I was reading an article about the problems that Panama is having negotiating an agreement of association with the European Union. The EU is insisting that Panama negotiate as a member of the Central American bloc of countries.

Most people do not realize that, as far as the countries in this region are concerned, Panama does not form part of Central America. Historically, it was regarded as part of South America – and of Colombia, after independence from Spain. Central America was controlled from Mexico during the colonial period, the mountainous terrain in southern Costa Rica creating a natural border or cutoff point.

Indeed, the terrain throughout Central America meant that each country created after independence evolved quite separately. Despite (or perhaps because of) their small size, they are fiercely nationalistic and jealous of each other’s achievements. Not least where football is concerned. Honduras and El Salvador even fought the brief “Football War” in 1969. The reasons for the war were political but, as is so often the case, the growing tensions were channeled through sport – specifically the World Cup qualifying games. Over 2000 people died and many more were displaced. People in each country in the region have different accents and the vocabulary used also varies considerably.

Around the time of independence, the population of Costa Rica was only about 30,000, mostly concentrated in the Central Valley. Contact with the area that subsequently became Panama was minimal. Years later the US basically “created” Panama when it decided it wanted to build the Canal. It allowed the country to run itself as long as it did nothing than ran counter to American interests. As in Central America, military dictatorships were permitted, at times even encouraged, provided they were anti-communist.

For the reasons described above, the region is normally referred to as “Centroamérica y Panamá” in documents written in Spanish.

The European Union has insisted that Panama integrate fully with the Central American Integration System (SICA) before entering into a trade agreement with the EU that also has political strings attached (human rights issues, for example).