Date: Tue, 28 Dec 1999 11:08:25 -0600 (CST)
The beginning of the end of the Panama Canal Zone
By Eric Jackson, 28 December 1999
The Martyrs of 1964
In January 1963, John F. Kennedy agreed to fly Panama's flag alongside the American flag at all non-military sites in the Canal Zone where the stars and stripes were flown. Zonians and their main supporter on Capitol Hill, US Representative Daniel Flood, complained bitterly.
One Gerald Doyle, the Panama Canal Company's chief architect, sued to block the display of the Panamanian flag. Kennedy's executive order was upheld in the Canal Zone's Federal District Court by Judge Guthrie Crowe, who found that the courts had no power to interfere in such foreign policy matters. Nevertheless, Judge Crowe blasted the flag policy from the bench, stating that "[t]he flying of two national flags side by side in a disputed territory for an undeclared purpose is a position of weakness that can lead but to further misunderstanding and discord." (1) The executive order's implementation was delayed pending the outcome of the lawsuit and the lapse of the appeal period after the court's decision.
Before the new policy could be carried out, Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. The incoming Johnson administration put new policies and appointments affecting the Canal Zone on hold, pending review and possible changes of personnel and policy.
One month after President Kennedy's death, Canal Zone Governor Robert J. Fleming, Jr. issued a decree limiting Kennedy's order. The US flag would no longer be flown outside Canal Zone schools, police stations, post offices or other civilian locations where it had been, so that Panama's flag would not be flown either. The governor's order infuriated many Zonians, who viewed it as a symbol of US renunciation of sovereignty over the Canal Zone.
The governor was a major general in the US Army Corps of Engineers, appointed by the president and under the direct supervision of the secretary of the army. Many Zonians disliked Fleming in the best of times. His military manners and the swagger stick that he liked to carry were objects of Zonian ridicule. The hostility was mutual. Fleming did not care for the ultra-patriotic Zonian attitude and saw his Zonian critics as uncouth and spoiled. Fleming summarized his take on the latter to The Saturday Evening Post: "They've been isolated so long they've developed a reactionary mentality.... It's the perfect place for the guy who's 150 percent American-and 50 percent whiskey." (2) He stated his nutshell view of the problems between Zonians and Panamanians to an American engineering society not long after the situation had boiled over: "The plain fact is that we must begin treating Panamanians as people." (3)
Now it was time for Zonians to hold flag demonstrations. The first defiance of the governor's decree was by Canal Zone police officer Carlton Bell, who raised Old Glory at the Gamboa Civic Memorial. Petitions calling for the raising of US flags, and only US flags, were circulated. A motorcade with honking horns picketed Fleming's house.
The American flag was raised at Canal Zone Junior College and Balboa High School on the Pacific side. The next day it was raised at Cristobal High School and all of the Canal Zone elementary schools (save those for the West Indians) on the Atlantic side.
Attempts by school authorities to prevent the demonstrations were fruitless. Virtually all American junior high and high school students, both Zonian kids and military dependents, participated. After the first American flag that was raised at Balboa High was taken down by school officials, the students walked out of class, raised another flag, and posted guards to prevent its removal. Members of the local Elks Club and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, some the parents of the protesters, provided blankets and meals for participants at an all-night vigil at the Balboa flagpole. Most Zonian adults sympathized with the student demonstrators.
A high school student leader of the flag raising at Cristobal High, Connie Lasher, succinctly stated the Zonian case to a reporter for Life magazine: "We want just the American flag flying-it proves our sovereignty. The next step, if they have their way, will be just to fly the Panamanian flag." (4)
Governor Fleming, miscalculating the volatility of the situation, left the zone for talks with his superiors in Washington on the afternoon of January 9, 1964. The crisis would boil over while he was in the air over the Caribbean Sea.
To further complicate matters, the US embassy was run by a charge d'affairs. The prior ambassador, Joseph Farland, had submitted his resignation to Kennedy several months before and had yet to be replaced. Apparently Kennedy had a nominee in mind when he died, but Lyndon Johnson wanted to make his own choice and had not done so by the time of the crisis.
Farland, a symbol of friendship and understanding despite his background as an FBI counter-intelligence expert, was liked by many Panamanians. Part of the reputation stemmed from a departure from bureaucratic norms of inefficiency. In one case the US government had proposed a study about the possibility of a rural road in Panama's interior, but Farland used funds for training Panamanian equipment operators to provide on the job training and built the road for half the cost of the proposed study. (5) A few months before the crisis he was given a friendly send-off by some 35,000 Panamanian well-wishers. Farland's popularity with Panamanians was mirrored by his unpopularity with many Zonians. (6)
To many observers, including Governor Fleming at the time, it seemed in late 1963 that US-Panamanian relations had never been better. On the other hand, some leftists who had no use for either Kennedy's Alliance for Progress or Farland burned the ambassador in effigy. This display, and an October 1963 molotov cocktail attack on the US embassy in Panama City, was one of several unheeded signs of the explosive situation that was brewing in Panama that fall.
In any case, a dangerous situation unfolded with Lieutenant Governor David S. Parker in charge of the Canal Zone and the US embassy in Panama City functioning at somewhat less than full capacity. There were no special preparations for the coming explosion.
A Panamanian response to the flag raisings was expected, though the crisis took most Americans by surprise. Several years later, Lyndon Johnson wrote in his memoirs that: "[w]hen I heard about the students' action, I was certain we were in for trouble." (7)
The Zonian gauntlet was picked up by students at the Instituto Nacional, the elite Panamanian high school sometimes referred to as the Eagles' Nest. This school is in Panama City, about a stone's throw away from the Canal Zone. Led by 17 -year-old Guillermo Guevara Paz, 150 to 200 students from the institute marched to Balboa High School, carrying their school's Panamanian flag and a sign proclaiming their country's sovereignty over the Canal Zone. They had first informed their school principal and the Canal Zone authorities of their plans before setting out on their march. Their intention was to raise the Panamanian flag on the Balboa High School flagpole where the Americans had raised theirs.
When they got to Balboa High, the Panamanian students were met by Canal Zone police and a crowd of Zonian students and adults. David Blackman, president of the Balboa High School Students Association, offered a cordial welcome to the Panamanian students. He was jeered by his fellow Balboa students. After hurried negotiations between the Panamanian students and the police, a small group was allowed to approach the flagpole, while police kept the main group back.
A half dozen Panamanian students, carrying their flag, approached the flagpole. The Zonians would have none of it. They surrounded the flagpole, sang the Star Spangled Banner, and nullified the deal between the police and the Panamanian students. Scuffling broke out. The Panamanians were driven back by the Zonian civilians and police. In the course of the scuffle Panama's flag was torn.
The flag in question had historical significance. In 1947, students from the Instituto Nacional had carried it in demonstrations opposing the Filos-Hines Treaty and demanding the withdrawal of US military bases. Independent investigators of the events of January 9, 1964 later noted that the flag was made of flimsy silk, thus easily torn.
There are conflicting claims about how the flag was torn. Canal Zone Police Captain Gaddis Wall, who was in charge of the police at the scene, denies any American culpability. He claims that the Panamanian students stumbled and accidentally tore their own flag. David M. White, an apprentice telephone technician with the Panama Canal Company, stated that "[t]he police gripped the students, who were four or five abreast, under the shoulders in the arm pits and edged them forward. One of the students fell or tripped and I believe when he went down the old flag was torn." (8)
One of the Panamanian flag bearers, Eligio Carranza, said that "[t]hey started shoving us and trying to wrest the flag from us, all the while insulting us. A policeman wielded his club which ripped our flag. The captain tried to take us where the others [Panamanian students] were. On the way through the mob, many hands pulled and tore our flag." (9)
Panamanian newspapers later ran a photograph which purported to show an American student ripping the flag. (10) Canal Zone authorities claimed that the photo in question showed nothing of the sort, but instead showed the American student pushing a Panamanian student who had allegedly shoved a Zonian girl. The picture could be interpreted in different ways. However the flag was torn, it was the result of an altercation, not an unprompted clumsy move by a Panamanian student.
The main group of Panamanian high school students moved into the fray, and several were battered by police. The protesters retreated up the many steps toward the Canal Zone Administration Building, which is on a big hill overlooking Balboa High.
The Panamanian students tried to lower the American flag at the administration building, but were thwarted by police. The angry students then stoned the building and several cars, breaking windows. They retreated to Panama City, followed by Canal Zone police cars. To impede the pursuing patrol cars, the protesters rolled 50 gallon oil drums which served as trash cans for the well-kept Canal Zone towns into the clean and usually calm streets. No arrests were made.
As word of the Balboa flag desecration incident spread, angry crowds formed along the border between Panama City and the Canal Zone. At several points demonstrators stormed into the zone, planting Panamanian flags. Canal Zone police tear gassed them. Rocks were thrown, causing minor injuries to several of the cops. The police opened fire.
Ascanio Arosemena, a 20 -year-old student, was shot at an angle from behind, through the shoulder and thorax. His lung was punctured and his aorta severed. Death came within a minute or two. He became the first of Panama's Martyrs, as those who fell on January 9, 1964 and the following few days were to become known.
Arosemena, the captain of the soccer team at the Escuela Profesional (Professional School), was a good student and not particularly a political activist. He was from a prominent old family. He happened upon the scene of the fighting while he was on his way to see a movie at a theater near the scene of the confrontation. (Ironically, the film that was showing at the Central Theater where Arosemena had been headed that night was Rampage, starring Robert Mitchum.) Witnesses say that Arosemena died while helping to evacuate wounded protesters from the danger zone. The witnesses appear to be corroborated by a photograph of Arosemena supporting an injured man, said to have been taken shortly before he was shot. (11)
Panamanian protesters burned cars with Canal Zone license plates or with Panamanian plates featuring a "Z" that identified them as belonging to American soldiers and canal employees who resided outside the zone. Traffic signals were destroyed. The Masonic Temple, a convent for American nuns, a bar which catered to Americans and the Canal Zone bus depot were vandalized. One group of angry Panamanians invaded the Canal Zone town of Ancon (adjacent to Panama City on one side and Balboa on the other) and set fire to a number of buildings and railroad cars.
The police opened fire again. Panamanian witnesses claimed, and American authorities denied, that Zonian civilians participated in this shooting. Panamanian newspapers printed a photograph of a man in civilian clothing standing next to a Canal Zone police officer, brandishing a shotgun. (12) The man with the shotgun was not particularly identified by the periodicals. He may have been a police officer in plain clothes.
A group of about 50 Zonian teenagers gathered at the Ancon playground and hurled rocks and insults at the Panamanian demonstrators. These gestures were reciprocated. The police made no effort to disperse the Canal Zone kids, as their attention was directed to a Panamanian crowd which seemed intent on burning as much as possible of Ancon. The Zonian youths were finally dispersed a few hours later by the US Army, when it relieved the Canal Zone Police Department of responsibility for the defense of Ancon.
Canal Zone authorities asked the Guardia Nacional to suppress the disturbances. The guardia commanders, mindful of the criticism which their institution had received for siding with the Americans in the 1959 flag disturbances, stayed away from the fighting. While declining to side with the United States against Panamanians, the guardia also ignored the radio appeals of Thelma King. The leftist National Assembly deputy, a descendant of one of the earlier waves of West Indian immigration who grew up in a small town in the interior where hers was the only black family, called for Panama's combined army and police force to take up arms against the Americans.
Meanwhile, demonstrators began to tear down the "Fence of Shame" which separated the Canal Zone from the Republic of Panama, creating gaps in front of the US District Court and several other spots along the boundary. This aspect of the January 9 events is one of the images that is most commonly invoked by Panamanian nationalists. Panamanians were tear gassed, then several were shot, for pulling or climbing on the cyclone fence. Probably the most famous photograph of what Panamanians know as the Day of the Martyrs depicts two demonstrators, one bearing a Panamanian flag, climbing over the Fence of Shame at Ancon. The opinion of most Panamanians, and most Latin Americans generally, about the fence in question was expressed a few days later by Colombia's ambassador to the Organization of American States: "In Panama there exists today another Berlin Wall." (13)
Panamanians armed with stones and molotov cocktails stormed the house of US District Judge Guthrie Crowe, which was across the street from the Instituto Nacional. (It was Crowe who had, with some critical remarks about mixed symbols of sovereignty, upheld Kennedy's executive order on flag protocols in the Canal Zone.) While the judge's family fled, Crowe joined police and fire fighters in putting out several fires. Canal Zone police repulsed the crowd in front of Crowe's house, first with tear gas and then with shotguns and pistols.
Several hundred yards down the road from the Instituto Nacional area (and further yet from Ancon) a large crowd surged out of Panama's slum neighborhood of El Chorrillo. El Chorrillo had been built in 1904 by the Americans to house silver roll canal employees. Turned over to Panama after the canal construction was done, the mostly wooden buildings had seriously deteriorated ever since. The protesters from El Chorrillo marched nearly one half of a mile into the comfortable, well-kept Canal Zone city of Balboa. The police regrouped and tried to disperse them with tear gas, then began to fire bullets.
The Panamanian crowds grew as nightfall came, and by 8 pm the Canal Zone Police Department was overwhelmed. Some 80 to 85 cops faced a hostile crowd of at least 5,000, and estimated by some sources to be 30,000 or more, all along the border between Panama City and the Canal Zone. When the lieutenant governor came to survey the scene, a Panamanian mob stoned his car.
At the request of Lieutenant Governor Parker, General Andrew P. O'Meara, commander of the United States Armed Forces Southern Command, assumed authority over the Canal Zone. The US Army's 193rd Infantry Brigade was deployed at about 8:35 p.m.
Brigadier General George Mabry, who had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery in World War II, ordered the police in his sector (who had been firing from behind barricades) to cease fire. He then led a group of about 15 soldiers in full battle dress, with bayonets affixed to their rifles, against a much larger group of Panamanians. The crowd fell back.
An airplane equipped with loudspeakers flew over parts of Panama City to urge the crowds to disperse. (This was, strictly speaking, a violation of Panamanian air space, a fact about which lawyers and politicians later complained.) US Army armored personnel carriers with machine guns mounted atop arrived.
The army set up its battle headquarters at the Tivoli Guest House, a posh restaurant and hotel in a beautiful wooden turn of the century French style building that has since been demolished. Theodore Roosevelt had slept at the Tivoli when he visited Panama. Within eyesight of the Tivoli were Panama's Legislative Palace and residential and commercial areas of Panama City.
Some Panamanians looted the America Gun Store, while others brandished their own small arms against the American forces. The Tivoli came under heavy fire, mostly from revolvers and .22 caliber rifles. Many of the shots came from around the Legislative Palace.
American-owned businesses in Panama City were set afire. For this purpose, two men set up a gasoline barrel at Cinco de Mayo Plaza (a stone's throw, or shall we say a molotov cocktail's throw, from Ancon) from which the flammable substance was dispensed into bottles. The recently dedicated Pan American Airlines building (which, despite housing an American corporation, was Panamanian-owned) was completely gutted. The next morning, the bodies of 6 Panamanians, who were probably trapped in the burning building while looting or vandalizing it, were found in the wreckage.
The Chase Manhattan Bank, the First National Bank, the offices of Eastman Kodak, a Singer Sewing Machine Company store, a Sears, Roebuck and Company store, Goodyear and Firestone tire outlets, Braniff Airline's reservation agency and the premises of several American-owned utility companies were trashed. Truckloads of Panamanian students went from American-owned business to American-owned business on missions of destruction.
Also put to the torch in Panama City was the recently opened United States Information Service (USIS) library. Though used by many Panamanian students, the USIS library was also a symbol of the American propaganda effort which was part of Kennedy's and Johnson's general counter-insurgency scheme for Latin America. Leading the assault on the USIS was Floyd Britton, the charismatic leftist leader.
Britton, the son of a West Indian family who came to Panama via Colombia, finished his high school education at the Instituto Nacional. While there he edited a radical newspaper and helped to revive the Panamanian Student Federation (FEP), which had been disbanded by Remón in 1953. He led a movement that forced the resignation of the rector of the Instituto Nacional.
Graduating from high school in 1958, Britton enrolled in the University of Panama. Leading the Revolutionary Action Movement (MAR), he railed against corrupt officials. For his efforts he was shot and wounded in a confrontation with the guardia. After taking refuge in the Guatemalan embassy, Britton tried to flee. He was arrested at the airport by Captain Omar Torrijos. Britton was freed in time to join in the November 1959 flag demonstrations.
In 1960 Britton joined the People's Party and organized a FEP congress. He stood on the left of both organizations, arguing against a left electoral strategy. In 1961, after clashes among students, Britton was suspended from the university. In January 1964, Britton was leading a small but militant student faction.
The People's Party quickly swung into action once the fighting started. It is said that a number of its women activists (who could be identified by the zebra-striped handbags which they carried) directed action groups within the crowds. Others say that the student flag demonstrators from the Instituto Nacional were communist-led in the first place.
However, it seems that Panama's communists were caught by surprise by the outbreak of violence and commanded the allegiance of only a small minority of those who fought the Americans on the Day of the Martyrs. A good indication of the relative communist strength came two weeks after the confrontations, when the Catholic church sponsored a memorial rally for the fallen, which was attended by some 40,000 people. A rival communist commemoration on the same day drew only 300 participants.
The People's Party was (and is) but one of several components of a fragmented Panamanian left. Soon after the Day of the Martyrs, Floyd Britton was to split with the party to form another fragment, calling the orthodox communists "revisionist." The Socialist Party and a diverse collection of leftist student factions were among the demonstrators of the Day of the Martyrs.
Chicago Tribune reporter Jules Dubois alleged one giant communist plot, with Christian Democrats, Socialists, student government leaders and a host of others controlled by Fidel Castro's strings. (14) Later writers like ex-Zonians Herbert and Mary Knapp concurred, going so far as to allege on purportedly good authority that the flag that was torn at Balboa High School was torn to begin with. (15) At best, Dubois exaggerated. At worst, people like the Knapps (and many other ex-Zonians) persist in promoting a mythology which is demonstrably untrue, for example by published photographs of the students marching with their untorn flag just before the Balboa flagpole incident. (16)
Panama's foreign minister at the time, Galileo Solis, more accurately summed up the true state of affairs:
*Panamanian communists, like members of other political parties in Panama, were with the people in the streets of the city during the January events. But this does not mean that they direct, or, as the American press writes, "manipulate" the developments in Panama. This contention is a base lie, and it is being spread to distort the true meaning of the broad patriotic movement of protest against injustice, a movement that is entirely Panamanian, without any prompting from the outside.* (17)
Whether or not for fear of an imminent communist takeover, the US embassy was ordered to burn all sensitive documents. All but two embassy personnel were evacuated to the Canal Zone. The embassy attracted protesters in the wee hours of January 10, but the guardia prevented them from entering the premises. The crowd stoned the building and set fire to a nearby car with US embassy license plates.
A number of American residents of Panama City, particularly military personnel and their families who were unable to get housing on base, were forced to flee their homes. The guardia arrested one Nicolás D'Anello, the magistrate for Panama City's San Francisco district, for leading a crowd which vandalized the cars and apartments of Americans living in that neighborhood. All told, the United States reported that 2,048 US citizens from all over Panama took refuge in the Canal Zone.
There were many instances in which Panamanians gave refuge to Americans who were endangered in Panama City and elsewhere. A number of Panamanian soldiers were among the good Samaritans. A large group of US soldiers and civilians gathered at the Panama City home of US Army Major Jerry V. Witt, whose Panamanian neighbors provided him with a license plate without the "Z" for his car and directed demonstrators away from his home. The guardia discretely spirited these Americans to the safe haven of the Canal Zone. Also among those who were sheltered by Panamanians were a number of off-duty American soldiers who were in Panama City bars when the fighting broke out.
Some non-American businesses were also attacked. There was looting. This brought the guardia, which would not assist the American forces at the border, to intervene and arrest some 17 alleged looters. In the days and weeks following the riots, the Panamanian DENI (National Investigation Department, roughly the equivalent of the FBI) raided the homes of many "well-known hoodlums," recovering stolen property and making arrests. Some Panamanian merchants brandished firearms to defend their stores.
As the shooting became a two-way affair and the crowds turned their wrath against targets in Panama City, a number of people were shot to death under disputed circumstances. Various American versions claim that all Panamanians who were shot to death were either rioters or else shot by Panamanians. This has been shown by every objective review of the facts to be untrue.
Various Panamanian versions, also inaccurate, blame all Panamanian deaths on US forces. (18) Those who died in the Pan American Airlines building fire can not reasonably be said to have died at the hands of American forces. Panamanians did fire shots at other Panamanians on the Day of the Martyrs, and some may have been killed or wounded that way. Some Panamanians may have been hit by bullets fired by Panamanians but intended for American targets. A definitive accounting of all deaths in the events of January 1964 has yet to be published, and may never be published.
The Washington Post attributed seven Panamanian deaths, including those in the Pan Am building, to other Panamanians. Some exaggerated American accounts attributed most or all of the shooting deaths of Panamanians to other Panamanians, thus minimizing the death toll caused by the US Army and the Canal Zone Police. Other American accounts made this insinuation by selective silence. A typical example of this was US News and World Report's "Inside Story of the Panama Riots," which made two references to alleged incidents of Panamanians shooting Panamanians, yet failed to mention a single instance of an American shooting a Panamanian. The Spillway, published by the Panama Canal Company, also gave a description of events which failed to mention any killing of a Panamanian by an American, justifiable or not.
The official Canal Zone Police version is that the police did not shoot directly at anybody, but only fired over the heads or at the feet of rioters. (19) It should be noted that to have fired over somebody's head in the direction of Panama City from any of the areas of confrontation in 1964 would have likely caused a bullet to land in a densely-populated neighborhood. Gen. O'Meara, who expressed an unwillingness to dispute the police account, said that to fire at the feet of demonstrators would likely cause ricochets. (20)
Canal Zone Police Captain Wall was more categorical in his denials:
*Let's get one thing straight. My men did not panic and they never at any time deliberately shot anyone... My men say that there was Panamanian fire directed into Panama. Maybe that did it, but it wasn't the police... I saw only two Panamanians wounded, and one of these jumped up and ran away after photographers had taken his picture... My men knew their job and they did it well.* (21)
The police version was discredited by independent investigators, who found that the cops fired directly into the crowds and killed Arosemena and a number of other Panamanians. DENI ballistics experts claim that six Panamanians were killed by .38 caliber Smith and Wesson police revolvers fired by the Canal Zone Police.
The official Southern Command account implicitly owned up to things that the police, The Spillway and US News and World Report would not: "Except for those Panamanian snipers who were shot at by US counter-snipers, all persons killed or wounded by Canal Zone police or US military action sustained their injuries while rioting within the Canal Zone." (22) Yet this, too, tended to unfairly whitewash the American responsibility for the deaths of several Panamanians, some of whom were entirely innocent.
Among the martyred innocents was Rosa Elena Landecho, an 11-year-old girl who was shot to death by a high-powered rifle while standing on the balcony of her family's apartment. She was killed by the US Army, which had fired on the apartment building in response to suspected sniper fire. It seems that there actually was a sniper in another apartment, whose presence was objected to by the residents of the rest of the building. Landecho, who, unlike the sniper, was an easy target, paid the price.
Another innocent party who was shot to death with a high-powered rifle, almost certainly fired by an American soldier, was 33-year-old Rodolfo Sanchez. This bystander was shot while sitting in his car.
Others who were shot down were clearly demonstrators. It is a politically loaded question whether to call some of them "rioters." For example, what to call 18-year-old Estanislao Orobio? His crime was carrying a Panamanian flag into the Canal Zone. He was mortally wounded by a .38 caliber pistol shot in the throat, almost certainly fired by a Canal Zone police officer.
Alberto Oriol Tejada, a 36-year-old laborer, suffered birdshot wounds to his face and chest. One tiny pellet severed his jugular vein, killing him. A 14-year-old student, Gonzalo France, was killed by a .38 caliber bullet wound to the abdomen. These two were shot at places and times when police fired on Panamanian crowds. The fatal shots most likely were fired by Canal Zone cops.
Victor Garibaldo, an unarmed 29-year-old taxi driver, was killed by a high-powered rifle shot which felled him in Panama City near the Legislative Palace. He was killed by American troops, who flushed demonstrators (including both snipers and unarmed persons) out of the building with tear gas and shot at those who fled from the choking clouds.
Other gunshot deaths remain mysterious. Evilio (or, by some accounts, Rogelio) Lara, and elderly fruit vendor, was shot to death while resting at his fruit stand on Panama City's Avenida Central, several blocks from the nearest fighting. Lara was killed by a stray bullet of uncertain origin, but apparently not by a high-velocity rifle round of the type that the US Army was using.
Within an hour and a half of the first shots being fired, Panama City's main hospital, Santo Tomás, announced that it was overloaded with emergencies and asked that the wounded be taken to other hospitals. Panamanian boy scouts lent their help at the emergency rooms of Santo Tomás and other hospitals, giving first aid to the less severely wounded patients who could not be quickly seen by hospital staff, helping to move patients from ambulances to emergency rooms and operating suites, and running many small errands which the overworked hospital workers would handle by themselves in more normal situations.
The fighting ebbed and flowed along the Panama City-Canal Zone boundary for several days. Small groups and individuals made forays into the Canal Zone to raise the Panamanian flag, braving the US Army's rifle fire. Snipers fought off and on battles, particularly by exchanging fire with the soldiers holed up in the Tivoli. Students gathered rocks and bottles for unequal combat with heavily armed adversaries. A lone archer shot flaming arrows at the Tivoli. The Legislative Palace became an informal headquarters for a ragtag Panamanian resistance, thus came under the heavy tear gas and rifle fire that took Victor Garibaldo's life. One group made its way to Shaler Triangle, where they cut down the flagpole where the stars and stripes had flown. Another crowd battled American troops and police on the Bridge of the Americas, which the US forces eventually cleared and closed. The bridge closure isolated Panama City from that part of the country which lies between the canal and Costa Rica.
When the fighting was over, DENI investigators found over 600 bullets embedded in the Legislative Palace. Santo Tomás Hospital reported that it had treated 324 injuries and recorded 18 deaths from the fighting. Panama City's Social Security Hospital treated at least 16 others who were wounded on the first night of the fighting. Most of those killed and wounded had suffered gunshot wounds. Some of the more seriously injured were left with severe permanent brain damage or paralyzing spinal injuries from their bullet wounds.
After the fighting, American investigators found over 400 bullets embedded in the Tivoli. The US Army reported 10 soldiers wounded by gunfire, with none killed, in the fighting near Panama City. One American soldier, Spec/4 Michael W. Rowland, died when he fell into a ravine while pulling night time guard duty not far from the scene of the fighting. Nineteen US Army personnel, 8 members of the US Air Force, 3 US Navy sailors and a Peruvian naval cadet who was training with the US Navy were hurt other than by gunfire in Pacific side fighting. Suffering non-gunshot injuries in violence in or near Panama City were 4 Canal Zone cops and 13 American civilians.
Most of the injuries suffered by Americans resulted from thrown rocks or bottles. One severe injury was suffered by a young Zonian who was caught in his car in Panama City when the fighting broke out, picked the wrong route back into the Canal Zone, and lost an eye to a brick thrown through his windshield.
The confrontation was not contained in the Panama City area. Word of the fighting quickly spread all over Panama by radio, television and private telephone calls. One Homero Velasquez, a journalist for the leftist Radio Tribuna (which was partly owned by Thelma King), set up a makeshift broadcasting booth in a bar a few blocks from the Canal Zone boundary, where runners kept him posted with reports from the various scenes of fighting. These reports, retold in lurid "play by play" style over the radio, led the Canal Zone authorities to lay much of the blame for mobilizing anti-American crowds at Velasquez's feet. Thelma King and other militant leaders broadcast appeals for action over Radio Tribuna and other stations. (@#)
Attempting to counteract the inflammatory broadcasts was Minister of Education Manuel Solis Palma. The minister, who had been a leader of the 1947 anti-bases protests, got on the radio to call for an end to the violence. While condemning the Americans and praising the patriotism of the demonstrators, Solis Palma assured the people that the government would act on their behalf and questioned the wisdom of fighting the well-armed American forces. His advice went mostly unheeded that day.
After a day and a half of fighting, the Panamanian government shut down Radio Tribuna and all other independent broadcasters. For their part, the Southern Command's English-language radio and television stations broadcast emergency instructions but little news about the events. The suppression of news on both sides may or may not have calmed the crisis compared to what might have happened had freedom of broadcasting been maintained. In any case, electronic communication was only partly cut off, as the telephone system was still working.
The incomplete censorship had the side effect of contributing to wild rumors on all sides. One popular but inaccurate Zonian rumor, fueled in part by references to the "American Canal Zone" in US news media, that the Panama Canal Zone had been renamed "United States Canal Zone" and would henceforth be an outright possession of the United States.
News and rumor instantly traveled the 50 miles from Panama's south coast to its north coast. The country's second city, Colon, which abuts the city of Cristobal, then part of the Canal Zone, erupted within a few hours after the start of hostilities on the Pacific side.
Colon, a mostly black city, is and was much poorer than Panama City. Its economic dependence on the canal is and was far more pronounced than the capital's. Prostitution and all sorts of vice are and were major industries in Colon. The town has and had a bad reputation for common street crime. Colonenses, as the locals call themselves, often vote and hold opinions which are contrary to trends in the capital and elsewhere in the country. Colon's people often feel neglected and abused by the national government. In January 1964, Colon distinguished itself in another way. The fighting against the Americans there was conducted with a deadly fury that far surpassed that on the other side.
The Colon protest started a little after 8 p.m. on January 9, when about a dozen people, carrying the Panamanian flag and singing El Himno Istmeño, Panama's national anthem, marched up Bolivar Avenue, which separates Cristobal from Colon. A crowd soon gathered. The protesters marched on further into Cristobal, to the Atlantic side's Panama Canal Company administrative offices. There they raised the Panamanian flag. After the flag raising, Colon mayor Daniel Delgado Duarte and Captain D. V. Howerth, Cristobal district commander of the Canal Zone police, urged the crowd to disperse.
Delgado and Howerth were mostly ignored. Militant leaders, including members of the Colon city council and local labor union officials, led some 1,500 Panamanians in continued protests within Cristobal, marching around to Panama Canal Company offices and storage buildings, the Cristobal YMCA and the Masonic Temple (an affiliate of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts).
A group of American teenagers was leaving a Rainbow Girls meeting at the Masonic Temple as the crowd approached, prompting a retired US Army sergeant who lived next door at the YMCA to brandish a shotgun "to protect the girls." (24) The crowd let the girls go away, then let loose with a hail of rocks and bottles. Windows were smashed at the Masonic Temple, the YMCA and the Panama Canal Company buildings. Rioters broke into these premises and proceeded to smash things, loot that which was valuable, and set fires. The nearby railroad station and the telephone exchange were stoned and firebombed. A portion of the Panama Railroad's tracks was destroyed, thus disrupting rail access to the Cristobal dock area.
Captain Howerth led a group of police into the YMCA and found that there had been serious property damage, with the steel grill gate to the gift shop crushed and the store's contents looted, a water fountain ripped from the wall and water flowing all over, broken light fixtures and furniture and about 100 people inside the building engaged in destruction or looting. The Canal Zone Police fired no shots in the YMCA, but made four arrests before retreating from the Panamanians.
Shortly thereafter, about 700 troops of the US Army's 4th Battalion, 10th Infantry, commanded by Colonel William Sachse, moved to the unmarked and unfenced boundary between Cristobal and Colon. Armed, but under orders not to fire their weapons, the soldiers ousted Panamanians from the American-owned buildings, put out some of the smaller fires and strung barbed wire along the streets which divide the twin cities.
Some Panamanians suffered bayonet wounds during these initial confrontations with the American soldiers. Nobody was killed by a bayonet. While some Panamanians alleged a bayonet charge with deadly intention, SouthCom denied this. It seems that the injuries came from pushing, shoving and grabbing among the massed Panamanian demonstrators and the line of American soldiers who were trying to move them out of the Canal Zone by moving slowly forward with bayonets fixed upon their rifles and pointed at the Panamanians.
The Panamanians threw stones. The Americans threw tear gas grenades. The Panamanians escalated the fight, first with molotov cocktails, then with sniper fire. Colonel Sachse's troops fell back to a Panama Canal Company storage building and the YMCA. They were ousted from these refuges with a hail of molotov cocktails which burned down the former and completely gutted the latter. The US Army retreated to the Masonic Temple, located at a corner where Cristobal is bounded on two sides by Colon, which was the at the time the tallest building in the twin cities. There they ousted a number of Panamanians who were on the lower floors. The soldiers fortified the building with sandbags.
Intense fighting continued for the next two days. The Cristobal office of the Canal Zone Credit Union was damaged by fire. The Cristobal branch of the US Navy Oceanographic Office was completely demolished. American-owned business in Colon, including a Sears store, reservation offices for Braniff and Pan American airlines and branches of the Chase Manhattan Bank and the First National City Bank were heavily damaged.
Some 20 Panamanian-owned businesses were looted. A hastily organized committee of local business owners and other Colon citizens took to the streets to nonviolently and effectively persuade Panamanians to stop violence and looting against fellow Panamanians.
A fair-skinned young woman of American parentage and long Colon residence was chased by a crowd which identified her as a gringa. (The word means a female US national-males of that ethnicity are gringos-and is commonly used by Panamanians without the derogatory connotations that it carries in some parts of Latin America.) The object of the chase turned on her tormentors and let loose with a torrent of vulgar abuse in perfect Colon vernacular, with all the right inflections. Convinced that she was a colonense who should not be bothered, the crowd let her go on her way.
Meanwhile, the siege of Colonel Sachse's men continued. Panamanians hurled firebombs and fired shots at the Masonic Temple from nearby rooftops. The army was pinned down by sniper fire from several directions. Private David Haupt was shot in the head and killed, becoming the first American to die at the hands of Panamanians in the fighting of January 1964.
Still without orders to fire, the 4th Battalion continued to take casualties. First Sergeant Gerald A. Aubin and Staff Sergeant Luis Jiménez Cruz (a Puerto Rican) were shot to death. Twelve other American soldiers were wounded by sniper fire along the boundary between Colon and Cristobal. The order to use live ammunition was given on the afternoon of January 11.
Unlike in Panama City, Panamanian authorities in Colon had made early attempts to separate the combatants. Soon after the fighting had started, the guardia had rescued the American consul in Colon, who, clad only in his underwear, had been chased from his house. A Panamanian soldier had been hurt by a thrown rock when he tried to stop the initial violence at the Cristobal/Colon boundary.
Canal Zone police were in constant contact with the Colon garrison's acting commander, Major Bolivar Rodríguez. (Heading the guardia's Northern District, which included Colon, was one Major Omar Torrijos. He was occupied elsewhere during most of the hostilities.) Also in close contact with the Americans was Colonel José D. Bazan, Colon's fire chief and the second vice president of Panama. The guardia and the firefighters (the latter known to Zonians as well as Panamanians by their Spanish name, that is, the bomberos) evacuated several hundred Americans from Colon, many by sea.
Special protection was also given to Colon's British residents. These people were (and are) for the most part employed in the shipping industry. They gathered at the British consulate, which was protected by the guardia, lest they be mistaken for Americans and attacked.
A guardia jeep driving down the street near the Masonic Temple became entangled in the barbed wire laid down by the US Army. It was fired upon with birdshot from the upper floors of the Masonic Temple and rifle fire from the Cristobal docks area. The Guardia Nacional's Sergeant Celestino Villareta, a passenger in the jeep, was hit in the chest by a high-powered rifle bullet. An ambulance sent to rescue Villareta and his wounded driver, Victor G. Jiménez, was also fired upon. The 43-year-old Villareta died.
The US Army denied responsibility for Villareta's death. Panamanians point to the fact that the Cristobal docks were held by American troops at the time of the shooting. That area had been the first part of Cristobal which Colonel Sachse's men secured on the evening of January 9. Witnesses claimed that both Villareta's jeep and the ambulance had come under rifle fire from the docks.
At a press conference which addressed this controversy, SouthCom's General O'Meara and US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel L. J. Churchville claimed that US troops had fired on Villareta's jeep with birdshot only from the Masonic Temple, and only then in response to shots which Villareta and Jimenez had fired at the American soldiers. The Americans emphatically denied that any US soldier in Cristobal had orders to fire a rifle at the time.
Jiménez later said that he and the other Panamanian soldiers in the jeep repeatedly called for the US Army to stop shooting, but that each such call was met by increased fire. Jiménez bitterly summed up his opinion of the incident: "As a Panamanian, I solemnly accuse the spoiled Zonians of taking the life of Sergeant Villareta." (25) Independent investigators raised the possibility that the fatal rifle shot was fired against orders by an American soldier. (26)
The most innocent life that was lost in the events of January 1964 was that of a six-month-old girl, Maritza Avila Alabarca, who was overcome by the tear gas which was liberally used in the neighborhood where her family lived. The US denied that this infant's death was linked to the gassing of her neighborhood, in keeping with its claim that CS tear gas is not a lethal agent. (In the many years since 1964 in such diverse places as Vietnam, Northern Ireland, South Africa and elsewhere, it has been rather conclusively shown that CS gas can kill infants, old people, people with respiratory problems and even healthy young adults who get massive doses while in enclosed places.)
Colon's third martyr was Carlos Renato Lara, an 18-year-old student who was shot to death by American soldiers. Lara may have been a sniper. In any case he took an American bullet intended for a sniper.
Panamanian accounts have it that at least 13 persons were shot, two fatally, by the US Army along the border at Cristobal and Colon. SouthCom held that no more than 10 Panamanians were shot by Americans in the Colon area. Panamanian hospital sources reported 167 Colon citizens injured in the fighting, many of whom who suffered bayonet wounds or had been beaten.
The city of Colon, a former island which was connected to the isthmus by landfill, was an enclave of Panamanian territory surrounded by the Canal Zone. It was connected to the capital by a Panamanian-controlled corridor which ran from the Panamanian village of Cativa through the Canal Zone entering Colon near Rainbow City (or Arco Iris, the Spanish name for rainbow, as it is now called). This corridor formed the northern part of the Trans-Isthmian Highway.
The US Army set up defensive positions alongside the highway between Cativa and Colon. The guardia had a checkpoint at Cativa. The Trans-Isthmian Highway was closed for a time, which stranded many Panamanians who were trying to get home from work. Worse yet, claimed the Panamanian government, urgently needed blood plasma and medical personnel were prevented from reaching Colon, where a number of seriously injured persons needed blood transfusions and the hospitals were running short-handed.
Coco Solo Hospital, the American hospital on the Atlantic side, was along the Trans-Isthmian Highway. It was kept well-supplied and well-staffed during the fighting. The US Army set up firing positions near the hospital, including some behind and beside the house where the author, then an 11-year-old boy, was living. A shotgun blast was fired from under a bedroom window by an American soldier.
The shot led to rumors that a Panamanian had been killed, which in turn led to an angry crowd of some 250 protesters marching on the highway from Cativa toward the hospital. Soldiers from the US Army's 8th Special Forces Group took up positions on the road, in Panamanian territory outside the Canal Zone limits, to stop the crowd. The tension was defused by a guardia lieutenant, who addressed the crowd and convinced it to disperse. Eventually it was agreed that people who were stranded at Cativa would be allowed passage to Colon after being searched at the guardia checkpoint for weapons.
Another US roadblock restricting access to Colon was set up nearer the city, where the Colon Corridor intersects Randolph Road. The latter linked the towns of Coco Solo and France Field (and US military installations at those towns as well as Fort Randolph and the Galeta Island navy base) to the rest of the Canal Zone. At the time of these events the Colon Corridor was closed for repairs, so that people driving to Colon from Panama City had to detour through the Canal Zone towns of Rainbow City or Mount Hope. While the roadblock was for the ostensible purpose of restricting access to the Canal Zone, it also controlled access to Colon. The US claimed that access to Colon was not blocked at this point, some Panamanian accounts differ, but in any case the roadblock was turned over to the guardia on January 10.
A third US Army roadblock was set up near where the closed Colon Corridor intersects Bolivar Highway on a narrow neck of landfill near the limits of Colon on the one hand and the zone's Mount Hope industrial area and Rainbow City residential area on the other. American soldiers first positioned themselves on Bolivar Highway (in the Canal Zone) but a crowd of protesters began to outflank them by walking down the closed corridor toward Rainbow City. The US troops then occupied the Panamanian corridor to prevent this, relinquishing the position to the guardia when the latter appeared shortly thereafter.
Rainbow City remained quiet. Despite historic tensions between West Indians and other Panamanian ethnic groups, it was not attacked by Panamanians. American authorities, on the other hand, were afraid that the West Indian community at Rainbow City would join in a Panamanian attack on the adjacent Zonian residential community of Margarita. The army evacuated the Sixth Street area of Margarita, which would have been vulnerable had there been snipers under the bluff and across the drainage canal in Rainbow City. No such violence took place.
While the fighting was deadly in areas near the canal, anti-American rioting took place in other parts of Panama. In David, the country's third largest city and the capital of Chiriqui province, a large crowd gathered at Cervantes Square, moving from there to set fire to the local branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank and several other American-owned business. In Santiago, capital of Veraguas province, one thousand people signed a petition calling for war with the United States. There were anti-American demonstrations in Chitre, the capital of Herrera province. In Aguadulce, a town on the Pan-American Highway in Cocle province, crowds attacked a Gulf Oil service station and the homes of Americans.
About one hundred car loads of angry Panamanians invaded the US base at Rio Hato, setting fire to two wooden barracks which housed American soldiers during maneuvers. Before the crowd arrived, American military personnel fled in a helicopter. While preparing to flee, the soldiers disabled vehicles which were left behind and carried away whatever valuable property that could be taken away. An Air Force fire truck which was left behind at the Rio Hato airstrip was vandalized.
Rural Panama also arose. An American-owned papaya plantation in the San Carlos corregimiento of Las Uvas, the largest in Panama, was ruined when a crowd cut down all of the trees. The owners, Captain and Mrs. Graham, were a Panama Canal pilot and a Balboa High School geometry teacher respectively, were notorious in the town for their hard-nosed labor relations, and though there were other Americans in the area who could have been attacked, the Grahams were the only ones whom the townspeople bothered.
Banana workers at the United Fruit Company's subsidiary, the Chiriqui Land Company, went on strike and destroyed company cars and buildings. The corporation's American employees and their dependents from Puerto Armuelles after its manager was threatened. Striking dock workers left some 65,000 stems of bananas to rot on the Puerto Armuelles docks.
The attacks led to the evacuation of 158 American United Fruit employees and dependents from David to Costa Rica. Major Omar Torrijos, whose normal duty station was Colon, went to David to help in this evacuation. Dozens of other American residents of Chiriqui province, including coffee plantation owners and a number of retirees, made their way to nearby Costa Rica in automobiles or small aircraft.
On the morning of January 13, the fighting died down and the guardia moved into the border areas of Colon and Panama City to maintain order. That same day, President Chiari and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Panama, Marcos McGrath, (27) joined a procession variously estimated to include between 100,000 and 250,000 mourners at the funeral of 14 of the martyrs. On the Atlantic side, Colon's Bishop Serrano, Mayor Delgado and Education Minister Solis Palma led a large crowd to Puerto Pilon Cemetery, where Colon's martyrs were laid to rest. Solis Palma gave the graveside oration.
On January 16, General O'Meara turned control over the Canal Zone back to Governor Fleming. On January 17, a Panama Canal Company work crew rebuilt the Fence of Shame.
Various casualty figures for the several days of fighting which became known to Panamanians as the Day of the Martyrs range from 20 to 30 dead and 200 to 579 injured. The total number of dead and wounded is disputed not only due to political motives and different judgments about how to attribute certain incidents. For a number of reasons, not the least of which was fear that jobs or pensions with the Panama Canal Company could be lost, many of the injured were not taken to hospitals, or injuries of those who were taken to hospitals were not officially reported. Moreover, during the heaviest fighting, the hospitals were so overcrowded with severely injured people that those whose injuries were relatively minor were unable to get or unwilling to seek hospital treatment.
Generally, Panamanian figures include all Panamanians who died in the violence as martyrs, whether they died directly at the hands of the Americans or not, whether they took an active part in the fighting or not. January 9 became a national holiday and an enduring symbol or Panamanian resistance to foreign domination. The fallen became legendary symbols of patriotic sacrifice. Less than flattering accounts which might contradict the legend were more or less taboo in Panamanian society.
Some American critics, like former US ambassador to Panama William J. Jorden, object to the designation of those who died in the Pan American Airlines building in a fire set by Panamanians as martyrs. (28) Yet in paying homage to its legends of patriotism, Americans sometimes use the methods which Jorden denigrates. For one example, there are a number of fallen American soldiers whose names appear on the Vietnam Memorial wall who died from so-called "friendly fire." Rare is the US citizen who suggests that the sacrifices of these soldiers should not be honored. Indeed, most American accounts of the January 1964 events count four or five American dead, including a soldier who fell into a ravine while on guard duty and sometimes another who died in a jeep crash along with those who were shot to death in Colon.
The typical Zonian response was to count all Panamanians who were killed as thugs who got what they deserved. This latter reaction was shared by a few Panamanians. The attribution of such sentiments to Arnulfo Arias (whether accurate or not) probably cost him the presidential election that took place later in 1964. (29)
Though some Panamanian sources give different names and numbers, the list of Panama's martyrs can be found at the Martyrs Memorial (where the remains of Colon's martyrs were re-interred) in Colon. The 22 as listed there include Maritza Avila Alabarca, Ascanio Arosemena, Luis Bonilla, José Del Cid Cobos, Teofilo Belisario De La Torre, Gonzalo A. France, Victor M. Garibaldo, José Enrique Gil, Ezequiel Meneses Gonzalez, Victor M. Iglesias, Rosa Elena Landecho, Carlos Renato Lara, Evilio Lara, Gustavo Lara, Ricardo Murgas Villamonte, Alberto Nichols Constance, Estanislao Orobio W., Jacinto Palacios Cobos, Ovidio L. Saldana, Rodolfo Sanchez Benitez, Alberto Oriol Tejada and Celestino Villareta. (As is common in Panama but confusing to some North Americans, some Panamanians use Spanish-style names, i.e., they use two surnames, first their father's and then their mother's, while others use only one surname, and some may use different forms of their name for different occasions.) La Hora Panama, a tabloid which was never well known for its high journalistic standards, gave the names of 5 other Panamanians who were allegedly killed in the fighting, but lists a total of 20 killed. (30) Other Panamanian accounts put the Panamanian death toll variously between 17 and 24.
Most US accounts put the number of Americans killed in these events at four, though others put the death toll at three or five. Those who died fighting for the American side include Luis Jimenez Cruz, David Haupt, Gerald St. Aubin and Michael W. Rowland.
Years after the events of January 1964, a number of US Army historical documents were declassified, including Southcom's figures for ammunition expended. (31) The official account has it that the US Army fired 450 .30 caliber rifle rounds, five .45 caliber pistol bullets, 953 shells of birdshot and 7,193 grenades or projectiles containing tear gas. Also, the army claims to have used 340 pounds of bulk CN-1 chemical (weak tear gas) and 120 pounds of CS-1 chemical (strong tear gas). The same account said that the Canal Zone police fired 1,850 .38 caliber pistol bullets and 600 shotgun shells in the fighting, while using only 132 tear gas grenades.
As with the estimates of human casualties, there are divergent figures given for property damage. These estimates begin at a low figure that exceeds two million dollars. In its annual report for the 1964 fiscal year, the Panama Canal Company reported that 25 fires were set in the Canal Zone during the disturbances, causing several hundred thousand dollars worth of damage. (32) The damage in the fire at the Pan American Airlines building alone probably surpassed the Canal Zone's fire damages. One hundred eighty US military personnel who lived in Panama City filed claims for some $72,000 in personal property that was destroyed. More than 160 automobiles were destroyed or damaged.
Despite the widespread death and destruction, the operation of the canal was never disrupted during the violence of 1964. However, at least one respectable international journal attributed a drop in Wall Street stock prices to rioting in Panama. (33) This alleged macroeconomic effect was short-lived. Individuals whose injuries left them unable or less able to work, the families of those killed or disabled who were left without support, and those individuals who suffered uninsured property losses were the ones to feel real economic effects. (34)
International reaction was unfavorable to the United States. The British and French, who had been criticized by US administrations for their colonial policies, pointed to the hypocrisy of a power whose Zonian citizens were as obnoxious an any other group of colonial settlers. Nasser's Egypt suggested that Panama nationalize the Panama Canal as it had nationalized the Suez Canal. Not surprisingly, the People's Republic of China, the Soviet Union and Cuba denounced the Americans in strident terms. From the other end of the ideological spectrum, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco's right-wing Falangist Party joined in accusing the United States of aggression against Panama.
Significantly, other governments in the western hemisphere which had long backed US policies declined to back the American position. Venezuela led a chorus of Latin American criticism of the United States. The Organization of American States, on Brazil's motion, took jurisdiction over the dispute from the United Nations Security Council. The OAS in turn put the matter before its Inter-American Peace Committee. The committee held a week-long investigation in Panama which was greeted by a unanimous 15-minute Panamanian work stoppage to demonstrate Panama's united opinion. No action was taken on Panama's motion to brand the United States guilty of aggression, but the committee did accuse the Americans of using unnecessary force.
Panamanians from all walks of life joined in bitter denunciation of the Americans. From the poorest laborers to the richest rabiblancos, Panamanians called for an end to American control of the canal and expressed revulsion at the Zonian actions leading up to the violence. The Canal Zone police and the US Army were branded as murderers. Virtually every professional organization, every labor union, every city council and every student group passed a resolution denouncing the Americans. Panama's political parties, though divided for the upcoming presidential elections, presented a united front for sovereignty over the Canal Zone.
When analyzing the violent events, some members of Congress pointed to the same underlying causes that most Panamanians identified. Senator Wayne Morse said that "[i]t's been a terrible mistake to develop this colonial group in the Canal Zone." (35) A New York Times editorial held that "[t]he Canal Zone is about the only place in the world where the United States still has citizens with a colonial mentality." (36) The Washington Post called the status of the Canal Zone an "anachronism." (37)
Yet the main body of American opinion blamed the clashes on Cuban agents. Secretary of the Army Cyrus Vance claimed that the Panamanians had arrested 10 communist agitators for inciting the riots. The Panamanian government denied it. Pressed for more details of alleged Cuban involvement, Secretary of State Dean Rusk said that: "[u]ndoubtedly Castro and agents of Castro... have taken a direct hand in one way or another." (38) Former president Truman best stated the inherent paternalism in mainstream American thinking: "The children you do the most for are the ones who cause you the most trouble, and Cuba and Panama are perfect examples of that." (39)
Despite the wild accusations of civilian politicians, a more sober analysis came from the Department of Defense. For Commanders: This Changing World, a department publication for military officers, put out a special edition on Panama. It pointed to the importation of West Indians, the creation of Canal Zone commissaries and "most important of all, the creation of an extraterritorial zone in the midst of the Republic under United States control and de facto sovereignty" (40) as causes of Panamanian friction with the United States. It noted the "deep-seated resentments of Panamanians, whose country is bisected by an American-controlled enclave where the standard of living is far higher than theirs." (41) It found that "Communists were not the cause of the riots, but they have taken full advantage of them for their own purposes." (42)
The flag riots echoed in the US courts. The Cristobal district officers of the Canal Zone police force were on 24-hour call until the summer of 1964. They were not allowed to take vacations, leave the Atlantic side, leave the limits of the Canal Zone or go anywhere where there was no telephone during this period. Many of the main attractions of life on the quiet north coast, like the secluded beaches and the hunting and fishing, were thus off limits. The cops sued for overtime pay but lost in the United States Court of Claims. (43)
The Sojourners' Lodge (owner of the Cristobal Masonic Temple) and the YMCA sued for compensation for damages to their buildings in Cristobal. They claimed that the army's use of these buildings greatly added to the damage which were inflicted upon the properties. This case ended in the United States Supreme Court, whose justices ruled that when the army takes a private building to use it as a fortress against a hostile crowd, the government does not have to pay for the use of the building or the damage resulting from such use, if the defense of the building was an intended purpose of its occupation. (44)
The International Commission of Jurists, in response to a request from the Panamanian Bar Association (ICJ), conducted an investigation of the events of January 1964. The investigating committee was composed of three eminent jurists, Professor A. D. Belinfante of Amsterdam University in the Netherlands, Judge Gustaf Petrén of Sweden and Navroz Vakil, a lawyer from Bombay, India.
The ICJ's investigation was inconclusive as to the truth of the flag tearing incident and several of the deaths. The ICJ contradicted the American versions of several other deaths. Although it did not condemn the Canal Zone police and the US Army for using force once the fighting had begun, the ICJ took the police to task for failing to protect the Panamanian high school students from their Zonian counterparts at the Balboa High School flagpole. It also criticized the guardia for failing to intervene to disperse the crowds.
The legality of the Panama Canal treaty and of Panamanian claims of sovereignty in the Canal Zone were not addressed in any significant way by the ICJ. However, it found that the Zonians "have developed a particular state of mind not conducive to the promotion of happy relations between them and the people of Panama... [T]he United States... should reflect on these sad facts and take effective steps to make possible a reorientation and change in outlook and thinking of the people living in the Canal Zone." (45)
Whatever the verdict of international jurists or Americans of any sort, those Panamanians who fell in the events of January 1964 became the subjects of the most sacred of Panamanian legends. January 9, 1964 is commonly reckoned as the most significant of Panamanian days.
1. Doyle v Fleming, 219 F Supp 277 (D CZ 1963), p. 277.