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Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017 12:18 am

When students tried to raise a flag in Panama

 Pedasi, Panama -- While Jan. 9 was just another Monday in the U.S., it was a major national holiday in Panama, marking perhaps the lowest point in the inextricably close relations between the two countries. Sparked by high school students, the incident the holiday commemorates is credited with leading to the eventual return of the Canal Zone to Panama.

Martyrs’ Day, a Panamanian national holiday and day of mourning, marks several days of hostilities that began Jan. 9, 1964, and included the deaths of high school students and others. That is when students from Panama’s top high school attempted to raise their nation’s flag at a school in the Canal Zone, a strip of land beside the canal running through Panama and Panama City that was then U.S. territory.

The history of the two nations has been bound together since 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt and the U.S. helped Panama gain its independence from Colombia. Afterwards Panama ceded the Canal Zone to the U.S. in perpetuity for a $10 million initial payment and $250,000 a year thereafter. The U.S. then built the canal. The canal and land beside it was considered sovereign U.S. territory.

In January 1964 the governor of the U.S. Canal Zone issued a decree that no flags were to fly in the Zone outside non-military locations, such as post offices, police stations and schools. But, outraged that their flagpole was empty, students at the Balboa public high school in the Zone raised the U.S. flag in defiance of the decree.

When Panamanian high school students heard about this, 150 to 200 of them marched into the Zone with a Panamanian flag and a banner declaring Panama’s sovereignty over the the Zone. In an attempt to avoid a confrontation, a deal was struck between the students and Zone police, allowing them to raise the flag at the school, but opposition by Balboa students and other Zonians prevented the flag from going up.

Raising tensions even higher, in the ensuing scuffle the Panamanian flag was torn, although it is disputed if it was intentionally torn by the Zonians or accidentally torn in the scuffle.

Nevertheless, this led to further hostilities in Panama City and even up to the northern (Atlantic) entrance to the canal in Colon. U.S. troops were brought in and in the end 21 Panamanians and four U.S. soldiers were dead.

All sorts of international furor was raised at the United Nations, the Organization of American States (OAS) and elsewhere. Panama cut diplomatic ties with the U.S. and vowed not to restore them until the U.S. agreed to start talks about a new treaty on the Canal Zone.

Diplomatic relations resumed April 5, 1964. Three presidents later, Jimmy Carter in 1977 signed a new treaty with Panama, turning control of the Zone and canal to Panama completely on Dec. 31, 1999.

Despite this incident and the U.S. military invasion in Panama in 1989, resulting in the arrest of General Manuel Noriega, relations between the two countries are now excellent. Panamanians are very friendly to U.S. citizens, many of whom live here, running businesses, encouraged by Panama’s economic incentives to attract foreign businesses, or as retirees. Panama is an economic powerhouse in Latin America with a high economic growth rate.

Nevertheless, every year Panama commemorates this unfortunate loss of lives from the violence that broke out over something as simple as the raising of flags. The incident ultimately led to something as crucial as who would control one of the world’s most important waterways.

Sam Cahnman is the former Ward 5 alderman and a freelance writer. He has submitted previous work to the Illinois Times from his world travels, but this is his first time in Latin America.

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