The Panama CanalTwo anniversaries this week – August 12th and August 15th – are reminders of the early involvement of the United States in the Spanish-speaking world. The debate about the role of Spanish in the United States is interesting when you stop to think that the United States entered the Spanish-speaking world, and not the other way around.

August 12th is the anniversary of the Treaty of Paris, which settled the Spanish-American War of 1898.

The Spanish-American War began after the battleship Maine exploded in the port of Havana in February 1898. It had been stationed there to protect 8000 American nationals, as Cuba was in the grip of a civil war. Even if the explosion’s actual cause had never been established, the US did not wait to denounce it as an “act of provocation”, and declared war on Spain.

The American government had eyed Cuba with interest for almost a century. American founding father, Thomas Jefferson dreamed of annexing the island. John Quincy Adams, the sixth American president, regarded it as a natural appendage of the United States. In 1848, the 11th American president, James Polk, offered 100 million dollars for the colony (worth almost a billion dollars today), but Spain refused to sell. Yet, the United States kept its eye on Cuba, which produced 40% of the world’s sugar and where many Americans had invested interests there – they owned haciendas, or were involved in the sugar, tobacco, mining or railway businesses.

The US and Spain fought in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. In ten weeks, the United States had won what US ambassador John Hay called a “Splendid Little War.” Spain no longer had an empire, and the United States ended up controlling Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam.


The other anniversary on August 15th, celebrates the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914.

As early as 1836, the United States had begun discussions with Colombia about building a railway across the narrow strip of land between the Caribbean sea and the Pacific Ocean, the Isthmus of Panama, as a shortcut to the Pacific. The Panama Railway was completed in 1855, but the United States’ real goal was to dig a canal – although the idea is credited to Charles V of Spain in 1519.

Unfortunately, the French beat them to the chase and secured the rights with Colombia in 1878. The French knew the business: 20 years earlier, they had dug the Suez Canal in Egypt. However, they could not overcome the yellow fever in Panama and threw in the towel. The United States went back to the negotiating table, but Colombia balked, and the United States encouraged the province of Panama to secede from Columbia. That’s how Latin America’s 20th Spanish-speaking country appeared on the map.

The Americans, who had found a cure for fiebre amarilla (yellow fever), took over the canal project: 75 000 workers got the job done just in time for World War I.

The complete story of how the United States entered the Spanish-speaking world is told in our new book, The Story of Spanish, to be released April 2013 (St. Martin’s Press).

The Story of Spanish