Bunua-Varilla toyed with his coffee, swirling the petite silver spoon against the delicate porcelain cup. The president glowered through his spectacles across his vast desk, practically bubbling with impatience.
“The cause of the delay,” said the former director-general of the now-bankrupt French company, “is the lawyer Cromwell. Were it not for him, Mr. President, we would move forward.”
“You must understand, Mr. Varilla,” said Secretary Hay, “we are only speaking of hypotheticals. The United States Government doesn’t negotiate business deals.”
“He knows that, John,” said Roosevelt, fidgeting. His usual restless energy was barely contained. “What will it take, Mr. Varilla? Hypothetically.”
At last, the question nobody has had the temerity to ask. “Independence for the new republic, of course,” Bunua-Varilla said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Immediate diplomatic recognition from the United States. An embassy in Panama City.” He allowed himself a smile. “And of course, a great deal of money.”
The American president Theodore Roosevelt liked to boast “I took Panama”. He was referring to his part in the international negotiations and double-dealing that brought about the construction of the now-famous canal across the Central American isthmus in the early years of the 20th century.
Roosevelt’s aim was to ensure that the powerful navy he was creating could deploy as speedily against an Asian power (Japan) as a European one (Germany). The colossal engineering task was the first stroke of the “big-stick” diplomacy he preached. It also generated enough deceit and comic bravado for the plot of an operetta.
The former director-general of the bankrupt company, Phillipe Bunua-Varilla, wanted the United States to buy the concession that Colombia had granted the French, together with the abandoned works and equipment, which had been valued at a cool $109 million.
After many backroom meetings and a strawman Panamanian revolution fabricated by agents of the United States against a reluctant Columbia, a French intermediary was authorized to seek diplomatic recognition of the Republic of Panama and arrange the signing of a canal treaty with the US. Bunua-Varilla sent off $100,000 to the revolutionaries and the US State Department granted recognition to the new country within hours.