Thanks to the lovely and beloved Fernando Coelho for the intro and to the supernaturally patient and generous Camelia ben Naceur for transcribing this hours-long Panama City encounter with artist, ex- PDF officer and intellectual Luis Huertas. And this is only part one! Background on the meeting will be added for the book.
The real history of the Panama Canal, Volume One. Volume Two will cover the building of the Canal, the remarkable rise of Omar Torrijos and the violent fall of Manuel Noriega.
LH : You know, I’m the inventor of a game, “Lucido’s Centenarios” about the history of Panama. I’m not a normal Panamanian. I’m an engineer, a space engineer, I’m a pilot who studied medicine. I’m fifty-two. I finished high school at the age of sixteen.
I wanted to go to the US to study aerospace engineering in Texas but they wouldn’t support me as a minor. I had to wait in Panama to reach seventeen and a half to go to the United States. In the meantime, I studied medicine. It was pretty difficult to get in the National Faculty Of Medicine at that time, there was only one place in Panama to study Medicine, and I spent three years there. At the age of nineteen I decided to leave medicine because that was not my vocation. I didn’t want to be a doctor, but I enjoyed it. At that age, I’m of the Apollo generation. I want to go to space… all that stuff… Top Gun, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, I’m that guy. It’s something from our age, how old are you?
LH : OK ! it’s in the… in the neighborhood.
BG : In the neighborhood. (laughs)
LH : Then, I had a lot of pressure in my mind to be a pilot and aerospace engineer and I found a way to go to live in to Brazil. I graduated in the Brazil Air Force…
BG : Really ?
LH : In the Air Force Academy of the Brazil Air Force in Pirazununga, Sao Paolo. Then I learned to speak Portuguese, and was a pretty good way to know Udila (sister of mutual friend Fernando Coelho) three or four years ago.
BG : Yeah.
LH : I knew Udila here in Panama. I graduated from the Academy in 1986. I joined the National Panamanian National Guard. When I was in Brazil, the Panamanian National Guard changed to PDF, the Panamanian Defense Force and Noriega became the Commander in Chief. You are familiar with the story of the bloody hell Noriega created politically as Commander in Chief for the…
BG : Yes but I continue to look for fresh ways to understand it.
LH : Panama is a country built on our national resources, our natural… geography, the place in the world, the strategic position, that’s the only resource Panamanians had. When this resource began, 25 September 1513… that’s the day Vasco Núñez de Balboa discovers that the other side of the Atlantic Coast… there was a sea… at that day, Panama becomes an isthmus. And, when Panama becomes an isthmus, the resource began and the problems too…
The first way to cross the country was the Camino Real. in middle of the jungle. After that, in sixteen-something, Francis Drake tried to reach the Atlantic side of the Camino Real, via the city “Nombre de Dios.” But “Nombre de Dios” was a pretty difficult to defend place, and the Spanish changed the Atlantic entrance to another city, Portobello.
BG : Near Colon.
LH : Near to Colon… and Portobello was a better place to defend because it’s a gulf and you can put a fort in the entrance of the gulf, with cannons. Terrible for the pirates and corsairs to get in the gulf past Portobello. So they find a river, the river Chagueres… and the river Chagueres goes to the isthmus on to the half of the passage that begins the Camino de Cruzes way…
BG : I see.
LH : And the story of Panama as inter-oceanic resource began with that… with both Caminos, Camino Real and then Camino de Cruzes.
In Panama, there was no civilization… there were no Mayas, no Aztecas, no nothing, just small tribes, no one with the sense of territory as a property, you know ? They don’t have complicated societies, it was pretty simple and the Spanish, they had to win each tribe. They don’t fight with a country or a nation, they fight with groups of Indians.
The City of Panama was founded in 1519… just six years after Balboa crossed. At the time Panama City was founded and grew with foreigners, the Indians and the slaves.
BG : Yes.
LH : OK? And the Europeans who live in Panama, they don’t make Panama their homes, they build places to stay for a while, different from all the countries, as the United States for instance. In the United States the people who come to live…
BG : They moved permanently.
LH : They MOVED! They were fine, looking for a place to grow, to make their happiness, pursue their happiness. In Panama, the Spanish conquerers, they saw this land as opportunity for riches and to Como, what’s the name… you know some Spanish?
BG : Poco.
LH : Forgive me for my English, my English…
BG : It is very good, very good! Congratulations !
LH : My wife always told me that my English sucks!
BG : (laughs)
LH : Because my wife speaks English pretty well.
BG : It’s fine.
LH : OK… the sense of the nationality, Panamanians don’t grow with the foreigners who come to Panama.The foreigners who come to Panama, they segregate themselves from the indigenous and from the slaves.
BG : Did the slaves come from the West Indies…
LH : Yes.
BG : …or directly from Africa ?
LH : It was both, because in this Spanish Empire, they have ordinances and permissions to create slaves. They don’t permit everybody to trade the slaves.You need a kind of license.
BG : Yeah.
LH : I don’t remember why, but in Panama slavery was pretty minimal until the eighteenth century. They mixed pretty slow, the mestiso, the combination between the European and indigenous in Panama, you can see these families, indigenous features in their physical appearance but never from black people. The indigenous and the slave, they didn’t mix until the 1800’s.They don’t develop the conception of being Panamanians. Even the word Panamanian did not exist at that time
BG : So, at that time was it a part of Columbia ?
LH : Panama was part of Spain until 1821… In 1821, because Spain was losing all its Empire. Panama was part of New Granada.
BG : New Granada?
LH : New Granada was Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador and Peru These countries known as Bolivarian countries because we were part of the same uh… Virreinato… you understand what Virreinato was in the past ?
BG : No.
LH : OK. The Spanish Empire in America created Virreinatos… Something like States.
BG : Right.
LH : And there was the Virreinato de la Plata, there was Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile… and the other, the Virreinato de la Nueva Granada, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela and Colombia, Ecuador, Panama.
BG : Yeah.
LH : Panamanian histories were not with North, Central America. This is a big difference between Panama and Central America. Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Salvador and Mexico, that was another Virreinato, I don’t remember the name of this Virreinato. Virreinato is a sub-kingdom, something like that… there was a Virrey, in each Virreinato.
Panama, at that time, in the Spanish occupation lived from the transit of the inter-oceanic route and the economy, all the good or the bad came from that business. Pizarro, to go to Peru to get the gold of the Incas thru here to Spain,then England developed the corsairs…
BG : The British Government did that?
LH : There was two types of piracy. The Pirate and the Corsair. The Corsair had the permission of the Queen to attack the Spanish.
BG : Ah, like a sort of mercenary?
LH : Yes ! That was the “Patente de Corso” the Corsair Patent to assault the Spanish ships. Francis Drake was one of the most famous corsairs because he had the permission of Queen Elizabeth. There is a history about their being lovers but nobody can prove that… (laughs) and probably never will…
The pirates were independent guys without any permission of the government to do the same. The attacks of the pirate and corsair were so big that in the eighteenth century ships began to make the journey to the south, to go around the Americas to go to Spain because the routes through Panama were too dangerous.
BG : Whoa.
LH : At the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Panama became independent from Spain, the United States began to try to own the route to Panama. President Andrew Jackson actually sent people to Panama to make studies of the coastal route for the Canal…
BG : The French as well…
LH : Well, yeah… I have to…this is pretty complicated
BG : So this is before the French ?
LH : Yes.
BG : When did someone look at the geography and say, ”This could be done?” How early did someone start to get curious that this may really be possible?
LH : From Balboa.
BG : From Balboa…?
LH : Balboa discovered the resources of the sea of the other side. At that time began the problem. There was so big a challenge to do an inter-oceanic road thru Panama that there was a lot of speculation in the sixteenth, in the seventeenth century there. The King of Spain prohibited studies about the Panama Canal, because there was a lot of speculation that the value of the land will increase to other powers. And the Spanish don’t want to make war with other countries because of the Canal. But, for Panama, the problem began in 1821 because we became independent from Spain, we become a part of Colombia. And Colombia began to make concessions.
BG : Concessions meaning licensing to…
LH : Yes! Exactly! The government makes a concession to a guy, to build the Canal. He has about five, six or ten years to build it… if he can’t, he loses the licensing and they gave it to another man. Until Panama becomes independent in 1903, Colombia ALWAYS, ALWAYS somebody had the licensing to do that.
BG : How did Panama become independent ?
LH : In 1855, the United States establishes the Monroe Doctrine.
BG : That’s right.
LH : And with the Monroe Doctrine there is a, there is a pre… the name of the treaty is “Mallarino-Bidlack”… for that treaty, United States becomes for the first time the guardian of the inter-oceanic passage.
BG : The guardian…
LH : The guardian.
BG : …of what ?
LH : The inter-oceanic area in Panama… this treaty, by this treaty Colombia makes an exchange with the United States because, for the United States the inter-oceanic passage in the Panama area was vital to the commerce between its east and west coasts.
BG : Oh , OK.
LH : Then there’s another… there’s a complication with the “Mallarino-Bidlack” with England… United States and England made an agreement to block Europe from building a Canal in Panama. The United States declared that was their privilege. And Colombia made the “Mallarino-Bidlack” treaty with the United States in 1855. United States bought the rights to build in Panama, you know, before that, American= was a… ah, OK! For us Americans everybody is American, not just United Staters (laughs).
BG : That’s right.
LH : For us, Americans is everybody in America. This is a pretty difficult word for us say: Americans.
BG : Yes, yes…
LH : There is a lot of confusion for that problem… eh… when I was young, I remember, you know, I was, no, I was a child, once my mother say to me that, ”No, you’re American too”… “Mummy, I’m American? ” because all the stuff I hear says that Americans were the guys from United States! It’s hard to believe that shit at the age of five… But there is a natural, eh… in Spain is the word : “Presentimiento.” It’s hard feelings.
BG : Hard feelings.
LH : Haha… because the Americans when they pass thru Panama, they treat us as shit.
BG : Yeah.
LH : At the top of the society at the time, the owners of commerce and services, they didn’t deal with that. Who had to deal with it were the people without resources, workers and slaves. In Panama, slavery stopped in, I believe, 1852, first of January. In Colombia, there were a lot of black people… without money, in poverty. This was the time of the gold fever in California….
BG : Right, the gold rush.
LH : And there were a lot of Californians and people around United States who are going to California thru Panama, using the railroad. The difference between doing it through Panama and through Mexico, the other way, was a month.
BG : Wow.
LH : You spend about three days from New York to Panama, one day to cross Panama thru the Railroad… and the other four or five days to California. You make it from one side to other in about… think about two weeks, less than two weeks. And through Mexico was about one month.
Well, at that time an American guy doesn’t want to pay the Panamanians because he was drunk. Jack, Jack Oliver’s the name, and the Panamanian’s last name was Luna… don’t remember the first name…
Well, for that began a big fight, but a big fight. The Americans lose more people than the Panamanians, I think ten dead, I don’t remember how many… but the damage was enormous. The United States officially ask for indemnities.
BG : All right.
LH : The families… for the damage… and the Colombian government had to pay something like 2 or 3 million dollars for that… I don’t remember the exact amount but it was enormous and a scandal, see… and it was the first big problem with Panama and the United States.
OK! I told you there was always a licensing about the…
BG : Right, the concessions.
LH : …the concessions to build the Canal. Well! One time, the concession went to a nephew of Napoleon. This guy owns the licensing to build the Canal in Panama and with this guy began the serious stuff… this guy sells this licensing to Ferdinand de Lesseps, the guy who will build the Suez Canal.
BG : Ha.
LH : Famous French guy, pretty good guy, he came to Panama, began to build the Canal in 1881. They try, but after ten years they go to the bancarrota…
BG : Bankruptcy.
LH : Because a lot of stupidity, corruption, and… misusing of the… capital of the enterprise… they build about two turns of the Canal… they were pretty close. A majority of Panamanians believe that the French company went bankrupt because they want to build a level canal. But that was only the first try of Lesseps… after a few years, he realizes, that the only way to build a Canal through Panama will be with locks, not a full level canal… and Lesseps hires Eiffel to design the locks.
BG : The guy who builds the Eiffel Tower.
LH : This guy designed the locks for the French canal. But this was a totally private enterprise, built with the money of poor people, they collect money from everybody. When the bankruptcy of the Canal hit, there were a LOT OF people who lost everything.
There was a guy, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, and another guy in the United States, William Nelson Cromwell, a lawyer in New York. He represented the French company in United States… and Bunau-Varilla was the engineer of the Panama Canal at the French company. When the company went to bankruptcy, he begin to buy every share of the company, and Nelson Cromwell and Bunau-Varilla owned the majority of the shares of the company in 1903. Since the French had about ten years without building shit, the concession to this company will end in 1904. In 1904, the shares bought by Varilla and Cromwell will be valued at….see? OK?
BG : I get it.
LH : And they began to conspire.
Part Two will be posted later this week.