Year XLV, 2003, Number 1, Page 52
THE PANAMA CONGRESS.
A FAILED ATTEMPT AT LATIN AMERICAN UNION
In Europe, some have likened the European Convention convened by the Laeken European Council to the famous and fortunate Philadelphia Convention. In truth, given the way its work is proceeding and the results it has so far achieved, the European Convention can more accurately be equated with another, less fortunate precedent: the 1826 Panama Congress, which, likened to the league of city-states seen in Ancient Greece, has also been called the amphictyonic congress. While the United States’ experience is documented in a vast body of literature that describes the debate behind the Philadelphia Convention and all that came of it, the Latin American experience is largely overlooked.
It is worth recalling that the Panama Congress came about following the development, between 1810 and 1824 (a period during which the South American troops were still fighting for independence from Spain), of a heated debate over the political and institutional order that the regions being liberated should be given. The territories to be administered, extending from the Pacific to the Atlantic, were truly vast. Furthermore, added to the desperate need for economic reconstruction, there was also the need to convert an entire continent, oppressed for centuries by harsh colonialism, to new rules of democracy and freedom. In the northern part of the American continent, thirteen colonies had rebelled against English dominion and found an answer to their new situation by founding history’s first-ever federation: the United States. The question was, could South America reproduce this model?
The supporters of a Latin American federation clashed with those who instead favoured the birth, along the lines of the European model, of a number of nation-states. This latter design frequently served to conceal the interests of the subcontinent’s first leaders who were gradually asserting themselves at regional level. Thus it was that, as the fight for freedom from Spain continued, numerous writings were published in support of each of these contrasting positions. As it became clear that the war was destined to signal the end of Spanish rule, which indeed collapsed definitively following the battle of Ayacucho in December 1824, this debate became even more heated.
The contrast between the supporters of a great federal design for Latin America and those who favoured the birth of a number of sovereign states degenerated to the point at which a number of attacks were mounted, some of which resulted in the physical elimination of the opponent. One of these unlucky protagonists, assassinated in 1824, just a few months before the defeat of the Spanish, was Bernardo Monteagudo, one of the closest associates of Simon Bolívar. Throughout the war against Spain, Bolívar, also known as the Libertador, dominated the entire subcontinent’s political and military stage, but he also enjoyed the support of several valid advisors, one of whom was the very same Bemardo Monteagudo, a young man and native of Buenos Aires who rose to the rank of colonel during the struggle against the Spanish, and who inspired and supported the design for a Latin American federation subsequently promoted by the Libertador in Panama in 1826.
In the political terminology of Bolívar and Monteagudo, the terms federation, confederation and league were often used as synonyms, but what both men had in mind was, essentially, the realisation of a great federation of Latin American states. Monteagudo’s Essay on the need for a general federation of Spanish American states and plan for its realisation, an unfinished work published posthumously, both in Lima and Santiago de Chile in 1825, is a clear example of their thought. Monteagudo’s essay was published not only in his honour, but also in support of the idea — pursued wholeheartedly by the most important leader of the war of independence, Simon Bolívar — of a permanent continental congress.
Monteagudo placed Latin America in the context of the balances that were emerging and the struggles that were taking place at world level, reflecting on the hegemonic role played by the European governments and on the Holy Alliance, and referring in unambiguous terms to a contraposition between the world’s northern and southern hemispheres. Linking South American union and freedom with a close military alliance that he envisaged extending to Great Britain and the United States, he introduced a discourse utterly new to South America. In 1826, Bolívar went further, writing explicitly of the desirability, in the future, of “a union with the British empire and the birth of a single nation encompassing the entire universe: the federal nation”.
Monteagudo put the liberty of South America’s nascent free states into the context of a general federation that would give a permanent congress, made up of plenipotentiaries representing the different countries, responsibility for coordinating decisions in the areas of foreign policy and security.
In this design, one can start to see the contradiction that the Latin American federalists proved unable to overcome: that of fighting for the birth of states that would be independent at local level, but bound by a supranational federal tie. This contradiction was to dog liberal thought in Latin America throughout the XIX century. Many thinkers (del Valle, Bolívar, Miranda, O’Higgins, Bilboa), and Monteagudo too, regarded the birth of independent states as an indispensable step towards the continental federation. But unlike the thirteen colonies in the North, which had tried out limited forms of local self-government, the only form of government that the former Spanish colonies of the South had experienced was that of the distant control, direct or indirect, exercised by the Spanish crown, with all that this implied in terms of the capacity for effective government of such a vast and still largely unexplored territory. This was one of the reasons why the Latin American peoples were felt ill-prepared to espouse a political model, the federal model, which while certainly regarded as perfect, was based on a subdivision of levels of government virtually impossible to reproduce in the institutional vacuum of South America. The existence of this legitimate concern is confirmed by the fact that outside support (in particular the support of Great Britain) was constantly sought for projects of unification, to set against the threatening US policies contained in the Monroe Doctrine of 1823.
While, on the one hand, the model of state born of the French Revolution appealed to many, there was, on the other, a real awareness of the risks inherent in dividing up the subcontinent into numerous states. It was in this setting that, with the struggle for independence from Spain won, South America, in the space of just a few months, gambled away its future, opting for division of the subcontinent into strongly centralised states: a model of state, characterised by the personalisation of politics, by populism and by caudillism, which was to remain a constant feature of Latin American history until very recent times.
Panama, in 1826, saw an attempt by the majority of Latin American states to launch, for the entire continent, a unitary policy in a federal vein. Brazil and Argentina, entirely opposed to the project and about to engage in their own twenty-year war, did not participate.
With the defeat of Spain inevitable, it was Bolívar who, in a letter to the Latin American heads of government dated December 7, 1824 solicited this meeting of government-nominated plenipotentiaries. Bolívar was at the height of his political and military influence and was convinced of his ability to impose a line of action on the entire continent. He organised the congress, but did not attend in person. Instead, he established, with his associates, who were to represent the government of Peru, the points that had to be upheld. The intention was to transform this congress into a permanent assembly, with the resulting union of participating countries following the federal model. Other plans were to establish a permanent army and to affirm the principle of reciprocal aid among member states, recognising the parity of the rights and duties of the members of the union. Finally, moves were to be made as soon as possible to establish a close alliance between the new Union and Great Britain.
As these ideas, which Bolívar reiterated two months prior to the start of the congress in a letter to Gran Colombia delegate Pedro Gual, were taking shape, Bolívar’s opponents — the same men who had led the whole of South America to independence — had, for some months, been doing their utmost to sideline him and to make sure that his congress failed. They considered the Libertador too influential and too likely to get in the way of their personal ambitions. The death of Monteagudo at the hands of Bolívar’ s adversaries had already shown the depth and bitterness of their opposition.
The Panama Congress was attended by the plenipotentiaries of Guatemala (corresponding to today’s El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras), Mexico, Gran Colombia (corresponding to today’s Panama, Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador), and Peru, as well as two observers, representatives of the British and Dutch governments. Great Britain in particular, on learning of the congress, had immediately made clear its intention to attend. However, betraying the faith and expectations of those who had counted on British support, Great Britain’s action throughout was aimed at sabotaging any unitary initiative. Britain had, in fact, already begun putting considerable political and military pressure on the South American governments in an effort to appropriate strategic ports and to develop its own policy of alliances in South America.
This was the first and the most glaring turnaround, but not the only one. Men who had fought alongside one another throughout a war lasting over twenty years, deciding together on their military and political strategies’ now found themselves enemies. Santander, vice-president of Gran Colombia, of his own volition, invited a delegation from the United States, who, for a variety of reasons, did not reach Panama until after the congress had ended. This act, which had not been agreed upon, created a deep personal and political rift between Bolívar and Santander. Furthermore, the latter instructed his delegate, Pedro Gual (to whom Bolívar had written seeking political support), to oppose any document that made provision for a federal-type formula or that gave the Congress a mandate providing for its transformation into a permanent assembly. Gual himself firmly believed that the congress should fulfil a purely consultative role and, like his vice-president, that it was necessary to create independent states that would be free from any political or institutional ties.
Firm in these beliefs, Gual, starting as early as December 1825, that is to say as soon as the delegation reached Panama, had a series of informal meetings with the Peruvian delegates and supporters of the federalist design, Tutela and Vidaurre. These two, by a combination of pressure and threats, were induced to embrace the Colombian views. Thus, when the Panama Congress opened officially on June 22, 1826, it was already certain that the word federation would not appear and, indeed, that the official documents resulting from the congress would emphasise the need for the birth of free and independent states.
Thus, the delegates from Peru contributed, in the ten sessions of the congress proceedings, to the drawing up of documents so strongly antifederalist that even Gual was prompted to lower their tone. It is worth recalling that Tutela and Vidaurre were later to become the presidents, respectively, of Colombia and Peru, once the latter were proclaimed independent states, and that Santander was named president of Colombia when that region, too, breaking away from Gran Colombia, became an independent state.
The treaty, passed on July 15, 1826, contains two articles that are worth citing here as demonstrations of the clear intention not to create a federation. Article 28 of the final document runs thus: “This Treaty of Perpetual Union, League and Confederation will never interrupt in any way the exercising of sovereignty on the part of each of the republics”. The plan to create a permanent, one hundred thousand-strong army under the direct control of the permanent assembly was also rejected, this time by Art. 4, which stated: “The military contingents will come under the direction of and be subject to the orders of the government to whose assistance they have come; it remains clearly understood that auxiliary corps, under the leadership of their natural commanders, must retain the organisation, regulations and discipline of the country to which they belong”. Bolívar’s idea of a permanent army, which he had advanced in 1825, was thus buried, since it would have raised the question of creating a supranational controlling body.
None of the Latin American countries ever ratified the Treaty drawn up in Panama. Furthermore, the ten years that followed the congress brought the complete disintegration of Gran Colombia and Guatemala, and the emergence of more than twenty sovereign nation-states, which subsequently became caught up in a long series of border conflicts.
The failure of the congress prompted the Bolívar to write, in a letter to a friend dated August 4, 1826, “The Panama Congress, an institution that would have been admirable had it proved more effective, must inevitably be compared to the foolish Greek who, from a rock, thought he could direct a fleet at sea. Its power will amount to nothing more than a shadow and its decrees mere recommendations”.
Despite its disastrous outcome, the Panama Congress was cited, by US President Wilson in the speech that opened the first session of the League of Nations, as a model to be followed in the pursuit of peace and harmony among peoples. But world events over the next twenty years, one of the most tragic periods in the history of mankind, demonstrated once again that wherever the model of cooperation between sovereign states prevails, peace and security can never be other than an illusion.
The story of the Panama Congress induces us to reflect upon the process of European unification, increasingly obstructed and held back by pressure to conserve the national sovereignties.
First of all, it is important to underline the part played by Great Britain, whose role today, as in the case of South America, seems to be to create division rather than unity. It has to be acknowledged that no European federation that includes Great Britain is, at the present time, conceivable.
Second, it is clear that the decision to relinquish national sovereignty can ultimately be taken, through the issuing of a specific mandate, only by the governments involved or by their representatives. Any congress, assembly or convention convened in the absence of a prior and urgent will, on the part of the governments, to found a federation, is destined ultimately to have no more significance and influence than “the foolish Greek” to whom Bolívar referred.
 The original title of this work is Ensayo sobre la necesidad de una federación jeneral entre los estados ispano-americanos y plan de su organización, Lima and Santiago del Chile, 1825.
 A. Scocozza, Bolívar e la rivoluzione panamericana, Bari, Dedalo, 1978, anthological section, p. 225.
 More on the political thought of Simon Bolívar can be found in S. Spoltore, “Il progetto politico di Simon Bolívar tra centralismo e federalismo”, in Il Politico, Pavia, 1983, No. 3; and in G. Montani, Il Terzo Mondo e l’unità europea, Naples, Guida, 1979, pp. 45-53.
 See G. Germani, Autoritarismo, fascismo e classi sociali, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1975, pp. 40-94.
 A. Scocozza, op. cit., p. 221.
 Letter to Gual dated April 1826, in Cartas del Libertador, Caracas, Banco de Venezuela Fundación Lecuna, 1965, Vol. 2, pp. 18-19.
 See P. Chaunu, Storia dell’America latina, Milan, Garzanti, 1977, p. 87.
 For three decades, beginning in 1825, Great Britain staged numerous interventions, sometimes military, particularly in the Rio de la Plata region, triggering the dispute with Argentina over the Malvinas, or Falkland Islands.
 For both the text of the treaty and the plan for a permanent army, see I. Lievano, Bolívarismo y monroismo, Bogotà, Editorial Revista Colombiana, 1969, pp. 83-84. This lack of success, linked to the failure to create a common army, is reminiscent of the experience of the EDC in Europe.
 Cartas del Libertador, cit., vol. V, p. 217.
 A. Scocozza, “L’integrazione latino-americana”, in Confronto, Salerno, 1978, n. 2.