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The presence of this judicial-legislative-executive government body led to the building of a sense of independent nationhood. Unlike the former Canal Zone, the government has always repudiated racism and segregation.
Because of its nationalistic policies, the government also forbade the use of English in public schools, thus discriminating against the black population.
The urban elite is primarily Creole, mostly of Spanish descent.
There are also populations of Spanish, Italian, Greek, and Jewish origins.
After failing to build a sea-level canal in the 1880s, the French sold their concession to the United States, which conspired with the elite in Panama City to declare independence when they could not obtain a favorable treaty from Colombia.
From 1903 to 1978, the United States controlled the Canal Zone, a five-mile strip on both sides of the canal.
Together, these two groups constitute 70 percent of the population.
There are four officially recognized Indian ethnic groups (the Kuna, Guaymi or Ngawbe, Embera, and Waunan), which number fewer than 200,000.
The isthmus runs east-west in the form of an inverted "S." Low mountains run through most of the country, leaving a gap in the center that is nearly at sea level.
Residents of that area were called "Zonians" and remained American citizens even after three generations of residence.
These mostly white employees of the Canal Company lived an isolated life and were prejudiced against the Panamanian population.
They speak English, French, or an English patois at home and are mostly Protestant. The official language is Spanish, but English is used widely in business, especially banking and tourism, and by some people of African descent. Some coins bear the image of Urraca, an Indian chief who resisted the Spanish conquests, but most coins depict Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, the discoverer of the Pacific Ocean. Panama became an autonomous nation because of its function as the custodian of the transisthmus shipping route—the "path between the seas." It gained independence in 1903 as part of an American-sponsored revolt against Colombia that led to the signing of a treaty granting the United States the right to build the Panama Canal.
The Spanish discovered and conquered Panama between 15.