Panama’s Martyr Day Explained

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The Jan. 9 is a national holiday, Martyrs Day, in Panama. It marks the events of Jan. 9, 1964, almost 50 years ago, nearly 200 Panamanian students marched into the then U.S. owned and controlled Panama Canal Zone with their flag. The events that followed this seemingly harmless act changed Panamanian history.

The conflict was over the right of the Panamanian flag to be flown alongside the U.S. flag. in the Canal Zone. Balboa High School, located in the Canal Zone, had begun to fly the U.S. flag on its own. When word about this got out, nearly 200 Panamanian students marched into the Zone with their conutry’s flag intent on flying it alongside the U.S. flag at the high school. A struggle ensued and the flag (which had historic significance) was torn.

The news of this incident sparked fury in Panamanian society. Thousands of Panamanians stormed the Canals Zone’s fences. Panamanians were tear gassed, and then several were shot, for pulling or climbing on the chain link fence, which was protecting U.S. soil. The rioting lasted three days and resulted in more than 20 deaths and serious injuries to several hundred persons. The circumstances of the deaths remain unclear and deeply controversial. U.S. sources claim that all Panamanians were shot by their own countrymen who had been aiming for U.S. targets. Panamanians sources claim the U.S. soldiers were responsible for all the deaths.

International outrage was directed at the United States after the violence and Panama cut off all diplomatic ties with the country until the negotiations for the future of the Canal Zone. The British and French governments criticized the United States’ colonial policies and stated that U.S. “Zonians” citizens were as obnoxious as any other group of colonial settlers. This pressure is often cited as the main reason why the U.S. government signed the Torrijos–Carter Treaties in 1977 giving control of the Canal to Panama and dissolving the Canal Zone over the next 20 years.

Fast forward 50 years, and Martyrs Day is a national holiday in Panama. The day is not a working day, but you’re not allowed to drink. This is because it is considered a day of grief. The radio isn’t even allowed to play festival music. The national holiday actually occurred on the 7 January this year because there is a law in Panama every free day in the middle of the week is moved to Monday.

Additionally, there are two monuments in Panama City to commemorate the “martyrs”. One is outside the former Balboa High School were the violence first sparked. The other has been built in front of the Legislative Assembly. It consists on a life-sized monument in the form of a lamppost, with three figures climbing it to raise their flag. It reflects the famous photo that made the front cover of LIFE magazine at the time.

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About Author

Denis Foynes

Denis Foynes was born in New York City to Irish parents in 1991. When he was 8, his family returned to Celtic Tiger Ireland. Denis has an International Politics degree from Aberystwyth University in Wales. After completing university, he decided to leave crisis Ireland and relocate to Panama.