- Historical Dictionary of Panama by Thomas M. Leonard
Understanding and explaining the complex history, politics, economy, and society of Panama has always been difficult at best. Despite being one of the smallest countries in Latin America, Panama’s immense strategic and geographic importance has always belied its size. As a result, successive hegemons–Spain, Britain, the United States, and now China–have made the isthmus an essential element in their respective foreign policies. In this work, Thomas Leonard, a distinguished professor emeritus of history at the University of North Florida, provides an important addition to the relatively sparse academic works that examine Panama.
Panama has always been something of an also-ran in the study of Central America, even discounted as part of the region by some researchers. The primary cause has been the country’s unique history of an adjunct of Colombia then as a sometimes quasi-colony of the United States. As a very successful democracy for the past two decades and the sole proprietor of its namesake canal for over 15 years, Panama is very deserving of its own dedicated historical dictionary. But, as a historical dictionary, this book is not intended to be research in the deductive sense with traditional narratives, evidence-based analysis, and citations. Instead this work functions like a tool to aid and facilitate learning and research about the isthmus.
The book opens with the usual array of tools to understand the contents: acronyms, abbreviations, a glossary, and a brief chronology of critical events spanning the period from the first European sighting of Panama in 1501 through the election of Carlos Varela in 2014. Thereafter, Leonard seeks to fill in the gaps in the incomplete literature on Panama through the purveyance of an army of relevant facts. At the conclusion of the book, Leonard has provided the reader with an extensive bibliography (25 pages) of Panama-related works, ranging from general historical surveys to economic and cultural analyses to works specific to the 1989 U.S. invasion.
Indeed, the only traditional narrative in book–the introduction–spans only twenty pages. Nonetheless, as Leonard correctly [End Page 280] notes in this introduction, three main areas must be understood to properly contextualize the totality of the Panamanian experience: Panama’s foreign relations, its unique socioeconomic foundations, and its internal ethno-political tensions (p. 1).
Therefore, most of the book is concerned with these three areas and almost the entirety of the remaining text consists of an impressive cache of encyclopedic-style, alphabetically-listed entries detailing an extensive list of noteworthy people, places, diplomatic events, and things that would be relevant to any researcher seeking to acquire a basic overview of the country. These entries include many of the usual suspects, such as great leaders as well as nefarious figures in Panamanian history. Naturally, notable people such as Omar Torrijos and Manual Noriega are given their due diligence but even more obscure entries such as the seizure of a North Korean cargo ship for illegal arms shipments (p. 206) or the existence of a French Plaza in Panama City (p. 132) are included. Every significant leader, place, event, and demographic indicator is covered. Leonard has amassed a truly impressive collection of entries. However, therein lies the rub.
The style of this book is both its strength and its weakness. The encyclopedic style employed does not allow for in-depth discussion of any of the mentioned areas. For example, the entry for Omar Torrijos, arguably the most influential political figure in Panamanian history, is barely over one page long. Nonetheless, given this book’s primary purpose as a reference tool, such brevity is not a handicap but a means to an end. Therefore, true to its form, this book is not intended necessarily for those whose familiarity with Panama is already well-developed. Instead, this book would serve as an invaluable tool to anyone wishing to have at arm’s reach a treasure trove of facts about Panama. Leonard has put together a commendable collection that is a welcome addition to the literature on the Isthmus. For those wishing to...