Western Panama stretches from the border of Costa Rica to the edge of the Canal Zone. This area had no national government for thirty years after Panama City was destroyed in 1983. Although Colombia claims the entire region as part of "the District of West Panama", it has no actual control over anything but a few outposts. And though Colombia claims that the rest of the region is under the control of guerrilla groups and isolated camps, western Panama does in fact contain four or five organized regional or urban governments, besides a number of unaffiliated villages and an ever-shifting network of armed groups.
Since 2013, a stable but loosely-governed federation has finally emerged that has been able to reunite most of the region. A growing number of nations have given it diplomatic recognition. Its rise has complicated Colombia's desire to take all of Panama, and now even the South American nations do not all support this effort.
- 1 Background
- 2 Surviving communities in western Panama
- 3 Unification Movements
- 4 Geopolitics of Western Panama
- 5 See Also
A single nuclear weapon would perhaps not be enough to cause most states to disintegrate. Panama, however, was particularly vulnerable to an attack on its capital. Nearly half of Panama's population lived in Panama City or Colón, and the canal drove most economic activity. The canal-based service sector (commerce and associated jobs) dominated the economy, playing a much larger role than agriculture and industry.
Therefore, a single nuclear attack was able to totally disrupt the functioning of the Republic of Panama. The capital was left in ruin and the canal was not serviceable. The Panamanian government had been fragile at the time of the attack; General Manuel Noriega was in charge of the armed forces, but it was not clear who held real power in the government. The destruction of the capital and the canal overwhelmed the government's ability to cope with the situation.
Rural Panama immediately faced a massive humanitarian crisis as refugees left the canal region in both directions. Eastward, they confronted the imposing Darién jungles, where many soon died in the terrible conditions of the camps. To the west, Panama's agricultural land, refugees had slightly better chances. Nevertheless, troubles were numerous. The sheer number of displaced people was too much for the towns and villages of western Panama to accommodate. Many refugees kept moving, and where they stayed, they often pushed out the previous residents. The domino effect of displacement stretched to the Costa Rican border and beyond.
In this environment, power often fell to those with the most guns. Near the capital, groups of Americans fought Noriega's Panamanian Defense Forces for control of what was left of the country's center. Further west, heavily armed drug traffickers, deprived of their supplies and their markets, had nothing left but their weapons and their brutality and began to exploit the local population. They competed with military elements and carved out pockets of territory for themselves. The to-and-fro of the fighting among these factions was complex and does not need to be recounted here. As violence gripped Panama, local civil authorities struggled to protect their citizens, whether by seeking outside help, making peace with powerful armed groups, or resisting them.
For a number of reasons, this situation has never stabilized. Strong government continues to elude western Panama. A few local statelets, however, have emerged as islands of stability despite all odds. Because of continued pressure from guerrillas and a lack of regional support, their existence remains in jeopardy. Costa Rica has long sought to play the role of referee in the region and has consistently supported local initiatives, but it has also been racked by its own problems and often been unable to lend a hand. Colombia's territorial ambitions in western Panama have hurt its reputation with the locals and hurt its ability to coordinate the region. Panamanians have made numerous attempts to re-establish a national government, but to date none have succeeded.
Surviving communities in western Panama
David (officially, San José de David) was Panama's third largest city and the country's agricultural center. Though low-lying and hot, its hinterland, the province of Chiriquí, is full of comfortably cool highlands. David is also the major city farthest from the canal and closest to Costa Rica; for all these reasons, it has appeared well situated to be the center of a revived Panamanian state. Outsiders frequently point to David as a potential future capital of Panama.
Like the rest of the region, after the war David was flooded with refugees. As the last stop before Costa Rica, David faced especially acute issues of overpopulation and sanitation. City and provincial leaders, sensing that their town was likely now the largest in Panama, organized a provisional government with the help of some national officials who were among the refugees. As the "Provisional Government of the Republic of Panama", David appealed to Costa Rica for aid late in 1983. Costa Rica helped absorb some of the refugees and helped David establish a network of field hospitals and semi-permanent camps.
At the same time, David made contact with Manuel Noriega and his Panamanian Defense Forces. Chiriquí province had been Noriega's strongest base of support, and the provisional government there felt that support from the strongman would improve their chances of success. They informed him that they had formed a new national government and provisionally named him President, a title he had never held before. Noriega sent a detachment of troops to David but would not leave the central part of the country, where he was desperately trying to maintain his position around Colón and Penonomé. The troops arrived in 1984 and helped the David government keep order in the refugee camps. Most communities in the western end of Panama, including the Ngäbe-Buglé nation, recognized David as the new national capital.
These promising signs did not translate into long-term stability. Within a year, Noriega was dead. In 1985 the Costa Rican government was forced to flee its own capital as the Nicaraguan Civil War spilled across its northern border. David's legitimacy as a national capital had depended on links with both the general and the foreign ally; now, both were gone. Deprived of resources, David found itself unable to care for its inflated population, and many moved westward into the now lawless Costa Rican borderland.
The civilian government and the military (the detachment sent by Noriega in 1984) relied on one another to maintain power in and around David. But their relationship was not always harmonious. At several points, military officers took direct control of the administration.
Costa Rica's civil war ended in 1993. Over the next two years, its unity government brought its border with Panama back under control. Costa Rica's next step was helping western Panama find stability; otherwise, the republic could not hope to maintain its own frontier. From their point of view, David remained the provisional capital of the country. However, the city was clearly in no position to directly control anything outside Chiriquí province. Moreover, it was going through a period of military rule, and Costa Rica did not trust the officers in charge to lead Panama's government.
The joint Arias-Cuadro government in Costa Rica promised to aid David, but only if the military rulers returned the city to civilian control. Successive Costa Rican administrations continued this policy, and it has helped David remain in civilian hands. Democracy was only partially restored, however. In many ways, the ruling clique of 1983 remain in charge today. Elections have taken place only sporadically.
The office of President remained vacant for years after Noriega's death. After that, David only rarely made claims to be the legitimate successor to Panama. It is essentially a city-state with a wide hinterland. It led by a Governor and a legislature representing the city and surrounding settlements. The Panamanian flag is still flown, and David's laws are always enacted "in the name of the Republic of Panama". The city has been the center of every major reunification effort within the country. It has never declared independence but is acknowledged as a sovereign state by Costa Rica and some other nations.
David's territory currently comprises most of the old Chiriquí province, plus some highlands to the north.
Bocas, or Bocas del Toro, is a town on an island in the Chiriquí lagoon on the Caribbean side of the isthmus. Of all the Panamanian survivor states, it has the longest and closest relationship with Costa Rica. Costa Rica began sending aid to the town, which was the capital of Bocas del Toro province, in 1983. They remained in contact, mainly by boat, even after the Costa Rican government relocated to Limón in 1985.
Bocas Town maintained control over the islands of the archipelago and some of the adjacent coastline, but lost contact with most of the interior, which was overrun by various armed groups, including former drug traffickers. When these threatened Bocas' narrow strip of the mainland in 1990, it needed help from Costa Rica's small, fledgling militia. Three years later, Costa Rica had a unity government and an army. Bocas and the unity government drew up articles that esentially made the city-state a Costa Rican protectorate.
Today, Bocas enjoys a basically healthy democracy. Its relationship with Costa Rica is as close as ever, and every so often someone will talk about annexation. A large majority of Bocatoreños are against becoming Costa Rican; however, they would rather become Costa Rican than Colombian, and if Colombia ever tried to make good on its claims to all of Panama, it is likely that Bocas would not hesitate to join its western neighbor.
Changuinola is a town lying between Bocas del Toro and the Costa Rican border. It became an independent city-state in 1998 after a joint military operation by Costa Rica and David defeated the "narcocrats" in power there. Neither David, Costa Rica, nor Bocas were able to occupy and control this territory directly, so they instead helped locals organize a new government. Civil government took over in 2000, and while corruption is a continuing problem, Changuinola remains a stable democracy.
In the years since, treaties with Bocas and David have granted Changuinola control over significant portions of the forested highlands in the interior of the isthmus. It fought an long-running dispute with Costa Rica, which occupied about a third of its de jure territory. CR claimed that its military needs these positions to outflank Limonese rebels in its own Caribbean coastland. In 2014, with the Limon Crisis replaced by a new crisis in Panama, Costa Rica finally withdrew from this territory.
Traditional social structures helped the indigenous Ngäbe and Buglé people, collectively called the Guaymí, to weather the nuclear war fairly well. Most refugees in 1983 followed the Pan-American Highway that passes south of their core lands. In 1984 delegates gathered in the town of Chichica and declared the formation of a new comarca to govern their peoples' affairs until the Panamanian government could be restored.
The David provisional government worked through the new comarca and passed a bill delineating its boundaries. Political instability in David after 1985 caused the Ngäbe and Buglé to drift away from its control. It has existed as a basically independent nation ever since.
Like the Kuna, Emberá, and Wounaan people at the other end of the country, traditional language and culture have held the Guaymí people together throughout the postwar chaos. In general, the nation has cooperated willingly with its neighbors, but due to a territorial dispute with Bocas over lands on the coast, it chose to stay out of the Third Federation.
The official name of the state is The Comarca of the Ngäbe and Buglé Peoples, but informally many outsiders call it Guaymía.
Azuero is a peninsula shaped like a tilted square about 100 km on a side, jutting southward into the Pacific. It was traditionally the "Heart of Panama", the center of the country's traditional rural culture, which combines Spanish and Pre-columbian elements. Azuero was also where, in the village of Los Santos in 1821, Panamanians signed their country's first declaration of independence from Spain. Before the war, the peninsula relied on agriculture, in particular the cattle industry. In fact, large swaths of Azuero were heavily deforested to make more grazing land, with disastrous results - with the trees gone, the sea winds took most of the soil from the deforested areas. Two small cities, Chitré and Las Tablas, were the main population centers. Politically, Azuero was divided into two provinces and a part of a third.
Conditions after Doomsday tested the famous welcoming, generous attitudes of the inhabitants. The largest number of refugees followed the Pan-American Highway toward Costa Rica, but a fair number took the southern spur - the Carretera Nacional - into Azuero. To help maintain order, local officials asked the military to come into the peninsula. The troops turned out to be far more concerned with drafting refugees and locals to use as cannon fodder against their rivals, than with helping local authorities.
In towns and villages, people began to take matters into their own hands. An organized revolt took shape, led by former provincial leaders in both cities, who did their best to keep the revolt under their control. A deep sense of betrayal, together with a mistrust of city people, both refugees and military, shaped the movement. Within three years, most armed factions had left Azuero, unable to contend with this organized movement of citizens and local governments.
In 1988 delegates met in Los Santos in the same building where independence had been declared in 1821. They declared the formation of a new Repúlica de Azuero - the only community in Panama to take this step. The new republic would govern the peninsula until a new national regime emerged in Panama "which embodies the principles of freedom, equality, and the spirit of the Panamanian people."
Given these roots, Azuero has emerged as a stable and secure, yet stubbornly isolationist successor state. It has been an inconsistent supporter of the different federations led by David since 1991. Its cooperation is seen as essential for any locally-driven reunification project, not only because of its firm control of its territory, but also for its food resources. The republic's government sponsored a diversification of agriculture in the late 80s and early 90s, which finally helped to feed its people. Reforestation has been less successful, and especially near the seashore many doubt whether the man-made desert can ever be replanted.
Azuero is defended by a militia, service in which is a firm requirement of citizenship. A village-based democracy has emerged, but society remains rigidly divided into two classes: Azuerenses - residents of the peninsula as of August 1983, and their descendants - and Refugiados and their descendants. The rights of the latter are greatly restricted, and their interests are represented in the legislature by a separate, weaker house. Las Tablas is the current seat of government.
In many ways, life in Azuero goes on much as it did before. Its citizens see it as a lifeboat for Panamanian culture and folklore and have maintained many of the colorful traditions that existed before the war. Most modern contrivances have disappeared from the peninsula. The revolutionary government hoarded almost all remaining fuel to use for reconaissance airplanes based in the small airports at Las Tablas and Pedasí, at Azuero's southeastern corner.
Veraguas can be considered the most successful of Panama's "warlord states". While civil authority has broken down in most of Panama, a relatively calm block of land exists in the former Veraguas province around Santiago, the old provincial capital. Power changed hands many times during the 80s and 90s, but the current regime has been in power for almost twenty years. Some of its leaders have been former American soldiers from the Canal Zone, allied with some Panamanian armed elements.
Veraguas participated in the first two Panamanian Federations, which gave it some legitimacy in the eyes of the rest of the country.
Islas de las Perlas
Though located in eastern Panama, the Pearl Islands were for a time part of the network of west Panamanian communities. Dependent on fishing and tourism, the islands fared badly when the visitors stopped coming and the waters became polluted by the nuclear attack on the capital. However, they were spared the refugee flood that caused crises everywhere else in the country. By the end of the 1980s, the Pearls were a fairly successful self-governing community. They joined the Second Federation as a step toward uniting with a restored Panama.
This period of tranquil independence ended in 2003, when the strategic significance of the islands suddenly became clear. The Commonwealth of Australia and New Zealand occupied the Pearls and began to build a base. The archipelago potentially commanded the Gulf of Panama and the Pacific entrance of the newly rebuilt Canal. The Oz-Kiwi forces were forced to leave the islands when they ran low on supplies. But Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela did not want to leave them unguarded. They annexed the Pearl Islands to the Canal Zone, jointly ruled by the three builder nations.
The Pearl Islands' representative government is still in place, the only part of the Canal Zone to enjoy local autonomy. When South America built a naval base, they did not bother asking for the citizens' approval, but most of them were happy for the protection, afraid of another invasion. Five years later, the military is the main employer in the Islas de las Perlas.
Outside these larger communities, power continues to shift back and forth among various petty warlords. One settlements of note is Penonomé, at the center of the isthmus about 100 km from the old capital. Penonomé was the chief prize in the chaotic civil war that followed the government's collapse, and the military factions considered it the future capital of the country. Noriega made his base there for a period, followed by the American remnants and other rogue groups that arrived still later. Today the town is largely in ruin but is still the center of a small local economy.
El Valle is a village in the highlands east of Penonomé whose cool climate has made it an exporter of food to much of central Panama. Its fledgling government is essentially communal, governed via a form of direct democracy. Two even smaller communal settlements are Santa Fé, located high in the mountains above Santiago, and Coclecito, an isolated village on the Caribbean side of the Divide. Veraguas del Caribe is a sleepy town on the Caribbean coast whose isolation has helped it survive some of the worst aspects of the civil war.
Hicaco is a coastal town at the tip of the peninsula west of Azuelo. It is also under "warlord" control, but it controls a fairly consistent block of territory. Parita and Chame are the territories of small armed groups that have recently sought respectability under the aegis of the Fourth Federation.
The David Provisional Government
The city of San José de David organized a Provisional Government of Panama in 1983 that Costa Rica, military strongman Manuel Noriega, and most of the settlements of western Panama all recognized. David's political situation became unstable after 1985 when foreign aid dried up and its military took over. However, David had set the tone that it would lead the country's efforts toward reunification.
The First Federation
David tried again in 1991. This time, rather than re-create the old Republic of Panama, its leaders recognized that local towns and villages would have to remain in charge of their own affairs, at least at first. Delegates from Bocas Town, the Ngäbe-Buglé nation, the Azuero republic, and Veraguas' "provincial" government joined representatives from Penonomé, Hicaco and a few smaller settlements throughout western Panama. They formed a new, federalized provisional government to begin rebuilding Panama.
The federation never functioned. Many of the member communities nearest the Canal Zone were at war with each other throughout its existence and tried to use it as a tool for furthering their own agendas and rivalries. Azuero never trusted David's intentions, believing that the federation was merely a front for asserting the city's control over the country. All the members looked to David to provide most of the funding for federal activities, and with its ally Costa Rica embroiled in an ongoing civil war, the resources were not there. The last meeting in 1993 drew only a handful of representatives from communities near David.
The Second Federation
At Costa Rica's urging, Azuero and David agreed to form a second federation in 1996. This time they sought to prevent some of the conflicts of the First Federation by only inviting members that could demonstrate stable governments. Therefore, membership was limited to Bocas, David, Ngäbe-Buglé, Azuero, Veraguas, and the Pearl Islands. Changuinola joined immediately after its independence in 1998.
Although South Americans like to deny it, the Second Federation was a successful, if short-lived, government uniting much of western Panama. Among other things, it mandated free elections in David and helped negotiate borders between the members in the west. A separate federal treasury and a regular tax on each state helped link the members together.
Conflict between federal and state power caused growing discord in the federation. Azuero threatened to secede several times, which would have effectively ended the union. The final straw, however, came in 2003 when the Pearl Islands were occupied by ANZ, and then South American forces. The attack convinced many that the federation was ineffective, and it exacerbated existing tensions. The federation was effectively dissolved by 2004.
The Third Federation (La Liga)
Undaunted, Costa Rica and David devised a plan for a looser alliance of Panamanian states that would satisfy the fiercely independent Azuerenses. It was crucial, Davideños argued, to stay together to resist Colombian expansion.
However, the Third Federation, dubbed La Liga to highlight its decenralized constitution, only attracted three members: David, Bocas del Toro, and Changuinola. A Costa Rican delegate attends every meeting as an observer. The Republic of Azuero was never likely to join a federation based in David, and was critical of Costa Rica's seemingly dominant role. The Ngäbe-Buglé government stated that joining La Liga would offer them "no benefits", and was furthermore involved in a territorial dispute with Bocas over several islands and coasts. Veraguas and smaller settlements were not asked to join.
The Third Federation officially met for the first time in 2006. It lasted seven years before it was superseded.
The campaigns in Chepo and Coiba
Colombia changed the status quo in Panama late in 2011. It sent a major military force into the district for the first time, beginning at the Colombian base in Chepo and fanning out into the countryside. By March 2012 most of the district was nominally occupied; following negotiations with local armed groups and sealed with a hastily organized referendum, the entire district was formally annexed to Colombia at the end of the year. And if that wasn't enough, Colombia moved into the west that July when it occupied the nearly-uninhabited island of Coiba, Panama's largest island, located off the southwestern coast.
This last incursion was enough to finally stir the fractious local leaders of western Panama. The leaders of Hicaco, in particular, were terrified - Coiba was just off their coast. Azuero was also spooked. The Colombians had seemed like a very distant menace, their claims over Panama a very empty threat. But in seizing the island they had bypassed the land near the zone of control and showed that they were willing to project their power over the entire country.
For each Colombian gain in 2012, western Panamanian leaders held another panicky meeting. Azuero and Hicaco were admitted as members of the Liga, but they also began pushing for a new alliance, one that would be more effective at banding together to resist Colombian expansion. It was a remarkable about-face for Azuero, until now the country's greatest skeptic of Federation. But with South American ships off the coast and soldiers seemingly at the gates, isolationism was out, mutual defense was in for Azuero.
The Fourth Federation began in June 2013 in an atmosphere of crisis. It had two urgent goals. First, the members states had to reach an agreement to protect themselves and maintain an independent Panama. Second, and in the end far more importantly, they had to present a united front to the world in order to gain diplomatic support.
Besides being more committed, the membership of the Fourth Federation was larger. Many of the settlements that had not participated in the Federation project since the 90s were now eager to band together. In general, these settlements were much more stable than they had been. Civil and democratic government had not returned to rural Panama, but the armed groups that ran things now did so with much more order and regularity. Costa Rica also stayed on as an observer. Officially non-aligned, Costa Rica wanted very much to keep West Panama independent.
The members' armed forces began regular joint training exercises. A permanent diplomatic service was created to begin outreach toward friendly powers. In the years since, the Panamanians have obtained recognition from many nations in the Americas, most importantly Mexico. A number of South American nations now urge Colombia to drop its claim to West Panama and accept the Federation's independence. But the other world powers, ANZ and Siberia, remain reluctant to get involved.
The Fourth Federation remains loosely governed, but it has benefited from a more stable climate and a greater commitment to reunification. By pooling resources and obtaining a small amount of foreign aid, the federal government has rebuilt roads, fought against banditry in the countryside, and established a regular postal service.
The West Panama District
The Republic of Colombia has claimed all of Panama (except the Canal Zone) since 1999. So far, its military and diplomatic efforts have concentrated on the "East Panama District" between the Canal Zone and its territory in Darién. However, even though it has failed to pacify the East District, Colombia has also created a West District between the Canal Zone and the Costa Rican border. The District has a military governor and a small shadow government based in Panamá City, and a few small outposts in the areas close to the CZ. The government has led several small military operations, many of them together with local guerrillas. It has also attempted to entice some of the communities to join them, with limited success.
The South American Confederation recognizes Colombia's claim and considers all survivor states to be illegitimate. This has won the SAC few friends in western Panama.
Geopolitics of Western Panama
South America recognizes that instability in western Panama is a threat to its control of the Canal Zone. But the member nations differ over how to stabilize the region. Venezuela and Argentina, two other countries that have annexed new territories since 1983, are the most enthusiastic supporters of Colombia's claim. Peru and Chile, who rely the most on the growing commerce of the Pacific Ocean, have come to argue just as forcefully that Colombia should drop the matter and come to a permanent settlement with the local communities. Brazil and the other South American nations are more ambivalent on the issue.
In earlier years when tensions were higher, the ANZC actually considered arming ex-American forces in Veraguas and encouraging them to attack South American troops, an idea it ultimately rejected. Both the ANZC and Socialist Siberia could potentially form ties with the independent Panamanian states as a counter to South American power in the region. But in more recent years the question has become less urgent. With the Canal issue settled, neither major power is particularly concerned about what happens to West Panama.
Mexico, the other major power in Latin America, also wants to see a stable Panama and for that reason has given its support to the Federation. Costa Rica has been the strongest supporter of all the attempts at Federation for years, for much the same reason. This support has put it directly in the way of South American policy, which seeks to absorb all of Panama into a new Colombian province. At a time when Costa Rica seeks closer ties with South America in order to avoid becoming a Siberian client state, the Panama issue is a major stumbling block.
The World Census and Reclamation Bureau led a survey of the region in 2008. The explorers mainly stuck to the civilized parts and quickly passed through the more dangerous areas. They helped map the borders between the three Federation states. Since then, South America has blocked any additional official expeditions in western Panama.