Rodolfo M. Leitón's Blog: I Took Panama: The Story of Philippe Bunau-Varilla

May 29, 2013

(Spanish audio)

Magon Award Winner Daniel Gallegos, presents "I Took Panama" in Costa Rica.
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Published on May 29, 2013 20:16 • 114 views • Tags: bunau-varilla, i-took-panama, philippe-bunau-varilla, rodolfo-leiton, yo-tome-panama

May 12, 2013

Philippe Bunau-Varilla changed World history yet remains unknown to most people. If it were not for him, probably the Canal would be in Nicaragua, Panama would still be part of Colombia, and the Germans would have finished the Panama Canal.

Bunau-Varilla was the only person who actively promoted the project to other nations after the French failed to finish it, and spend almost two decades working on a plan that would ensure completion of the Panama Canal. He had a key role in convincing the United States to abandon its decades-long plan of building the Nicaragua Canal, used a postage stamp to win votes in the Senate, and worked with Theodore Roosevelt's Government to help create the new Republic of Panama.

I am not sure why I became obsessed with Bunau-Varilla. I think I found a historic "gold mine" in terms of the fantastic story that remained ignored for so long, and my goal is to share it because what actually happened is so incredible it appears to be fiction (but it is not!). For a sample, look at Chapter 31, available on

My short novel is innovative in that it presents Bunau-Varilla's story in a comprehensive, easy to read way which allows people to fully grasp the extent of this remarkable man's effect on World history. Most readers tell me they cover the book in a couple of days, and the biggest complain (so far) is that the book should have been longer. To me that is a good complaint!
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Published on May 12, 2013 19:23 • 75 views • Tags: bunau-varilla, bunauvarilla, i-took-panama, panamacanal, philippe-bunau-varilla, teddy-roosevelt

May 3, 2013

"I Took Panama" was reviewed by the HNS:

"The star of Leiton’s taut, unassuming short novel is French Colonel Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, a pivotal figure not only in the planning and construction of the Panama Canal but also in the planning and construction of Panama itself, having helped that country to break away from Colombia.

In quick, resonant chapters, Leiton takes readers through five decades in the life of this remarkable but largely forgotten figure, along the way illuminating the power-players and historical events of the early 20th century with dozens of well-chosen black-and-white photos scattered throughout the text.

Even readers of David McCullough’s fine history of the Panama Canal, The Path Between The Seas, will find new perspectives and new insights in Leiton’s very enjoyable novel."
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May 1, 2013

The sinking of the U.S.S. Maine, off the Coast of Cuba, sparked a series of events that would ultimately help speed up the completion of the Panama Canal.

See how in this video:
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Published on May 01, 2013 08:19 • 71 views

April 11, 2013

When the U.S. Senate was about to vote on whether to build the American Canal in Nicaragua or Panama, Bunau-Varilla found a way to create fear amongst Senators with respect to building in Nicaragua.

In addition to abundant technical data comparing the two routes, he decided that Nicaragua's volcanoes presented a real "threat" to the Nicaraguan route, even though he knew the construction would be quite far from the Momotombo Volcano, which had recently erupted.

Since the volcanic tragedy of Mt. Pelee, in the Island of Martinique, was still fresh in everyone's minds, Bunau-Varilla used Nicaragua's volcanoes as a warning to the Senate.

He took copies of a Nicaraguan stamp, depicting an erupting Momotombo volcano, put them on a piece of paper which stated the stamp was official proof of volcanic activity in Nicaragua, and sent a copy to every Senator. Panama won the vote.

See related historical documents and pictures on my Facebook page:
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Published on April 11, 2013 09:21 • 234 views • Tags: i-took-panama

March 9, 2013

In 1903, Philippe Bunau-Varilla asked the U.S. Government if it would aid or interfere with a revolution in Panama, then part of Colombia. As a reply, he received a book from U.S. Secretary of State John Hay. Part of it read:

"They will promise that if he starts a revolution, the company will supply him with money and weapons. Of course, the agreement is that if the leader of the revolution is successful, he will give the patrons in New York whatever they want. Sometimes they want a concession for a railway, sometimes it’s a nitrate mine or a rubber forest, but you can bet that there are very few revolutions that aren’t supported by a business agreement."

Learn more by watching the following video, which is related to the short novel "I Took Panama: The Story of Philippe Bunau-Varilla:
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Published on March 09, 2013 14:03 • 78 views • Tags: captain-macklin, i-took-panama, panama-canal, philippe-bunau-varilla, rodolfo-leiton

March 2, 2013

A lot of people ask me why I wrote about Bunau-Varilla, and how I chose the story.

It is probably safe to say the story chose me. I had always wanted to write a short novel, but I had not found a topic that really felt right.

The moment I learned about Bunau-Varilla I knew his story was great. And it is:

A young French engineer goes to work on the excavation of the Panama Canal (then part of Colombia), and almost two decades later he becomes the new nation of Panama's first Ambassador to the U.S., so the Canal can be completed.

As American journalist Eric Sevareid once wrote, Bunau-Varilla practically "invented" Panama. He was an engineer, soldier, entrepreneur, lobbyist and diplomat who changed World history. Yet, he remains basically unknown.

Let's hope that will change...
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February 16, 2013

(This is an article published in the newspaper El Siglo, from Panama, on January 4th, 2013:

Film About Bunau-Varilla
by Rodolfo M. Leiton

Shortly before passing away at 80 years of age, Philippe Bunau-Varilla fantasized about the possibility that somebody would make a movie about his participation in the construction of the Panama Canal.

In a letter to his dear friend Francis Loomis, dated May 16, 1939, Bunau-Varilla told him about the movie “Suez” he had seen, which portrayed the life of Ferdinand de Lesseps and showed his role in the construction of the Suez Canal. De Lesseps was played by Tyrone Power, one of the biggest movie stars of the time, and the film was a highly fictionalized version of reality.

Bunau-Varilla enjoyed watching “Suez”, finding it “interesting and entertaining”, and suggested to his friend that a movie about Panama would prove to be a captivating story for many people. The U.S. diplomat, said the Frenchman, should be one of the main characters. Loomis, of course, was Secretary of State in 1903 and played a key role in giving Bunau-Varilla access to President Roosevelt and Secretary of State John Hay.

It was thanks to Loomis that the Frenchman was able to visit the White House and ask Roosevelt if he would support a revolution in Panama, as both men would later recount, although with varying versions of what really happened at the meeting. And it was through Loomis that Bunau-Varilla coordinated sending warships to Panama during the revolution to protect the process towards independence.

Just as I narrated in my novel 'I Took Panama', Bunau-Varilla's life was full of spectacular events that today would seem like fiction. But the truth is that the story of this Frenchman is possibly one of the most interesting stories that exists. Bunau-Varilla went from Colombia to Panama to work as an engineer for Ferdinand de Lesseps. Almost two decades later, he became the first ambassador of the Republic of Panama to the United States, with the goal of ensuring that the Panama Canal was completed. What happened in-between is perhaps one of the most captivating and little-known stories of a historical figure worldwide.

For whatever reasons, Bunau-Varilla was obsessed in finding someone to finish the Panama Canal. First he tried to not let France give up and to conclude the project. When that failed, he visited Sergei Witte, the Russian Finance Minister, to try to convince the czar to purchase the assets of the French company and complete the project. And when that didn't work, he turned his attention to the United States to convince them to abandon their old plans to construct the Nicaragua Canal and instead focus on the French canal in Panama. For years, Bunau-Varilla lobbied in the U.S. in favor of Panama, helped to convince the Senate to change their voting intentions (which at the time favored Nicaragua) and then actively supported the Panamanian revolution. His story deserves attention.

I hope that someday a film is shown on the life of Bunau-Varilla. Roosevelt said that the short-statured engineer had 'the look of a duelist'. From that comment and other descriptions, Elijah Wood or Daniel Radcliffe could play the Frenchmen, and a shaved Zach Galifianakis would make a great Roosevelt. I agree with Bunau-Varilla: how interesting to make a movie about a man who for so many years of his life fought to see a project completed that had been long dismissed as a failure, but that ended up changing the history of the world for its geopolitical consequences: the Panama Canal.
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Published on February 16, 2013 21:59 • 106 views • Tags: bunau-varilla, de-lesseps, panama-canal, panama-canal-centennial, philippe-bunau-varilla, rodolfo-leiton

February 7, 2013

Excerpt from Chapter 34:

"Immediately, Philippe took a train to Washington to visit Francis Loomis. When he got to his friend’s office, he got right to the point, ´Francis, it is of crucial importance that by the 3rd of November the United States has a gunboat guarding the port of Colón. We don’t want a repeat of the events of 1885 when Prestán rebelled and the entire city burned up because the United States didn’t intervene in time to maintain order. The canal needs a gunboat to go to Colón as soon as possible.´”

One of the most intriguing facts about the history of the Panama Canal is how the U.S. intervened indirectly, through Philippe Bunau-Varilla, in order to support the armed revolution which would allow Panama to finally secede from Colombia and become a nation in its own right.

"I Took Panama" tells that story from its origins, and takes an unprecedented look at the friendship between Bunau-Varilla and Francis Loomis, then Assistant Secretary of State. Their collaboration changed World history and their friendship lasted into old age.

A very interesting story, if I may say so. See related photos at:
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Published on February 07, 2013 07:40 • 82 views

February 2, 2013

Bunau-Varilla was an amazing character who changed World history, yet very few people know he even existed. That was part of the fun of writing the book, uncovering many incredible events that seemed fiction but were in reality actual facts. Like what happens on Chapter 31 (available free on

To think that the U.S. Government would confirm its support of an armed revolution through a novel written by a friend of Teddy Roosevelt is, well, incredible!
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Published on February 02, 2013 20:30 • 84 views • Tags: american-history, bunau-varilla, i-took-panama, panama-canal, philippe-bunau-varilla, teddy-roosevelt

I Took Panama: The Story of Philippe Bunau-Varilla

Rodolfo M. Leitón
The book is based on the true story of a controversial French Colonel who "invented" a country so the Panama Canal could be completed.

This blog aims to share interesting facts about the book, or tidb
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