Emperors in the Jungle: The Hidden History of the U. S. in Panama / Edition 1

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Emperors in the Jungle is an exposé of key episodes in the military involvement of the United States in Panama. Investigative journalism at its best, this book reveals how U.S. ideas about taming tropical jungles and people, combined with commercial and military objectives, shaped more than a century of intervention and environmental engineering in a small, strategically located nation. Whether uncovering the U.S. Army’s decades-long program of chemical weapons tests in Panama or recounting the invasion in December 1989 which was the U.S. military’s twentieth intervention in Panama since 1856, John Lindsay-Poland vividly portrays the extent and costs of U.S. involvement.

Analyzing new evidence gathered through interviews, archival research, and Freedom of Information Act requests, Lindsay-Poland discloses the hidden history of U.S.–Panama relations, including the human and environmental toll of the massive canal building project from 1904 to 1914. In stunning detail he describes secret chemical weapons tests—of toxins including nerve agent and Agent Orange—as well as plans developed in the 1960s to use nuclear blasts to create a second canal in Panama.

He chronicles sustained efforts by Panamanians and international environmental groups to hold the United States responsible for the disposal of the tens of thousands of explosives it left undetonated on the land it turned over to Panama in 1999. In the context of a relationship increasingly driven by the U.S. antidrug campaigns, Lindsay-Poland reports on the myriad issues that surrounded Panama’s takeover of the canal in accordance with the 1977 Panama Canal Treaty, and he assesses the future prospects for the Panamanian people, land, and canal area. Bringing to light historical legacies unknown to most U.S. citizens or even to many Panamanians, Emperors in the Jungle is a major contribution toward a new, more open relationship between Panama and the United States.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Investigative journalist and human rights activist Lindsay-Poland here distinguishes and examines seven types of military missions carried out by the United States in Panama since 1856: police interventions, intelligence and communications tasks, troop training, canal defense missions, tests of mat riel for climatic effects, various engineering feats, and tropical sanitation efforts. Using interviews, archives, and Freedom of Information Act documents, Lindsay-Poland discloses decades of hidden history, clandestine environmental activities, and covert chemical weapons tests. Accusing the United States of achieving its strategic aims by sacrificing Panama's people, tropical ecology, and self-determination, Lindsay-Poland presents a revealing, albeit disturbing, study focused on imperial impunity, racial hierarchy, the canals construction (1904-14) and transfer to Panama (1999), indigenous corruption, antidrug movements, and negative historical legacies. The compact volume concludes with Lindsay-Poland's challenging prospects for the Panamanian people, the Canal Zone, and U.S. foreign policy. Highly recommended for large public libraries and academic institutions supporting graduate programs in foreign policy, international environmental advocacy, and contemporary Latin American studies.-Sylvia D. Hall-Ellis, Univ. of Denver Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An eye-opening history of the tangled, racially freighted dealings of the American government with its sometime client state of Panama over a hundred years. The American invasion of Panama on December 20, 1989, was the most violent event in that country’s history for nearly a century--though, remarked one media scholar at the time, "If you just looked at television, the most violent thing American troops did in Panama was play rock music." That was far from all they did, writes Caribbeanist Lindsay-Poland; untold hundreds of Panamanians died in the American attack on Panama City, including many poor people unfortunate enough to have sheltered in the shadows of the capital’s official buildings. And, he continues, that was far from the first crime America inflicted on the small but strategically important Central American nation, populated, wrote Harper’s Weekly in 1902, by an ethnically mixed people with "negro blood enough to make them lazy, and Spanish blood sufficient to make them mean." There, in the supposedly savage tropics, American troops tested and stockpiled biological and chemical weapons, including enough Agent Orange to burn up good portions of the rainforest; there, for the first time, the US Air Force deployed the F117A stealth bomber, "which is invisible to radar, although Panama had no radar defenses," and managed to miss its target all the same; there, after withdrawing from the Panama Canal in December 1999, the American military left enough toxic waste to poison the land for generations to come--and has since done nothing to assist in the cleanup. All is of a piece, Lindsay-Poland concludes, with the long pattern of US foreign policy in the Third World, in which "theUnited States has sought to exercise imperial control without confronting the messy aspects of that control." Sure, Manuel Noriega was a bad guy. But, to judge by this persuasive account, Panama has seen plenty worse--most of them with Washington addresses.
From the Publisher

“John Lindsay-Poland´s book Emperors in the Jungle should be read by all Americans who do not understand why the U.S. has a serious image problem overseas and how the Department of Defense weakens U.S. policy. My experience is that the U.S. military becomes arrogant, hypocritical and unwilling to comply with treaty commitments when there is a budgetary cost involved, even if it means like in Panama, leaving behind threats to human life, health and safety.”— Fernando Manfredo Jr.,  former Panama Canal Treaty negotiator and co-Chairman of the Panama-U.S. Working Group for the removal of the hazards in the U.S. military ranges in Panama.

“[John Lindsay-Poland] tells us of ill-known truths and badly understood realities and thus helps prevent useless hatreds between two peoples who share so much common history. Panamanians must aspire to be universal if we want to survive as a people and as a nation in a globalized world, but we can only achieve that if we are authentic. On that path toward ourselves, John Lindsay-Poland has been and will be a welcome friend.”— Guillermo Castro, Panamanian sociologist, from the afterword

Emperors in the Jungle stands out as a most valuable contribution to understandings of the complex relationship between the United States and a tiny neighbor. It is one of the best available examples of Thucydides’s dictum that large nations do what they want, and small nations accept what they must, yet at the same time a reminder that small nations are not without power—after all is said and done, Panama now owns its canal.”—Lars Schoultz, author of Beneath the United States: A History of U.S. Policy toward Latin America

”John Lindsay-Poland has dedicated himself to issues of human rights and justice for Panamanians. His tireless efforts continue to motivate people and shed needed light on the truths he discovers. Emperors in the Jungle is a timeless look at the real dimensions of U.S. foreign policy.”—Barbara Trent, director of the Academy Award®-winning documentary, The Panama Deception

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822330981
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 1/28/2003
  • Series: American Encounters/Global Interactions Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

John Lindsay-Poland is Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Task Force on Latin America and the Caribbean. He is a coauthor of Inside Panama: The Essential Guide to its Politics, Economy, Society, and Environment. He was the editor of and staff writer for the quarterly Panamá Update and has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, NACLA Report on the Americas, The Progressive, Covert Action Quarterly, and Fellowship, among other publications.

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Read an Excerpt

Emperors in the jungle

The Hidden history of the U.S. in Panama
By John Lindsay-Poland

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3098-9

Chapter One



The Colombians are a mixture of Spanish, Indians, and negroes, and have the negro crimp of hair. They have negro blood enough to make them lazy, and Spanish blood sufficient to make them mean. - Harper's Weekly, 1902

Our work in Cuba and Panama will be looked upon as the earliest demonstration that the white man could flourish in the tropics and as the starting-point of the effective settlement of these regions by the Caucasian. - Colonel William C. Gorgas, 1909

To understand U.S. attitudes toward Panama, it is crucial to examine the historical roots of the U.S. military presence on the isthmus. Those roots were planted fifty years before the United States began working on the Panama Canal, on the eve of the U.S. Civil War, and were later deepened through a U.S. Army regime of environmental control to stem diseases that affected Whites.

Two events drove early U.S. military intervention and presence in Panama: the California Gold Rush, which brought thousands of North American travelers across the isthmus, and the construction of the trans-isthmian railroad using New York capital and West Indian labor. The relationships established during this period, as racial tensions in the antebellum United Statesmingled with local conflicts in Panama, shaped the intervention that followed. Popular images portrayed local governments and populations either as undisciplined savages who posed a hostile threat to U.S. interests and hegemony or as children who needed guidance (for example, to supervise elections). Private enterprise, local elites, and officials within the military itself also called on racial tropes to justify using force on the isthmus and establishing a more permanent U.S. presence, effectively preventing Panama from developing its lands and economy independently.

Apart from the 1899-1902 civil war in Colombia known as the Thousand Days War, the most memorable conflicts in Panama occurred when the conclusion of transit-construction projects generated widespread unemployment among Caribbean workers - as in 1856 and 1925 - and when the canal's construction was generating disease and highlighting inequities between Black workers and foreign capital, as in 1885. This period also traces the rise of the new U.S. Navy and the development of gunboat diplomacy in the region.


Panama did not spring whole from Theodore Roosevelt's machinations as if from the loins of Zeus. Over the course of the nineteenth century, isthmian political leaders developed a growing ambition for independence. When Panama separated from Spain in 1821, its leaders decided to incorporate the isthmus into the Gran Colombia federation. Panama subsequently declared its independence from Colombia in 1830, 1831, and 1840, but each time the separation was quickly aborted. Panama's separatist impulses were strengthened by the absence of roads connecting the isthmus to Colombia and by the fact that Panama's trade was carried out not with the Colombian capital, Bogota, but with Caribbean and South American ports. Ultimately, however, cementing Panama's separation from Colombia would require the crystallization of the canal ambitions of both the isthmus's elite and the Colossus of the North.

Panama's population in 1900 consisted of five principal groups: White residents of the capital; Mestizo peasants from the savannas on the Pacific slope; a merchant class in the provinces; and poor Blacks or Mulattos, mostly concentrated in Panama City, in Colon, and on the United Fruit Company plantations in Chiriqui Province. Indigenous people made up a fifth group, uncounted in nineteenth-century censuses. The Blacks were primarily the descendants of slaves who had experienced emancipation in 1852, or West Indians brought to Panama during the eras of railroad and French canal construction. Panamanian Whites in the capital dominated the economy because of their command of external relations and their ability to supply the railroad and canal enterprises with goods that ranged from beef to cement. They also controlled urban real estate, which allowed capital elites to tax foreign interests and local Blacks, and to revive after periodic defeats.

The rural economy during the nineteenth century was based primarily on cattle ranching. Although peasant families lived widely dispersed from one another on subsistence farms, land tenancy was largely communal in nature, without fences between plots. Transportation of cattle to markets in Panama City was difficult, so peasants developed cottage industries such as production of silk, dried meats, and leather items.

Another social group, albeit a transient one, was Colombian soldiers stationed on the isthmus, who constituted the principal public expenditure in Panama from the late 1700s until the railroad was built in Panama in 1855. The foreign troops' presence accentuated the province's externally oriented trade structure. The isthmus as a whole had fewer than 123,000 inhabitants in 1843, and fewer than 20,000 lived in Panama Province, which includes Panama City. Colon, which became the Caribbean port city, was a town of only 3,200 people.


Facing competition from British interest in constructing a transisthmian canal or railroad, the United States signed the Bidlack Treaty with Colombia in December 1846. The treaty, concluded during the expansionist war with Mexico, made the United States the guarantor of Colombian control over Panama in exchange for free access to any future canal. The agreement also ratified Panamanians' status as pawns of foreign powers, which was reinforced in 1850 when the United States and England signed the Clayton - Bulwer Treaty guaranteeing U.S. - British cooperation in any future canal without reference to Colombia or Panama.

The discovery of gold in California in 1849 led thousands of foreigners eager for wealth - U.S. citizens prominent among them - to trek across Panama, the shortest land route between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The boom in the years that followed packed Panama City and Colon with travelers, yielding windfalls for local Whites who owned or built housing. The United States' successful annexation of a third of Mexico, including California, prompted many Americans to swagger like arrogant victors and to talk in the U.S. press about annexing the isthmus.

Just before news of gold reached the East Coast, the New York investors of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company obtained a concession to build a railroad. The company imported workers from China, Ireland, and elsewhere for the job, but most workers were Blacks from Jamaica and Cartagena. The imported workers gave rise in 1853 and 1855 to epidemics of yellow fever, which previously had been rare. Exploited, sick, and full of despair, hundreds of Chinese workers and their families killed themselves en masse in 1854. More than six thousand laborers - perhaps twice that many - died in the railroad's construction.8?

Completed in 1855, the railroad allowed passengers to cross the isthmus and leave Panama more quickly - in three hours, instead of the three days required by mule and boat. Charging $25 in gold per passenger and with forty thousand passages annually, the railroad was a cash cow for its New York owners. It netted more than $7 million in its first six years of operation. It was also the largest U.S. investment in Latin America at the time. Gold mined from California's soil would pass across Panama, $29 million worth in 1855 alone.

Panama was a free-for-all, a dangerous place in the 1850s. Millions of dollars in gold treasure led inevitably to temptation and robberies, and many ordinary people armed themselves with guns and knives. Thousands of Black laborers who had worked on the railroad were left without jobs when the line was completed. Moreover, Panama lost up to $150,000 in monthly income previously generated by those who paid for non-rail transportation of passengers, freight, and merchandise, and an economic depression settled on the isthmus. Tension and resentment were made more intense, especially among Blacks, by a rumor that mercenaries from the U.S. adventurer William Walker's band were present in Panama City. Walker's army had recently taken over Nicaragua and declared it an annexed slave state.

This was the setting for the clash between Americans and Panamanians on April 19, 1856 known as the Watermelon Riot. The events unfolded outside the railroad station, where a crowd of travelers waited to board a steamer anchored in the bay and the train to Colon. A drunken man bound for California, John Oliver, wanted a piece of watermelon from a fruit stand run by Jose Manuel Luna. After taking a bite, Oliver walked away; Luna chased him. Oliver drew a gun; Luna, a knife. When another man grabbed Oliver's gun, a shot went off, and foreigners chased the man away. Word of what had happened spread, and local residents formed a mob and flooded toward the rail station, attacking men and women and looting. In the end, sixteen passengers were killed and another sixteen were injured. One or two local people were killed. The United States did not land troops during the riot, but it did demand reparations for the loss of human life.

William Mervine, commander of the U.S. Pacific Squadron, had an opportunity to demonstrate U.S. force five months later. When internal struggles in Panama's Legislative Assembly led the opposition party, known as the Blacks, to threaten to take up arms, Mervine ordered troops landed to protect U.S. citizens from the conflict.

Four years later, as the U.S. prepared for civil war, a conflict broke out on the outskirts of Panama City, again pitting Blacks against the governing power. On September 27, 1860, railway agent William Nelson wrote to the U.S. consul: The niggers are at the railroad bridge and I fear if they get out of ammunition, they may come here to take our arms." Nelson asked for a contingent of marines to protect the railroad station. Colombian authorities declared martial law and requested a landing of U.S. troops, who stayed for ten days (see table 1).

The pressure generated by the U.S. Civil War and the need to address slavery definitively prompted Abraham Lincoln to propose another kind of intervention - specifically, to establish a colony of emancipated and deported Blacks in the western province of Chiriqui. In 1855, the Chiriqui Improvement Company, founded in Philadelphia by Ambrose Thompson, obtained a concession from Colombia for one hundred seventy thousand acres in Chiriqui, and in 1861 it tendered a proposal to the U.S. Navy to sell it coal at half the price it was then paying. Lincoln, who believed that Whites and Blacks could not coexist harmoniously, sought a place to which emancipated slaves could be shipped and put to work. Coal mines, he told a roomful of free Blacks in August 1862, will afford an opportunity to the inhabitants for immediate employment till they get ready to settle permanently in their homes." Colombia, however, saw the plan as a kind of subtle invasion. Central American countries were also opposed, and many freed Blacks in the United States greeted Lincoln's proposal with hostility. It was scrapped.

In 1880, after the interlude of Reconstruction, President Rutherford Hayes declared, The policy of this country is a canal under American control." Hayes warned Europeans that, if a canal on the isthmus were under their control, they could not expect to send their navies to protect European investments on the isthmus without America's invoking the Monroe Doctrine and military opposition. In the days before Hayes's statement, U.S. Navy ships anchored in Almirante Bay on the Atlantic coast and Golfo Dulce on the Pacific coast to conduct explorations without notifying the Colombian authorities. The ships' commanders had orders to fire at their discretion on any who might attempt to dislodge them and to await replacements before leaving the isthmus. Colombia's representative in Washington, Justo Arosemena, protested the incursion, writing: When governments attempt to acquire land in foreign countries for construction or enterprises such as that under discussion, they normally begin by obtaining the consent of the sovereign of the country in which the land is located."

Congress subsequently recommended constructing naval coaling stations along the isthmus, and in January 1881, Secretary of the Navy Nathan A. Goff Jr. requested and obtained $200,000 for naval coaling stations, asserting that coal in Panama would save the Navy money. This interest in coaling stations would be an important factor in the U.S. Navy's role on the isthmus in 1885.


By that time, Colombia was in the grip of a civil war between the government in Bogota, controlled by the Conservative Party, and an insurgent Liberal army. In mid-March, railroad transit ceased as a result of the fighting between the federal and Liberal factions. In Panama, the Liberals in arms were led by Rafael Aizpuru, former president of the state of Panama, and Pedro Prestan, a Mulatto lawyer and onetime representative of Colon in the Panama state assembly. New York representatives of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and United Magdalena Steam Navigation Company clamored for U.S. Navy intervention.

The atmosphere in Colon had turned ugly by mid-March. "The ominous word of 'Lynch,' ... is become of hourly use," wrote the U.S.-owned Panama Star and Herald in a note reprinted by the New York Times. "Should that judge unfortunately find himself compelled to act, it is probable his decisions would lead to a quieter feeling prevailing, while his judgments would be confirmed by every one of repute in the community.

Meanwhile, Prestan ordered that a load of weapons should be sent from New York to Colon on a ship owned by Pacific Mail. The weapons were crucial to the rebels, who were outgunned (if not outmanned) by the government forces. Colombian Minister Ricardo Becerra had strenuously objected to such shipments of arms to the insurgents as violations of U.S. neutrality law. Secretary of State Thomas Bayard told Becerra that the United States had to maintain the "right of its citizens to carry on ... the ordinary traffic in arms with rebellious or other parts" of Colombia.

But when the weapons arrived at port on March 30, the U.S. agent refused to release the cargo. Prestan took six U.S. hostages, who escaped without harm, and Prestan's men retreated to the city, where fighting continued. U.S. marines guarded the railroad office, the U.S. consulate, and the Pacific Mail wharf, but some people apparently used the chaos to loot properties owned by the French canal company. The company formed a guard that included U.S. marines, who caught dozens of the looters. "All caught red handed were immediately tried and on the following day shot," the New York Times reported. "Fifty-eight persons, among whom, it is believed, were several innocent people, were thus summarily despatched." Defeated by government troops, Prestan fled by boat to Cartagena.

The worst calamity during this period was the destruction by fire of virtually the entire city of Colon on March 31, as the rebels retreated. The fire left thousands of West Indians and Panamanians homeless and killed hundreds of residents and wounded soldiers who were caught in the blaze. The material damage was heavy. All of the docks except Pacific Mail's were destroyed.

The events in Colon catalyzed Navy Secretary William C. Whitney into action. He ordered three warships, a steamer chartered from Pacific Mail, and six hundred marines and sailors to Colon to open the transit line, which was achieved on April 11. Three days later, the Colombian government in Bogota formally requested U.S. intervention, now a fait accompli. Foreigners and Colombian government authorities accused Prestan of igniting the city. The Navy sent a ship in pursuit to Cartagena, where Prestan was arrested by Colombian forces, returned to Colon, and tried there by a military court. Four foreign witnesses testified that he had been heard to threaten to burn Colon if his forces lost, while he asserted that he was being tried because he had laid hands on Whites representing the U.S. government. His claims of innocence and the context leave room for doubt about whether Prestan was responsible.


Excerpted from Emperors in the jungle by John Lindsay-Poland Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 A Platform for Control: Interventions and Army Doctors, 1856-1925 11
2 "Test Tube Island" 44
3 The Nuclear Canal 74
4 Playing the Drug Card 103
5 The Politics of Environmental Cover-up 138
6 Market Mania 172
7 Continuity and Change in the Military's Vision 191
Afterword: Knowing Ourselves: Exhortation to Read a Friendly Text 207
Notes 211
Index 253
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