Phillipe Bunau-Varilla a French engineer went to Panama at a young age to work in the construction of the Panama Canal. At that time, in the 1880s,the construction of the Canal was a French effort, headed by Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal.
After the French Canal went bankrupt in a big scandal that rocked France, Bunau Varilla went to work for its rescue, and after many years and negotiations, including participating indirectly in Panama's independence from Colombia, was appointed Plenipotentiary Ambassador by the new Republic of Panama (1903), with powers to negotiate the terms of a Panama Canal Treaty with the US, then under President Theodore Roosevelt.
Having received a telegram from the Panamanian government to wait in Washington, DC until the Panamanian delegation arrived to review and sign the treaty, Bunau-Varilla "jumped the gun" in order to save the French investment at all cost, and gave the United States even better clauses than it had originally requested: a perpetual lease on a section of Panama , 10 miles wide, where the canal would be built, called the Canal Zone; and the right to use troops to intervene in Panama, among many other things. The United States agreed to guarantee Panama's independence and payed US$10 million, plus an annual fee of $250,000. The Hay Bunau Varilla treaty was called the "Treaty that no Panamanian ever signed."
For years Panama embattled the United States about the unfair treaty, culminating in a disastrous event on January 9, 1964, when Panamanian students tried to raise their flag in the old Canal Zone, Balboa High School. Heavy riots ensued, and 23 Panamanians were shot dead by American troops in very confusing incidents.
Panama under President Roberto F. Chiari, broke off diplomatic relations with the US. This event, eventually led to the Carter-Torrijos Treaty of 1977, which laid the basis for the transfer of the Panama Canal to Panama on December 31, 1999.
Since that date Panama has, against predictions by doomsayers, managed the Canal in a very professional and responsible way, breaking all previous traffic and revenue records.
For years Bunau Varilla was considered a traitor by generations of Panamanians. Nevertheless, after the Canal transfer to Panama, his role is being evaluated more objectively. Panamanians in general now recognize that Bunau Varilla's role was indeed crucial in convincing the US to choose Panama over Nicaragua for the Canal site.