Wednesday, January 09, 2008

January 9

On January 9, 1964, a century of US arrogance in Latin America backfired, as several days of violence lit up the Panama Canal Zone.

The skirmish on January 9 was prompted by a dispute over a flagpole. Although the United States did not formally possess any part of Panama, the terms of a 1903 treaty enabled it to claim control “in perpetuity” over the strip of territory on which the canal would eventually be constructed. Panamanians had always objected to the unequal terms of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, which was in fact negotiated by a French engineer and not by any actual Panamanians; their resentments toward the United States intensified after World War II, as US officials continued to behave as if Panama had no sovereign rights whatsoever over the canal or the zone surrounding it. Protests during the late 1940s and 1950s had chastened the US to some degree, and Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy offered a few, mostly cosmetic nods toward Panamanian sovereignty. Truman and Eisenhower dismantled several bases constructed during World War II (all of which were intended to be temporary in the first place), and the so-called "Kennedy Doctrine" toward Latin America offered further hope to Panamanian nationalists that a more balanced relationship might emerge in the news decade.

But for the “Zonians” -- Americans living within the fenced-in column of land bracketing the canal itself -- there was no question but that they were living on American soil. When President Kennedy ordered that Panama’s flag should be flown at all nonmilitary sites within the Canal Zone, Americans gargled and yelped in anger. When Kennedy’s brains were scattered across the back of his limousine, his instructions regarding flag protocol in the Canal Zone died as well.

When a group of Panamanian students attempted on January 9, 1964 to raise their nation’s flag outside Balboa High School, they were rebuffed by their American peers. The Americans had lofted a flag of their own two days earlier and were determined not to share their school’s pole with anyone else, least of all the people in whose country they were actually living. When the Panamanian flag was torn -- participants offered conflicting explanations as to how this happened -- street demonstrations were organized in protest. Thousands of Panamanians stormed across the “Fence of Shame” that separated the Canal Zone from the rest of the country; American-owned businesses were torched in Panama City; and when the police forces within the Canal Zone were overwhelmed, the US Army opened fire with rifles, shotguns, and grenades of tear gas. Many Panamanian demonstrators returned the fire, though guns were less plentiful than stones and Molotov cocktails.

Twenty-five people -- all but four of them Panamanians -- died over the next three days, while hundreds sustained injuries and more than $2 million worth of property was destroyed. Among the dead was Maritza Avila Alabarca, a six-month-old infant who suffocated when her house filled with tear gas. American political commentators blamed Fidel Castro for inciting the violence. Harry Truman, in a moment of gross condescension, grumbled that “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.”

The 1964 uprisings led eventually to the complete withdrawal of the United States from the Canal Zone, a process that many American conservatives like Ronald Reagan regarded as a national humiliation.

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