The isthmian region was an area of economic transshipment long before Europeans explored it. It was also the converging point of
several significant Amerindian cultures. Mayan, Aztec, Chibcha, and Caribs had indirect and direct contact with the area. The first European to explore Panama was the Spaniard Rodrigo de Bastidas in 1501. In 1502, Columbus claimed the region for Spain. In 1513, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa led soldiers across the isthmus and made the European discovery of the Pacific Ocean. Despite strong resistance by the Cuna Amerindians, the settlements of Nombre de Dios, San Sebastián, and, later, Portobelo were established on the Caribbean coast, while Panama City was founded on the Pacific coast. In 1567, Panama was made part of the viceroyalty of Peru. English buccaneers, notably Sir Francis Drake in the 16th century and Henry Morgan in the 17th, contested Spanish hegemony in Panama, burning and looting its ports, including Panama City in 1671.
From the 16th until the mid-18th century, the isthmus was a strategic link in Spanish trade with the west coast of South America, especially the viceregal capital of Lima. In 1740, the isthmus was placed under the jurisdiction of the newly recreated viceroyalty of New Granada.
Panama declared its independence from Spain in 1821 and joined the Republic of Gran Colombia, a short-lived union of Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, founded in 1819. In 1826, it was the seat of the Pan American Conference called by the Liberator, Simón Bolívar. When Gran Colombia was dissolved in 1829–30, Panama still remained part of Colombia. Secessionist revolts took place in 1830 and 1831, and during 1840–41.
The discovery of gold in California in 1848 brought the isthmus into prominence as a canal site linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. After the French failed to build one in the 1880s, they sold those rights to the United States for $40 million. The United States then negotiated the Hay-Herrán Treaty with Colombia in 1903. After Colombia refused to ratify the treaty, Panama seceded from Colombia and, backed by US naval forces, declared its independence on 3 November 1903. Panama then signed a canal agreement with the United States and received a lump sum of $10 million and an annual rent of $250,000. The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty (1903) granted the United States in perpetuity an 8-km (5-mi) strip of land on either side of the canal and permitted the United States to intervene to protect Panamanian independence, to defend the canal, and to maintain order in the cities of Panama and Colón and in the Canal Zone.
The United States intervened to establish order in 1908—while the canal was under construction—and, after the canal had opened to traffic, in 1917 and again in 1918. In 1936, however, the United States adopted a policy of nonintervention, and in 1955, the annuity was raised to $1,930,000.
During the postwar decades, the question of sovereignty over the Canal Zone was a persistent irritant in Panamanian politics. On 9 January 1964, riots broke out in the Canal Zone as Panamanians protested US neglect of a 1962 joint Panama-US flag-flying agreement. On the following day, Panama suspended relations with the United States and demanded complete revision of the Canal Zone treaty. Thereafter, Panama sought sovereignty over the Canal Zone and the elimination of the concept of perpetuity on any future arrangement. Diplomatic relations were restored in April, but negotiations went slowly thereafter.
The Panamanian government turned to dictatorship in October 1968, when National Guard Brig. Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera deposed the elected president and established a dictatorship.
Final agreement on the future of the canal and the Canal Zone came on 7 September 1977, when Gen. Torrijos and US president Jimmy Carter signed two documents at OAS headquarters in Washington, D.C. The first document, the Panama Canal Treaty, abrogated the 1903 Hay-Bunau-Varilla accord, recognized Panama's sovereignty over the Canal Zone (which ceased to exist as of 1 October 1979), and granted the United States rights to operate, maintain, and manage the canal through 31 December 1999, when ownership of the canal itself would revert to Panama. Panama would receive a fixed annuity of $10 million and a subsidy of $0.30 (to be adjusted periodically for inflation) for every ton of cargo that passed through the canal, plus up to $10 million annually from operating surpluses. The second document, the so-called Neutrality Treaty, guaranteed the neutrality of the canal for "peaceful transit by the vessels of all nations" in time of both peace and war. An additional provision added in October denied the United States the right of intervention into Panamanian affairs. The treaties were ratified by plebiscite in Panama on 23 October 1977 and, after prolonged debate and extensive amendment, by the US Senate in March and April 1978. When both treaties came into force in 1979, about 60% of the former Canal Zone's total area immediately came under Panama's direct control, including 11 of 14 military bases, the Panama City-Colón railway, and ports at both ends of the canal.
The Torrijos regime was populist, with a wide appeal to the neglected lower and lower middle classes of Panama. Moreover, Torrijos established nationalist credentials by standing up to the United States and demanding recognition of Panama's positions on the Canal Zone. Torrijos resigned as head of government in 1978 but continued to rule behind the scenes as National Guard commander until his death in a plane crash on 31 July 1981. Over the next few years, the National Guard, now renamed the Panama Defense Forces (PDF), came under the influence of Gen. Manuel Noriega.
On the civilian side, Aristedes Royo was elected president by the Assembly in October 1978, and was forced out of office in July 1982. His successor was the vice president, Ricardo de la Espriella, who resigned in February 1984, just three months before scheduled presidential elections. In those elections, the economist and former World Bank official Nicolás Ardito Barletta, the military's approved candidate, won a close victory over former president Arnulfo Arias Madrid (running for the fifth time), in an election marked by voting irregularities and fraud. Barletta soon lost the confidence of the military and was forced out in September 1985. Vice President Eric Arturo Delvalle assumed power.
By 1987, Noriega had been accused by close associates and the United States of falsifying the 1984 election results, plotting the deaths of prominent opposition leaders and Gen. Torrijos, drug trafficking, giving aid to the Colombian radical group M-19 and Salvadoran rebels, and providing intelligence and restricted US technology to Cuba. Opposition forces, including the Roman Catholic Church, intensified and the government responded by banning public protest. The US Senate approved legislation cutting off aid to Panama in December 1987. In February 1988, following indictments of Noriega in US courts for drug trafficking, President Delvalle announced Noriega's dismissal. Noriega refused to step down, and the Legislative Assembly voted to remove Delvalle from office and replace him with Manuel Solís Palma, the minister of education. Delvalle went into hiding, and Panama entered a two-year period of instability and conflict.
Noriega also had problems within the PDF. Dissident military leaders, with either tacit or direct US approval, attempted coups in March 1988 and in October 1989. Unable to rely on the loyalty of the PDF, Noriega created his own paramilitary force, called the "Dignity Batallions," which were nothing more than freelance thugs called in at the dictator's whim. Domestically, Noriega suffered from a lack of support. In March 1987, a general strike occurred for several weeks. Emboldened by US efforts to remove Noriega, opposition forces coalesced, even as the government became more repressive. In elections held in May 1989, opposition candidates scored overwhelming victories, forcing Noriega to annul the elections and rely on intimidation and force.
Finally, the United States was engaged in a series of moves calculated to bring down the Noriega regime, which eventually led to a showdown. In March 1988, President Ronald Reagan suspended preferential trade conditions and withheld canal-use payments. In April, Reagan froze US-held Panamanian assets and suspended all private payments to Panama. Negotiations to allow Noriega to step down dissolved in May, when Noriega refused to abide by an agreement between the United States and Noriega's assistants. The administration of President George H.W. Bush continued pressure on Noriega, but itself came under criticism for its inability to resolve the problem. Finally, in December 1989, Noriega played his final card, declaring war on the United States and ordering attacks on US military personnel.
President George H.W. Bush responded quickly, ordering the US military into Panama. The troops remained for a week, delayed when Noriega sought sanctuary in the residence of the Papal Nuncio. Noriega surrendered, and was returned to the United States for trial. Immediately, the Panamanian Electoral Tribunal declared the 1989 elections valid and confirmed the results. Guillermo Endara became president, Ricardo Arias Calderón first vice president, and Guillermo "Billy" Ford second vice president. Legislative elections were confirmed for most Legislative Assembly seats, and in January 1991 a special election filled the remaining seats.
Under President Endara, Panama made some strides toward economic recovery, but these were only impressive because the situation under Noriega had become so desperate. Politically, Endara lacked nationalist credentials, especially since he was installed by US military might. His administration was widely criticized for the continuing poor economic conditions.
In May 1994, a new president, Ernesto Pérez Balladares, was elected in the country's first free and fair elections since 1968. His opponent, Mireya Moscoso, entered political life in 1964 when she worked on the campaign of Arnulfo Arias, whom she eventually married. After Arias's death in 1988, Moscoso returned to Panama, where she formed the Arnulfista party, named for Arnulfo Arias. Balladares's Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) was closely associated with the Noriega dictatorship but the new president identified himself with the populist Torrijos regime. The years of Pérez Balladeres's rule were characterized by a multiparty cabinet that included several members who publicly denounced former dictator Manuel Noriega. Peréz Balladeres set in motion various economic reforms and continued close collaboration with the United States to implement treaties regarding the eventual turnover of the Panama Canal to Panamanian rule (which occurred 31 December 1999). A law ratified in 1997 created the Canal Authority to administer the Canal after the United States relinquished control. Though Pérez Balladeres worked to pass a referendum to allow his reelection, it failed.
Presidential campaigns ensued. The PRD, with its majority in Congress, campaigned fiercely with its candidate Martin Torrijos Espino, son of the late dictator. The main opposition was the Arnulfista Party. Its candidate, Mireya Moscoso (who is the widow of Arias), swept the elections on 2 May 1999. Moscoso thus became the first woman to take the office. Moscoso, who had run in 1994 and lost (to Pérez Balladeres), defeated Torrijos in what was considered a fair election; 75% of the country's 2.7 million citizens voted. Moscoso took office on 1 September 1999.
As the end of the decade neared, the country prepared for the withdrawal of the US military on 31 December 1999, under the terms of the Panama Canal Treaty. Moscoso officiated the formal ceremony where the United States relinquished power over the Canal. The Panama Canal was officially handed over to Panamanian rule on 31 December 1999; this marked an end to 80 years of US occupation. Though the accompanying ceremony took place a week prior to the historic date due to potential complications with millennium celebrations, the significance was nonetheless grand. The ceremony, officiated by Moscoso and former US president Jimmy Carter, also included King Juan Carlos of Spain and several Latin American leaders. Carter, who began the process to grant Panama control over the waterway more than 20 years ago under a treaty with then-president General Omar Torrijos, signed over the United States rule. President Bill Clinton declined invitations to attend the ceremony. The celebrations that ensued were overshadowed somewhat by concerns from US conservative politicians that the canal will not be secure in Panamanian hands. However, President Clinton pledged continued collaboration with Panama to ensure the canal's security.
Since regaining control of the canal, Panama has experienced difficulties turning the canal into an engine for economic growth. The economy expanded by less than 3% in 2001 and 2002 and despite being the country with the second highest per capita income in Central America, 50% of Panamanians live in poverty. As the first woman president of Panama, Moscoso has faced ongoing criticism from her opposition regarding her lack of experience and her inability to reverse the trend of increasing levels of unemployment, poverty, and worsening social services in Panama. After overseeing the much-anticipated (but barely celebrated) transfer of the management of the Panama Canal from the United States to the Panamanian government in 2000, Moscoso has failed to turn the long-awaited moment into a new beginning for Panama's economic recovery. The economy has expanded slowly and the government has failed to turn its control over the canal into a powerful engine for growth.