Martyrs Day A Day in the Fight for Panama’s Sovereignty

January 9th is a national day in Panama called "Martyrs Day". It is a tribute to honor the patriotism of civilians and students who gave their lives for Panama to be a sovereign country throughout its territory.After the separation of Panama from Colombia in 1903 a French man named Bunau Varilla made a treaty with the United States on behalf of Panama Republic. This treaty granted in perpetuity, the Panama Canal, along with a 5-mile strip of land on either side of it, to the United States.  This area, which stretched from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast, was called the "Panama Canal Zone". With this treaty Panama was politically divided into two, having US territory running down the middle.  For Panamanians to pass from one side to the other, they had to cross a path, which would later become "Puente de las Américas." Bridge. Many Panamanians did not agree with this treaty, but they accepted it in order to gain the help of the United States with separation from Colombia.

When the United States took possession of this territory (Panama Canal Zone) they adopted it as a US territory applying its own laws, constitution, habits and limiting it only to US citizens to live and circulate. This meant that Panamanians could not enter this territorial strip. Locally this area (Panama Canal Zone) was called by the Panamanians "The Zone" and is now referenced to as "The Old Zone".

The treaty, which was called "Hay-Bunau Varilla” never sat well with the Panamanian people. They considered it wrong for the US to hold land within Panama, forever.  As such, in the 50s there were peaceful demonstrations organized by schools and civilian groups that would seek to fly the Panamanian flag alongside the US flag in public and civic institutions within The Zone.

In 1959 a group of people marched peacefully to the Canal Zone. In an act of Panamanian sovereignty every person was carrying a Panamanian flag. They sought to enter the Canal Zone, but were forbidden by the zone guards. During the exchange a Zonian Police officer destroyed a Panamian flag.  This incident caused indignation in the Panamanian people and helped initiate negotiations that resulted in the “Chiari-Kennedy” treaty, which was signed in 1963.

The Chiari-Kennedy treaty, gave more social and economic freedoms to Panamanians within the Canal Zone. Later through the suggestions of a commissioner Robert Fleming, the then governor of the Canal Zone, announced that from January 1, 1964 that the Panamanian flag would be hoisted alongside the US flag on civilian sites within the Canal Zone. The flag area would exclude military bases and ships passing through the Panama Canal. This decision was not liked by Panamanians or the US (Zonians), for different reasons.

Zonians, not wanting to fly the Panama flag alongside the US flag ignored the decision. On January 3, 1964, a Zonian Police Officer named Carlton Bell hoisted the American flag without accompanying the Panamanian flag at the monument of the Heroes of War in Gamboa, which was considered a civil site. A few days later on January 7, U.S. students of the Balboa High School raised the flag of the United States without the accompanying Panamanian flag.

After these actions a group of approximately 200 students from the National Institute of Panama advised the authorities about their intention to march to the Balboa High School in order to hoist the Panamanian flag. The flag they carried belonged to their own school, the National Institute of Panama, and due to its age and use over the years it carried historical significance.

When the Panamanian students arrived at the Zone, US authorities were waiting for them. After negotiations Zonian Police allowed a small group of students to enter the Zone and go to the Balboa High School to hoist the Panamanian flag. When the Panamanian students were about to raise the flag Zonian students singing the US national anthem prevented them from doing so. A struggle started and the Panamanian flag was torn into several pieces. At this point the US police stepped in and forced the Panamanian students to leave the school. They were escorted out of the Zone, to join the rest of the students who were not allowed inside.

When Panamanian citizens heard that a flag had been destroyed at the hands of Zonians, they were angered. Learning that the flag had historical value, only added insult to injury. A series of protests, marches and actions against Zonian authorities began. These protests peaked in fervor on January 9, 1964, when civilian demonstrators gathered in the area of Plaza 5 de Mayo. The exact number of protestors is not clear, unofficial reports go from 5,000 all the way to 30,000. What is known is that the U.S. Army deployed military force to meet the protestors with machine guns in hand, pointed at civilians.

It must be remembered that at that time the civilian population did not have access to firearms.  The National Guard was the only agency able to carry firearms. However the National Guard by international law could not shoot or fight the U.S. soldiers.

What happened next put January 9th forever in the history of Panama as “Martyrs Day”.

Some students bearing the flag of Panama reached the fence that divided the Canal Zone, to hoist the flag. US soldiers opened fire with machine guns, killing a number of students. When the Panamanian people saw the dead students they angrily asked members of the National Guard of Panama that were on the scene to give them weapons to confront the soldiers themselves. Their requests were not granted.

Panamanians rioted, destroying American businesses. The newly opened Panamerican Airline building was burned. In Colón people came to protest near US communities of Cristobal. In Chiriqui people took over the Panama Fruit Company offices. The protests left many Panamanian civilians dead.

Panamanian President Roberto F. Chiari made an unprecedented move in the history of Latin American countries. He broke diplomatic relations with the United States. It is unofficially said that President Chiari gave orders allowing the National Guard to shoot US soldiers if they continued shooting civilians.

The feeling of support for the Panamanian cause was expressed by Latin American days later at the Organization of American States, when the Colombian ambassador said "In Panama there is now another Berlin Wall".

With this fight of January 9, 1964, martyring civilians, Panama reaffirmed its struggle for full sovereignty of its territory. This was achieved under the Torrijos-Carter Treaties in 1977, when the United States pledged to return the territory of the Panama Canal Zone back to the Panamanian people on December 31, 1999.

By: Lic. Anibal Diaz