The Panama Canal: A Century of Operation…

By Thomas Shannon Stiles-The Panama Canal: A Century of Operation and the Impact of the Expansion Project PART 2- Sovereignty Issues and Torrijos-Carter Treaties

While there is a great deal of history detailing the political changes in Panama and the Canal, post construction, the most significant to this discussion is the series of events leading to the handover of the Canal to the Panamanians. The two most notable events would be the rise in nationalism which eventually led to the January 1964 riots and eventually the Torrijos-Carter treaties.

There had been several smaller disturbances fueled by issues of sovereignty, particularly the riots in 1948, when the US Department of Defense sought a treaty to maintain the possession of the military bases outside of the Canal Zone; as well as, the 1958 and 1959 anti-US demonstrations. The riots of 1964 were much more inflammatory. After great debate between the US Department of State and the US Department of Defense, it was decided that to ease tensions on the issues of sovereignty the Panamanian and US flags would be flown side by side in one location. This was still an issue since the US flag was flown solo in every other location in the Canal Zone. In January of 1963 President Kennedy agreed to fly the Panamanian flag next to the US flag at all non-military sites in the Zone.

With the flags holding equal status, many of the US citizens of the Canal Zone became disgruntled. Shortly after Kennedy’s assassination the Canal Zone Governor Robert J. Flemming Jr. issuing orders limiting Kennedy’s previous order. All US flags on civilian institutions were ordered removed, thereby eliminating the flying of the Panamanian flag. On 8 January 1964, students at the US Balboa High School in the Zone, rose the US flag, while being encouraged by several adult observers.

On 9 January 1964, approximately 200 Panamanian students marched into the Canal Zone to raise their flag. During the ensuing struggle , the silk Panamanian flag was torn. Shortly after that, over a thousand Panamanians began rioting at the border fence.. The rioting lasted three days, and resulted in more than 20 deaths, several hundred injured persons, and in excess of US$2 million of property damage. Panama briefly halted diplomatic relations with the US, until the situation was resolved with mediation by the Organization of American States.

By the early 1970s President Omar Torrijos had been broaching the idea of Panamanian sovereignty with greater success. After long negotiations between the Torrijos and both the Ford and Carter Administrations two treaties were ratified. The first treaty: The Treaty Concerning the Permanent Neutrality and Operation of the Panama Canal dealt with the permanent right of the US to defend the Canal from any harm or impediment. This was of course exercised in December of 1989 when the US initiated OPERATION: JUST CAUSE to protect the Canal and remove the military strongman, Manuel Antonio Noriega. The second, the Panama Canal Treaty ceded control of the Canal in January 2000.

The Panama Canal


Photo Credit: Financial Tribune

*Thomas Shannon Stiles is an Adjunct Professor of International Relations at Webster University-Scott Air Force Base, and a risk mitigation consultant. He serves as a Director-at-Large for the Council on Foreign Relations, St. Louis Committee and is involved with several organizations that focus on the study of international relations and security including: the International Association for the Study of Organized Crime and the International Association of Counter Terrorism and Security Professionals.

Mr. Stiles has lectured on TransAmerican Security in several venues including: the United States Air Force Special Operations School’s Latin American Orientation Course; the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies Sub-Regional Security Conference in El Salvador; the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León in Monterrey, Mexico; the Foro Cívico Académico in Panama City, Panama; and the Copenhagen Business School in Denmark.

He has presented commentary on Panamanian labor disputes for the Inter-American Dialogue’s Latin American Advisor and has published works on Central American security including: “Unintended Exports: The Globalization of Mara Salvatrucha,” a chapter in Palgrave-Macmillan’s Latin American Responses to Globalization in the 21st Century; “Peace Without Security: Central America in the 21st Century” in The Whitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations; and “Maras, Inc.: The Continuing Evolution of the Transnational Street Gangs in Central America” in Security and Defense Studies