The Torrijos-Carter Treaties: Negotiations & Significance

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Panama Canal is one of the world's most important shipping lanes, but who controls it? In this lesson, we'll look at the history behind this question as well as the treaties that answered it.

The Panama Canal

It doesn't take a master geographer to realize that the Americas are pretty big, and that sailing all the way around them takes a while. For centuries, people thought about how great it would be if they could just cut across the continent, and then in the 20th century it finally happened. The Panama Canal opened in 1914, under the complete authority of the United States of America. Wait, what? What was the USA doing in Panama? It was a question that would cause a lot of tension over the 20th century, until finally being resolved in the Torrijos-Carter Treaties.

Background: The USA and Panama

From the start, the Panama Canal was contested. The USA knew that whoever controlled the canal would have a lot of power over Atlantic-Pacific trade. The young nations of Latin America couldn't afford to build it on their own, so the USA decided to use its money to build and buy the canal.

The first negotiations began with the nation of Colombia (which Panama was part of) around 1903. Colombia's government refused to ratify that treaty. They didn't want to give up one of their nation's best shots at becoming financially stable. However, Panama was in the process of seceding and forming its own nation, so the USA saw another opportunity. US president Theodore Roosevelt started actively supporting Panamanian independence, under the implied condition that Panama would give the USA rights to the planned canal.

The original treaties gave the USA control of land on either side of the canal, called the Canal Zone

It worked. America found a very pro-American Panamanian representative named Phillippe-Jean Bunau-Varillia (who had not lived in Panama for 17 years and had no legal authority to act on behalf of Panama's government) to broker the deal. The Hay-Banau-Varilla Treaty was signed, giving the US permanent rights to the Panama Canal Zone. Construction began immediately and in 1914 the Panama Canal opened, with the nation of Panama seeing no profit from its use.

Negotiating a New Treaty

To many people in Panama, the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty was questionable at best. Discontent grew in the nation, finally reaching a breaking point in 1964. Panamanians attempted to fly Panama's national flag next to the American flag in the Canal Zone as a sign of solidarity in the Cold War. Panama's flag was taken down and riots erupted, resulting in the deaths of over 20 Panamanians and a breakdown of US-Panama relations. The Soviets began calling Americans capitalist imperialists and undermining US credibility in the Cold War. It was pretty clear that something would have to change.

The US tentatively entered negotiations to reevaluate Panama's control over the canal that cut through their nation. An agreement was reached in 1967, but Panama's president was overthrown in a coup by Colonel Omar Torrijos and the new treaty abandoned. Torrijos, however, did want to find a way to work with the United States. He dealt with presidents Nixon and Ford in the early 1970s, slowly laying the foundations for a treaty.

The Torrijos-Carter Treaties

By 1976, it was time to elect a new president. Ford (the incumbent) supported a Panamanian Treaty but his opponent, Jimmy Carter, did not. After all, control of the canal gave the USA a lot of power over Latin America. Carter won the election, but his views on the Panama Canal quickly changed. His Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, had been in Panama in 1964. He strongly supported a new treaty, and along with Carter's adviser Sol Linowitz, convinced the President to reopen negotiations.

Carter and Torrijos

Carter's representatives, Linowitz and Ellsworth Bunker (who had been involved in these negotiations since the 1960s) came to an agreement. The US would give control of the Panama Canal back to Panama over a set period of time. It was a big deal, but not legally binding until the US Senate approved it. Here, Carter ran into an obstacle. Many American Senators believed Torrijos to be sympathetic to communists, and worried that surrendering control of the canal would let communist agendas spread in the Western Hemisphere.

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