Modern Panama: The book that brings us to the present


This book narrates how, over a brief period of time, Panamanians have transformed their nation from a simple pathway between two seas to a complex core that manages the movement of people, goods, knowledge, and services in countless directions and means of exchange. Today, nobody claims that Panama is only a Canal.  

The City of Knowledge Foundation and Novo Art published in 2019 “Panamá Moderno: De territorio Ocupado a Centro de las Américas” / “Modern Panama: From Occupation to Crossroads of the Americas” (Cambridge University Press), written by Michael L. Conniff, professor emeritus, San Jose State University (California), and Gene E. Bigler, retired officer of the U.S. Foreign Service.

Led by these two experts on Panama, with decades of experience in teaching, research, and publications under their belt, Modern Panama focuses on the fast-paced history of Panama from the moment the Torrijos-Carter treaties went into effect in 1979. Both authors possess first-hand knowledge about the period covered and they have remained linked to the country because of their professional work and their social networks. The book is based on this information bank, as well as publications and specialized studies that are not available to the public. The Spanish version contains a prologue by Guillermo Castro (City of Knowledge Foundation), and was edited and translated by Adrienne Samos.

We have selected several excerpts that highlight the purpose and the content of this remarkable work that was officially launched as part of the 2019 edition of the International Book Fair of Panama.


The 1977 treaties began a process to revert the Canal to Panamanians in 1999, preparing the framework for the country to finally control all its territory and benefit completely from its geographical position. This book describes how citizens of the isthmus took advantage of this newfound independence.

Panamanians gained a deeper sense of their own nationality and identity after the Canal transfer. During most of the 20th century they fought to affirm their position as «a nation: much more than a Canal». While the outer world used to consider Panama only as the place where the United States Canal crossed Central America. Since 2000, Panamanians have managed the Canal with great efficiency and they have transformed it into an engine of economic growth and national integration (…)

This book narrates how, over a brief period of time, Panamanians have transformed their nation from a simple pathway between two seas to a complex core that manages the movement of people, goods, knowledge, and services in countless directions and means of exchange. Today, nobody claims that Panama is only a Canal.  


As Varela’s administration comes to an end, the political focus turns more and more to four main topics.  First, citizens demand a government that is more efficient in its handling of urban transportation, quality of education, development of science and technology, environmental protection, drinking water supply, electricity without power fluctuations, public health, and retirement plans. Second, experts have observed an increase in patronage and the inability of political parties to work together in the National Assembly and with the Executive to promote the interests of citizens. Third, the Judicial Branch has increasingly proven to be ineffective in facing corruption and strengthening its own autonomy and modernization. Fourth, even though the canal expansion has fulfilled and surpassed expectations, the ACP [Panama Canal Authority] now faces the danger of water shortages, the controversy over the development of auxiliary services – like the Corozal port – and the challenge in the succession of leaders  (…)

Those who have witnessed the events that occurred in the years covered by this book can only admire the enormous changes that Panamanians have made in a little more than a generation. Its numbers grew by more than a third: to four million citizens. They suffered a dictatorship, they endured it and withstood its ousting by the third largest military operation conducted by the United States since the Vietnam War. They revived their democracy, created a fair electoral system, peacefully transferred the presidency five times to the opponents of the ruling party, restored human and civil rights, and replaced the Army with a National Police. They learned how to operate the Panama Canal, supervised the improvements, and took over its administration in 1999; its success ’ including an important expansion project – was praised all over the world. In part thanks to the new canal incomes, Panamanians integrated the waterway to the national economy in a way that broadened maritime vocation in the country, turning it into the «Hub of the Americas». In the last 15 years, its economic growth rate has been one of the fastest growing in the hemisphere (…)

The mission of the isthmus as a crossroads and hub exposes it to the difficulties of global affairs that may be unpredictable and even destructive. It also requires pointing outwards, distracting attention from important domestic matters. World opinion has strongly impacted ’ often excessively ’ and affected local life. In other words, convergence in a crossroads entails good and bad surprises. All off this forces observers to remain alert to glimpse Panama’s future. The whirlwind of accusations about corruption at high levels and among politicians calls for caution to draw the appropriate conclusions.


“Highly informative, it is the most comprehensive work about modern Panama and one that was sorely missing. Nobody could have done it better than its authors, Conniff and Bigler, both imbued like few about Panama’s reality for many years. Their treatment is exhaustive, rigorous, solidly documented and with a hopeful message for the future.  Whoever wants to learn about our recent past, as of 1903, especially about our political history, our thorny relations with the United States, the complex canal issue and its impact on the economy, will find in this book almost anything he must know. With this work, we have been given an extraordinary legacy.” – Alfredo Castillero-Calvo, historian and researcher emeritus of the National Secretariat for Science, Technology, and Innovation.

“A notable historic narrative of Latin America after the Cold War in a key point of neocolonial American influence. It exposes in a convincing manner how Panamanians defied doubts about their capacity to handle the canal, while emerging from a military dictatorship toward the consolidation of a democratic State. It is the persuasive and optimistic story about how a country reaches adulthood in the era of globalization.”  –Peter Szok, History Professor, Texas Christian University


Michael L. Conniff is the author of the classic Black Labor on a White Canal (1985), about the difficulties of the Afro Caribbean immigrants who built the Panama Canal. He is professor emeritus of history at San Jose State University, where he founded his Global Studies Program. He obtained degrees from UC Berkeley and Stanford, and has written numerous books about modern history of the region. His most recent publications are: A New History of Modern Latin America (2017, with Lawrence Clayton and Susan Gauss), Panama and the United States (2012) and Populism in Latin America (2012). He lived outside the United States for 12 years, conducted several postdoctoral research projects (including three Fulbright scholarships) and served in the Peace Corps. He taught history and helped create Latin American Studies programs at the universities of New Mexico, Auburn and South Florida. He was a Bacardi Eminent Professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Florida in the spring of 2014, focusing on Panama.

Gene E. Bigler, he is a political expert who graduated from the University of the Pacific, he has a Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. from John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and was a Fulbright scholar at the International University of Ecuador, in Guayaquil. He was an advisor on economic and political affairs for the Embassy of the United States in Panama, the main “observer of the canal.” He was the co-drafter of a series of agreements between both countries and a consultant in geostrategic affairs for the Panama Canal Authority. In the foreign service, he advised the U.S. Coast Guard and conducted extensive tours in Lima, Havana, Rome, Baghdad, and Washington D.C. He was a professor at the Higher Management Studies Institute in Caracas, professor of Latin American Studies at John Hopkins SAIS, and professor of history and political science at Hendrix College.  After retiring, he went back to University of the Pacific from 2005 to 2012, as an international relations specialist.

You can acquire the book at the City of Knowledge Interpretative Center, building 173.

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