Mural Painting Depicting the Flag Riots of 1964. Panama City, 2015. Photo Courtesy of: Holle Ameriga Meding

The Día de los Mártires—Spontaneous Demonstration, Heroic Myth, or Political Instrument? The 1964 Panamanian Flag Riots in the History of US-Panamanian Relations

Holle Ameriga Meding


On the 15th of August, 1914, the Panama Canal opened. Panama became a global center for commercial shipping, with the Canal as its economic lifeline. However, the economic upswing was accompanied by a loss of state sovereignty: Panama slipped from a colonial embrace into an imperial one, becoming increasingly dependent on the United States’ dollar diplomacy and the establishment of US corporations, such as the United Fruit Company. This led to tensions between Panama and the US. Additionally, the fact that the US administered the Panama Canal became a thorn in the side of the Panamanian government. Tensions exploded in 1964 after a dispute over raising the Panamanian flag manifested into the so-called flag riots of 1964. The Panamanian government had ordered that the flag of Panama was to stay raised in the Canal Zone next to the US flag to symbolically represent Panama’s rights. But the students of the US-American Balboa High School refused and raised only the flag of the US, prompting 200 Panamanians to cross the Canal Zone border to raise the Panamanian flag. The situation escalated: the US military intervened and the riots resulted in more than 20 deaths and 300 injuries. This incident shows how even a comparatively benign event, like hoisting a flag in a high school, can have far-reaching consequences. It also demonstrates that the shared history of the region had lead both sides to be extremely polarized.

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