There is archeological evidence of human settlement in Panama as early as 12000BC. Unfortunately, no great cities from these early civilizations have been found. Though, some of the earliest dated examples of pre-Colombian pottery are of Panamanian origin. What is known about these early people is that they had trade networks stretching as far north as Mexico and to Peru in the south.
The first European to set eyes on Panama was the Spaniard, Rodrigo de Bastidas, in 1501, and in 1502, Christopher Columbus arrived on the Caribbean coast, beginning 300 years of Spanish rule. Vasco Nunez de Balboa, whom the Panamanian dollar, and a local beer is named after, became the first European to cross the Isthmus and see the Pacific Ocean, in1513. Following this monumental discovery Panama City was founded on the Pacific side and Nombre de Dios (and afterwards Portobelo), on the Caribbean coast, became storehouses for Spanish gold waiting to be trekked cross-country, then shipped to Spain. Thus Panama became part of the most important trade route in the Spanish empire.
In 1819, Panama gained independence from Spain and joined Gran Colombia. However, after a proposition to build an inter-ocean canal across Panama’s thin isthmus was rejected by the Colombian government, Panama declared independence (1903). The break from Colombia was heavily backed by US military force and in return the US was granted sovereignty over a 17km wide strip across Panama, known as the Canal Zone.
Due to rather bias conditions in the canal treaty, the US and Panama had strained relations throughout the construction of the canal. There were also tropical disease outbreaks, landslides, high worker mortality and harsh weather conditions to contend with throughout construction, but in 1914 the first ship sailed through the canal.
After completion of the canal, dissatisfaction in the US’s role in Panama continued to grow, culminating in the 1964 student protests, in which, 27 Panamanians died. As US influence decreased the Panamanian National Guard expanded its power, eventually ousting the president and installing the Military General, Omar Torrijos, as a dictator. Omar gained popular support through his land reforms, public works and negotiation of a treaty ensuring the return of the canal to Panamanian hands (completed in 1999).
Following the death of Torrijos, in 1981 a number of puppet presidents were installed by the then head of the Panamanian Defense Forces, Manual Noriega. Under Noriega’s control Panamanian affairs became increasingly problematic. He was accused of numerous questionable dealings including drug trafficking from Colombia and killing his political opponents, eventually he promoted himself to President. In response to this the US imposed economic sanctions, refused to pay canal fees and froze all Panamanian assets in US banks, Noriega declared war, the US invaded, jailed Noriega for drug trafficking and Guillermo Endara who would have won the presidential election had Noriega not interfered became President.
Panama began to rebuild its economy and international image. On 31 December 1999, Panama’s first female President, Mireya Moscoso, received the handover of the Panama Canal from the US. Panama now maintains full operation of the canal, significantly increasing national revenue and reportedly operating the canal more efficiently. In 2002, Panamanian candidate Justine Pasek won the Miss Universe contest. The current president of Panama is Ricardo Martinelli Berrocal.