January 5, 2013
Read on for that answer.
More immediately, don’t forget to buy beer the day before.
You cannot buy any alcoholic beverages in Panama on January 9th.
It is Martyrs’ Day (el Día de los Mártires).
Like many holidays in Panama, it is a dry day.
However, in order to have a 3 day weekend, this year Panama is commemorating the day on Monday, January 7th. (And will most likely be doing so every year)
What is Martyrs’ Day?
It happened on January 9, 1964
A Flag was torn
- 3 days of rioting
- 4 Americans Dead
- 21 Panamanians Dead (estimated)
- US starts thinking about surrendering control of the Panama Canal
The riots were really about the tensions between the Americans in the Canal Zone and Panamanians.
The Canal Zone was a 553 square mile territory surrounding the Panama Canal.
There was a fence built around the zone to separate the US territory from the rest of the Republic of Panama.
After this event many called it the “fence of shame”.
Panamanians were tear gassed or shot at for pulling on or climbing over this cyclone fence of shame.
“In Panama there exists today another Berlin Wall.”
is how Colombia’s ambassador to the Organization of American States described the fence a few days after the riots ended.
It is an involved story.
It started over the desire of Panamanians to have the Panama flag fly along side the US Flag in the Canal Zone. The Zonians (as they were called) were generally against it. Panamanians were for it.
In January 1963, President John F. Kennedy issued an Executive Order for the 2 flags to be flown together in the Canal Zone. Then Kennedy was killed.
One month after President Kennedy’s death, Canal Zone Governor Robert J. Fleming, Jr. issued a decree that crippled Kennedy’s order.
He decreed that the US flag would no longer be flown outside Canal Zone schools, police stations, post offices, or other civilian locations where it had previously been flown.
He did that so Panama’s flag would not be flown either.
The governor’s order angered many Zonians. They thought not flying the US flag was the first step to the US renouncing its sovereignty over the Canal Zone.
Some kids at Balboa High School, a US school in the Canal Zone, raised the American flag.
In response, some kids from a nearby elite Panamainan high school, tried to raise the Panama flag at Balboa H.S. They wanted to make a point of the two flags flying side by side.
The school officials were okay with it. The student body at Balboa High school was not.
A scuffle broke out among the students from the 2 schools and the Canal Zone police.
During the scuffle, the Panamanian flag was torn.
This infuriated Panamanians everywhere. Riots broke out.
The result was some very tragic deaths, including an 11 year old girl.
One eventual result was the US giving up control of the Panama Canal.
A new treaty was signed in 1977. Control of the Canal was transfered to Panama on January 1, 2000.
The US had been in charge of the Canal and the Canal Zone since the 1st treaty was signed in 1903.
For those who want more details about the Martyr Day riots and why they happened, click here.
The link above is to maestravia.com. There you can read excepts from both Life Magazine and the Panama newspaper, La Prensa (translated), which more fully explain these events.
Another good source of information on the event was done by Eric Jackson. View it here.
So, is it safe to be an American in Panama on Martyr’s Day?
Yes, it is just fine.
It is simply a holiday. Many Panamanians I talk to are vague about what the holiday is about.
Those that profess to know what happen mostly tell me that 3 or 4 Panamanians were killed by American soldiers They are unclear about why. Those folks don’t seem to hold any anger about the event.
Of course, the feelings and knowledge of the event may be clearer in Panama City where it happened. (FYI, I asked people in Puerto Armuelles, where I live.)
But 49 years later, for many Panamanians it is just another welcome day off work.
Photo source (top photo): Life Magazine via maestravia.com