because it made it possible to easily link its two coasts by sea and consolidated the global rise sought by Theodore Roosevelt's presidency, guided by the maxim that only the nation that controlled both oceans would be a truly international power. Given the refusal of Colombia, to which the province of Panama then belonged, to accept the conditions set by the United States to build the canal, resuming the work on the paralysed French project , Washington was faced with two options: invade the isthmus or promote Panama's independence from Colombia[1]. The Republic of Panama declared its independence on 3 November 1903 and with it Roosevelt negotiated a very favourable agreement which gave the United States perpetual sovereignty over the canal and a wide strip of land on either side of it. Washington thus gained control of Panama and extended its regional dominance.

After a decade of difficult work and a high issue death toll among the workforce, who came from all over the Caribbean and also from Asia, not least due to dengue fever, malaria and yellow fever, in 1913 the Atlantic and Pacific oceans were finally connected and the canal was opened to ship traffic.

Over time, US sovereignty over a portion of the country and the instructions military installations there fuelled a rejection movement in Panama that became particularly virulent in the 1960s. The Carter Administration agreed to negotiate the cession of the canal in a 1977 agreement that incorporated the Panamanians into the management of inter-oceanic traffic and set the submission of all installations for 1999. When this finally happened, the country experienced the occasion as a new independence celebration, saying goodbye to US troops that only ten years earlier had been very active, invading Panama City and other areas to arrest President Manuel Noriega for drug trafficking.

Critical moment in Guatemala

The Panama Canal gave the United States an undoubted projection of power over its hemisphere. However, during the Cold War, Washington also found it necessary to use operations, in some cases direct, to overthrow governments it considered close to communism. This happened with the overthrow of Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala in 1954.

The arrival of Árbenz to the presidency in 1951 was a threat to the United Fruit Company (UFCO) because of the agrarian reform he was promoting[2]. Although the advance of communist parties in Latin America was beginning to grow, the real threat in certain countries was the expropriation of land from US monopolies. It is estimated that by 1950, the UFCO owned at least 225,000 hectares of land in Guatemala, of which the agrarian reform was to expropriate 162,000 hectares in 1952. With political support from Washington, UFCO claimed that the compensation it was being offered did not correspond to the true value of the land and branded the Árbenz government as communist, even though this was not true.

In 1953, the newly inaugurated Eisenhower Administration established a plan to destabilise the government and stage a coup against Árbenz. On the one hand, Secretary of State John F. Dulles sought the support of the Organisation of American States, prompting condemnation of Guatemala for receiving a shipment of arms from the Soviet Union, which had been acquired because of the US refusal to sell arms to the Central American country. On the other hand, the CIA launched the mission statement PBSUCCESS to guarantee the quartermastering of a faction of the Guatemalan army ready to rebel against Árbenz. The movement was led by Colonel Castillo Armas, who was in exile in Honduras and from there launched the invasion on 18 June 1954. When the capital was bombed, the bulk of the army refused to respond, leaving Árbenz alone, who resigned within days.

Once in power, Castillo Armas returned the expropriated land to UFCO and brought new US investors into the country. Dulles called this victory "the greatest triumph against communism in the last five years". The overthrow of Árbenz was seen by the US as a model for further operations in Latin America. development The award Nobel Literature Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa has pointed out that this action against Árbenz could be seen as "the moment when Latin America was screwed", as for many it was evidence that a normal democracy was not possible, and this pushed certain sectors to defend revolution as the only way to make their societies prosper.

[1] McCullough, D. (2001). The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914. Simon & Schuster.

[2] G. Rabe, S. (2017). Intervention in Guatemala, 1953-1954. In S. G. Rabe, Eisenhower and Latin America: The Foreign Policy of Anticommunism. The University of North Carolina Press.

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