Panama Commemorates 1964 ‘Flag Protest’
Decades of simmering tension over U.S. control of the Panama Canal and its adjacent land boiled over 53 years ago today in riots over flags which eventually forced the United States to relinquish the waterway in 1999.
At the end of the three-day riot that began on January 9, 1964, at least 22 Panamanians and 4 Americans were dead, and hundreds more on both sides were injured. The death toll and its causes, however, remain highly contested to this day, as they were after the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989.
Historically marches take place in Panama City, some toward the U.S. embassy, to commemorate the 1964 protest that remains deeply ingrained in Panama’s public consciousness. The U.S. embassy has warned its citizens to stay away from the marches, even if they seem peaceful.
U.S. Cautions Citizens
The U.S. embassy warned its citizens on January 5, 2017, that it “received reports of possible marches and demonstrations planned throughout Panama City on January 9. One such demonstration is planned for [9:00 a.m.] on January 9, beginning at the 5 de Mayo Metro Station.
U.S. Citizens should plan their travel accordingly and avoid all confrontations.”
History of Resentment
The Canal Zone, a five-mile stretch on either side of the Panama Canal, had been a sovereign U.S. territory under the 1903 Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, which the Panamanians viewed as grossly unfair. Under the terms of the treaty, the U.S. would have control over the Canal Zone and defend it “in perpetuity.”
Significant organized protests against U.S. presence dates back to the end of World War II, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s when some Panamanian leaders actively advocated crossing into the Canal Zone to symbolically claim sovereignty by hoisting their flag.
The ‘Flag Protest’
Successive U.S. administrations since President Eisenhower have conceded to Panama and allowed both countries’ flags at one or more Canal Zone buildings. As disputes over flags mounted, Canal Zone officials banned all flags from schools as of January 1, 1964. Students at Balboa High School, inside the Canal Zone, defied the ban and hoisted a U.S. flag on January 7 and 8.
The following day, about 200 students from the Instituto Nacional marched on the school to raise a Panamanian flag. Canal Zone authorities allowed a delegation of five students to enter the school grounds to raise the flag, but the students were rebuffed by Balboa High counterparts.
The Panamanian flag was torn in the scuffle, rumors of which triggered full-scale riots in Panama City and in Colon, at the Caribbean entrance to the canal, and isolated attacks on U.S. buildings in David, to the west.
The U.S. Canal Zone responded initially with tear gas, which failed to subdue the angry mob, and resorted to live ammunition that resulted in the deaths of Panamanians, including students.
The rioting ended three days later, and Panamanian President Roberto Chiari broke diplomatic relations with the United States. Still, consular relations with Panama remained unaffected, according to a U.S. diplomat who was evacuated to the Canal Zone.
U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian General Omar Torrijos Sign Carter-Torrijos Treaties on Sept. 7, 1977
1977 Torrijos-Carter Treaties
President Johnson and his foreign policy team successfully navigated the Panama crisis by hinting at the possibility of renegotiating or abrogating the 1903 Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty but never actually offering to do so.
Yet pressure from successive Panamanian governments and evolving U.S. foreign policy interests in the region led to two 1977 Torrijos-Carter Treaties: one (Neutrality Treaty) ensured permanent U.S. authority to defend the canal if its neutrality were to be threatened; and the other (Panama Canal Treaty) disbanded the Canal Zone and returned the canal to Panama on December 31, 1999.
Panamanians climb a street light on January 9, 1964, to hoist a Panamanian flag at the U.S. Canal Zone border along the former Cuatro de Julio Avenue in a symbolic claim to sovereignty. (Image: Cover of Life magazine, January 24, 1964)
Life magazine’s iconic cover photo, published two weeks after the riots began, shows three protesters climbing a street light to hoist a Panamanian flag at the border of the Canal Zone. The image symbolized Panama’s struggle to regain sovereignty over the Canal Zone and inspired a modern-day monument at the same site.
A new law in 2013 declared January 9 as the “Day of National Sovereignty” though it is still interchangeably called “Martyrs’ Day.” Loud music and sale of alcohol have been generally prohibited.
The law also declared it a day of mourning, ordered flags to be flown at half-mast, and prevented it from being moved to a Monday or Friday to create a three-day weekend.
The decree also encouraged radio and television stations to remember and honor the memories of the fallen Panamanians with dedicated programming that lasts at least one hour.
U.S. Departure: Sweet for Panamanians, Bitter for Zonians
While the Canal Zone began disbanding shortly after the 1977 Torrijos-Carter Treaties, the handover ceremony on Friday, December 31, 1999, marked the official end of the U.S. military presence on the isthmus that divided the tiny country in half.
Juanita Darling, a former Los Angeles Times correspondent and now an associate professor at San Francisco State University, wrote the following day:
Vanquishing malaria and mudslides, the United States built, ran and protected the 51-mile-long waterway that opened in 1914. The canal united the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean but cut in half this nation of 2.5 million people. For most of this century, Panamanians could not enter a 10-mile-wide enclave of U.S. military bases and canal workers’ housing in the middle of their country.
It has been a uniquely American form of colonialism: It was never called that by name, but it left influences that have determined the demographics, economy and social structure of Panama.
For the Zonians, civilians who were born, and/or grew up, and worked in the Canal Zone, the U.S. enclave had been home, sometimes to generations of families, since the 51-mile waterway opened to commercial traffic in 1914. The New York Daily News surveyed what remained of the Canal Zone in November 1999.
In a sure sign that the end is near, the military’s last Burger King closed at the West Corozal support base last month. To many Americans, the demise of such a durable icon as the canal remains unpopular two decades after the treaty relinquishing U.S. sovereignty “in perpetuity.”
“The entire [Canal] Zone looked like a beautifully manicured golf course,” a former Zonian told the Daily News. But when the Panama Canal Treaty took effect in 1979, things began to change rapidly.
The Canal Zone, the company and its commercial enterprises were abolished. The quality of life soon plummeted. The Balboa clubhouse, where schoolkids hung out over Cokes and empanadas, went out of business when the Panamanians jacked up the prices. The [Panama Canal] company’s Flavor Rich ice cream and Mary Jane ladyfingers became history.
For the first time, litter and billboards began popping up. The Panamanians started renaming streets – Fourth of July Ave. now commemorates Panamanians who died in 1964 anti-American riots. The railroad fell into disrepair, then died after the Panamanians slashed its maintenance budget.
As was the case with those who grew up in a country or territory that no longer exists, Army Chaplain Lt. Col. Thomas Wesley lamented the disappearance of the Canal Zone in an interview with the Daily News:
My home is gone.