On January 9, 1964, lingering Panamanian resentment over de facto United States control over the Canal Zone, a strip of land around the Panama Canal, exploded in riots.
Before his assassination, John F. Kennedy had responded to Panamanian protests about the flying of the United States flag over the Canal Zone. Panama had seceded from Colombia in 1903 with United States help, and ever since the Canal Zone had remained essentially U.S. territory. Kennedy agreed to fly the Panamanian flag alongside the U.S. flag at all non-military sites in the Canal Zone, but he was assassinated before his order could be put into effect. Canal Zone Governor Robert J. Fleming, Jr., then ordered that the U.S. flag be taken down from Canal Zone locations. This outraged the “Zonians,” who believed it represented de facto renunciation of U.S. control over the Zone. Students at a high school raised the U.S. flag in defiance of school officials, and posted guards to prevent its being taken down.
Panamanians who approached the flagpole to fly a particular Panamanian flag, which happened to be a historic one dating to 1947, were involved in a scuffle with Zonians and the historic Panamanian flag was torn.
In riots following the incident and around protests at the “Fence of Shame” that separated the Zone from the Republic of Panama, American businesses were set aflame, about 21 Panamanians were killed, including a 6-month-old girl who succumbed to respiratory failure after her neighborhood was tear gassed. Four U.S. soldiers were also killed. Differing accounts of the riots include some U.S. sources claiming that all the Panamanians were killed by other Panamanians, and some Panamanian sources claiming that everyone, including the U.S. soldiers, were killed by the U.S. Army.
Following the incidents, public opinion was strong against the United States, particularly the French and the British — who, to be fair, were taking kind of a lot of shit in those years from the U.S. for their erstwhile colonial adventures in Africa and elsewhere. Gamel Abdel Nasser of Egypt urged Panama to nationalize the Zone as Egypt had nationalized the Suez Canal, and none other than Spain’s Francisco Franco denounced U.S. “aggression” against Panama.
Panama still commemorates this day as the Day of the Martyrs. The 1977 Torrijos-Carter Treaties ceded control of the Panama Canal Zone to Panama as of 1999, and the events of Martyrs’ Day are considered to be a major reason the U.S. made the decision to relinquish control of the Zone despite control originally being granted to the U.S. “in perpetuity.” Control of the Canal has proved central to Panama’s economic renaissance in the last decade.