opinion

Also in this section:
Jackson, The Day of the Martyrs

Dean, Restoring the American community
Fisher, Panama's election campaign begins in earnest
Gush Shalom, Sharon's plan a recipe for annexation and war
Human Rights Watch, Don't sweep Bolivian massacre under the rug
A year's collection of thoughts to bear in mind
Bernal, The day someone assassinated President Remón

Left Wing Publications Right Wing Publications

The Day of the Martyrs

by Eric Jackson


At noon on any given Tuesday, there is a good chance that I will be seated in the auditorium of one of Panama’s nicer bits of Americana, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Tupper Center in Ancon. A little white building in that complex is all that remains of a place I once knew as a little boy, the Tivoli Hotel.

I wonder how many of the Americans and other foreigners who come to those science lectures have any inkling of the historical significance of that site. But I have a far more troubling doubt. How many of the Panamanians know?

Last year there was a controversy about whether English should become Panama’s official second language (it didn’t) or receive more emphasis in the educational system (officially it did, but we shall see how it plays out in practice). Being the editor of Panama’s English-language newspaper and an opponent of making English an official language, I was invited to speak to a number of Panamanian student audiences on the subject. I started my presentations with a question and a show of hands. I asked my young audiences, and the elders among them, if they were familiar with the name Estanislao Orobio. None of the students and only a few teachers knew the name.

Estanislao Orobio was a 17-year-old boy who, seized by patriotic fervor after a series of Zonian and Panamanian flag-raising demonstrations and a scuffle between high school kids in which the Instituto Nacional’s historic Panamanian flag was torn, carried a Panamanian flag across the street into what was then the Canal Zone and onto the lawn of the old Tivoli Hotel. A Canal Zone cop shot him through the neck and he drowned in his own blood. If you go down to the former Balboa High, now named after Ascanio Arosemena, the first Panamanian to fall on January 9, 1964, the shrine to the martyrs out front has a pillar bearing Orobio’s name. But in the public mind, this brave young man who gave his life so that Panama could be whole, undivided by a strip of English-speaking suburbia, is largely forgotten.

Yes, as we are the Crossroads of the World it is important for the Panamanian economy that our citizens be educated to speak at least two languages. I’m glad to see increased awareness about the need for a multilingual work force and willing to help out however I can. It is in my economic interest to promote the English language. But people died to make Panama a united, Spanish-speaking country and there is no need to dishonor the memories of Ascanio Arosemena, Estanislao Orobio and the rest with legislation that would also have the effect of stirring public resentment against this country’s substantial English-speaking community.

I was also a history major in my undergraduate studies, and as a dual US-Panamanian citizen I am appalled by the historical ignorance that prevails among the people of both of my countries. Each nation suffers in many ways from its collective historical ignorance, most prominently in each case in the form of a needless and preventable vulnerability to politicians’ corny tricks.

My fellow American, are you convinced that Uncle Sam knows best for everybody everywhere, and that what the world really needs is for everybody to become just like us? You can study recent American history, or the accounts of any of the great empires of the past, or the story of the Crusades if you want to see what happens when such conceits take hold in the minds of great nations. These are not uplifting stories.

My fellow Panamanian, are you nostalgic for colonialism? Don’t be. You’re not a dirty, lazy, uncultured, excitable, manipulable, amoral, violent Panahoochie to be excluded rather than counted. You don’t want to be treated in that fashion, as earlier Panamanian generations were.

My fellow American, are you content to let belligerent rednecks speak for today’s American community in this country? That was what happened in the Canal Zone back then, even though there were many contrary opinions in Zonian society at the time. But when President Kennedy made a symbolic commitment, and then President Johnson hedged that commitment while reviewing the situation, a Canal Zone cop named Gordon Bell began a series of flag-raising demonstrations, which swept through police force and the high schools, so that when a little group of students from the Instituto Nacional went to Balboa High to insist that Kennedy’s promise to fly the Panamanian flag alongside the American one be kept, discipline broke down in the Canal Zone Police Department and the Balboa High student body and a scuffle that should have been prevented wasn’t prevented and violent confrontations were touched off. It was the beginning of the end of the Canal Zone, and to this day there are Zonians who hang out around Tampa and Orlando whining about how Fidel Castro jumped them that January day and how Jimmy Carter stabbed them in the back some 13 years later. Their way of life has been abolished and many of them still don’t know what hit them.

My fellow Panamanian, do you accept the popular account --- also repeatedly spread through the English-speaking world by the Associated Press and others --- which has it that the martyrs of January 1964 were a bunch of students who marched into the Canal Zone, only to be fired upon without provocation by US military forces? Don’t believe it, at least not in that simplistic form. The Canal Zone Police, accompanied by a few Zonian civilian vigilantes, were the ones who first opened fire, killing Ascanio Arosemena, Estanislao Orobio and a number of others. If you read the official US Army accounts of what happened, you will find a restrained but palpable disdain for the Zonians, who stirred up a hornet’s nest and then let GIs do the dying. Then, once the killing began, chaos reigned supreme. Some of the Panamanians who died fell at the hands of their own compatriots, who set fire to the Pan-American Airlines building and trapped people inside. Surely those responsible for that fatal blunder would prefer the legend to the reality, but then much more powerful national political forces also have their reasons to distort the story. The US Army flew Omar Torrijos, then a Guardia Nacional major, from David to France Field so that he could take command of Panamanian security forces in Colon and suppress the anti-American protests. Dr. Arnulfo Arias, convinced that the martyrs were a bunch of thugs who got what they deserved, was one of the few Panamanian physicians who refused to report for emergency duty to care for the hundreds of wounded. The plaques on that despicable monstrosity of Colombian national socialist realism across from the Balboa YMCA assert that Arnulfo lost the election later that year due to fraud, but the truth of the matter is that he was out of touch with the aspiration of the Panamanian people to make the country whole and he lost the election fair and square, in large part because of his attitude during the January crisis. As disgusting or worse was the Noriega-era mural within eyesight of the old Tivoli site, which portrayed Omar Torrijos leading the masses of protesters. In fact Torrijos jailed or exiled most of the actual protest leaders once he assumed power in the 1968 coup.

Now, 40 years later, isn’t it time for both Americans and Panamanians to own up to mistakes made and infamies committed by their respective sides, and moreover, for each to recognize the bravery demonstrated and tragic losses suffered by those fighting on the other side?

The events of January 1964 amounted to an anti-colonial uprising by a broad cross-section of the Panamanian people, but to the extent that anyone was organizing or instigating it that distinction goes to the left, and most particularly to a group of militants around Floyd Britton and also to legislator Thelma King and her radio station. But while pushing the wheel of history into motion these militants also made some grave mistakes. For example, Britton’s kids went around starting fires at symbolic targets, but they had learned their leftist symbolism imperfectly. To wit, they set fire to the Washington-Amador Library, when every child who is raised in a leftist home has been told about the sort of people who burn books.

The US Army was sent into a confused situation that it didn’t create, with orders to calm things down and to defend an American community under attack. The first thing that General George Mabry, a Medal of Honor winner, did when he arrived at the Tivoli was to send the Canal Zone Police away. His next move was to expose himself and men under his command to stones, bottles and sniper fire in a slow march to clear the rioters out of Ancon. With the Tivoli lawn cleared, the troops then took up positions in and around the hotel and came under increasing sniper fire from several directions, but were ordered to be cautious and sparing with return fire. However, a sniper shot from a building across the street, a girl appeared on the balcony of another apartment in the same building and a soldier thought he got a good shot at the sniper. Eleven-year-old Rosa María Landecho was thus added to the list of Panama’s martyrs.

Meanwhile on the Atlantic side, the American troops were sent to the boundary between Cristobal and Colon, in front of the YMCA and Masonic Temple, with rifles and bayonets but no bullets and ordered to clear and hold the area without provoking further bloodshed. The snipers came out on the other side and before long Private David Haupt, First Sergeant Gerald A. Aubin and Staff Sergeant Luis Jimenez Cruz were dead and 12 other soldiers wounded. When the Americans resisted the onslaught with tear gas, one grenade landed in a tiny apartment where there was an 18-month-old girl, Maritza Alabarca, who was overcome by the fumes and became the youngest of Panama’s martyrs. When the soldiers were given bullets and permission to shoot back, one of the Panamanians who was killed --- it’s still not clear by whom --- was Guardia Nacional Sergeant Celestino Villareta, who had earlier helped save some Americans who were being menaced by an angry crowd. Although it is not clear that US troops fired the bullet that killed Villareta, it is well established that the Americans did after that fatal shot open fire on the ambulance that came to rescue Villareta and a wounded colleague.

(To this day, the US government is in denial about the deaths of both Alabarca and Villareta. The more disgraceful and unscientific claim is that since CS tear gas is by definition non-lethal, then by definition the US Army did not kill little Maritza Alabarca.)

Any understanding of the Day of the Martyrs --- or indeed the 1855 Watermelon Slice Incident, the 1989 US invasion and history’s other violent clashes between Americans and Panamanians --- would be incomplete without recognition of the many Good Samaritans, particularly those Panamanians who gave threatened gringos refuge in their homes, or who lent their Republic of Panama license plates to allow people in cars with Canal Zone plates to get safely out of town. The simplistic caricature that’s the prevailing Panamanian legend sells the human condition short when it fails to notice the many kinds of valor and diverse expressions of human decency that also characterized this deadly confrontation.

A couple of generations have been born and grown up since the events of January 1964, and it can not be denied that the irritant that brought on the tragedy, the division of Panama by an American colony in its midst, was resolved decades ago. The Day of the Martyrs was a footnote in American history but a watershed event for Panama’s American community. It was one of the key turning points in Panamanian history.

History lives on in the collective memories of nations, inevitably skewed according to the points of view of the beholders but not unavoidably distorted as the story of the Day of the Martyrs has become. Meanwhile, both Panamanian and American societies are for distinct reasons suffering through difficulties that call for both peoples to reflect upon who we are, where we have been and what we value. Both nations would do well to consider the lessons of the Day of the Martyrs on its 40th anniversary.

And what should happen at the old Tivoli site on January 9th? Were it up to me --- and it’s not --- I’d have an honor guard from the US Embassy’s Marine Corps detachment, an honor guard from the Panamanian National Police, the flags of both nations, flowers and a salute for all of the fallen of both sides, 27 people who died before their times and in so doing changed the course of history.




Also in this section:
Jackson, The Day of the Martyrs
Dean, Restoring the American community
Fisher, Panama's election campaign begins in earnest
Gush Shalom, Sharon's plan a recipe for annexation and war
Human Rights Watch, Don't sweep Bolivian massacre under the rug
A year's collection of thoughts to bear in mind
Bernal, The day someone assassinated President Remón



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