The Panama Canal: Avenue of the Martyrs

When we visited the Panama Canal, we also learned some interesting and surprising things about the history of the Canal. After construction of the Panama Canal was finished, the land surrounding the Canal was known as the Canal Zone and was owned by America. It was fenced off and separate from the surrounding land of Panama. On the US side of the Canal Zone fence, there was plenty of food, comfortable housing, safety, and much more. Just across the fence was a poverty-stricken area. On January 9th, 1964, several Panamanian students climbed the fence into the US-owned Canal Zone to fly a Panamanian flag to protest the injustice of the Canal Zone. The students were protesting the fact that the Panama Canal was making so much profit, but all of it was going straight back to the US, rather than helping the suffering Panamanians. Conflict broke out, and more than 20 people were killed and 500 injured, mostly from American fire. January 9th is now an official holiday in Panama, known as Martyr’s Day. The next day, Panama broke off diplomatic relations with the US until the US agreed to begin negotiations on a new treaty. Negotiations began and a treaty was made in 1967, however, Panama didn’t ratify it. 

After the military coup of 1968, Omar Torrijos was the new leader of Panama. He completely rejected the 1967 treaty. Negotiations with the new Nixon administration went nowhere, so in 1973, Torrijos held a United Nations Security Council session in Panama City, where the Canal Zone issues attracted international attention. After Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, he made the Canal Treaty one of his highest priorities. Negotiations resumed in February of 1977 and were finished by August. On the day of the vote in Panama, 96% of eligible voters went to the polls. The treaty passed in Panama and on September 7th, 1977, Jimmy Carter signed the Panama Canal Treaty.

Mural with the names and faces of the people who were killed in the conflict on January 9th, 1964

However, the Canal Treaty was gradual, meaning the full transfer wouldn’t be done until 1999. After the treaty was signed, the Canal Zone ceased to exist and most of the land within the Canal Zone was immediately transferred to Panama. The areas that weren’t immediately transferred were slowly transferred over the next 20 years. In the 20 years, the US workers taught the Panamanians how to operate and run the Canal. Much to my surprise, only around 20 years ago in 1999, Panama finally gained full control of the Panama Canal and the surrounding area. Even though the Canal Zone has been gone for a while, there is still a contrast between the land that was the Canal Zone and the other side of the road. The side that was the Canal Zone is fenced off and still looks much richer than the neighborhood just across the street. Both sides of the road were painted with murals remembering the martyrs and the riot, along with some anti-American sentiment. I was surprised that there is still a clear difference 20 years later. I hope that both sides look similar next time we visit.

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