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Decoding the Symbolism and Evolution of the Panama Flag

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Flags serve as crucial symbols of a nation, embodying its identity, independence, and sovereignty. They often encapsulate a country's values, history, and governance within their design elements. The flag of Panama is no exception, encompassing all these attributes of a typical national flag.

However, the significance of the Panamanian flag extends beyond its symbolic representation. It holds a pivotal role in igniting the movement for Panama's independence from colonial powers. The flhag serves as a tangible rallying point, symbolizing the aspirations and determination of the Panamanian people to break free from external control and assert their autonomy. Thus, the flag of Panama is not just a passive emblem of nationhood but an active catalyst for the struggle for liberation and self-determination.




Adoption of the Panama Flag

The current national flag of Panama was officially adopted on November 4, 1925, just a day after Panama declared its independence from Colombia. This significant date is now commemorated annually as Panama's Flag Day. Flag Day is part of a series of holidays in Panama celebrated every November known as the Fiestas Patrias, which includes Separation Day (from Colombia), Colon Day, Primer Grito de Independencia de la Villa de Los Santos, and Independence Day from Spain.

Although the flag was officially adopted in 1925, its design had been created as early as 1903, during Panama's separation from Colombia. The declaration of separation from Colombia was prompted by Colombia's rejection of the Hay-Herrán treaty, which would have granted the United States government the authority to complete the construction of the Panama Canal. This rejection catalyzed Panama's push for independence, and the flag served as a symbol of this movement even before its formal adoption.

Description of the Panama Flag

While the Panama flag has since been used by the nascent republic, its official description came later in December 1949 in Law 15. The Panama flag is rectangular with a ratio of 2:3. The rectangular shape is divided into equal quarters. The top-left quarter is white, with a single five-pointed blue star in the middle. The bottom-left quadrant follows the blue color of the star. The top-right quarter is red. The bottom-right one is white with a single five-pointed red star in between.

Symbols of the Panama Flag

The colors and symbols incorporated into the Panama flag hold deep significance, reflecting various aspects of Panamanian life and values.

The red, white, and blue colors were chosen to reflect the political landscape of Panama at the time of the flag's adoption. Red represents the Liberal Party, while blue represents the Conservative Party. This inclusion of the two-party system symbolizes the balance and democracy upon which the nation was founded.

The white color on the flag represents purity and peace, serving as a unifying element that balances opposing ideas and principles towards Panama's common good.

The blue star in the upper left quadrant symbolizes purity and honesty, serving as the foundation for other core values such as integrity, trustworthiness, responsibility, and dependability. Meanwhile, the red star in the bottom right corner represents authority and respect for laws.

Panama places a high value on individual freedom, but it also recognizes the importance of law and order to maintain peace and unity within society and the nation as a whole. Thus, the inclusion of symbols representing both individual freedom and respect for laws underscores the nation's commitment to maintaining harmony and order while upholding democratic principles.

Who Designed the Panama Flag?

Manuel Encarnacion Guerrero, son of Manuel Amador Guerrero, Panama's inaugural president, crafted the design for the Panama Flag. Manuel Encarnacion, the offspring of the president's prior union with María de Jesús Terreros, unveiled his creation to María de la Ossa de Amador, President Manuel Amador Guerrero's spouse and the esteemed inaugural First Lady of Panama, often hailed as the "Mother of the Nation."

Under cloak of secrecy, Maria Dela Ossa, aided by her sister-in-law Angélica Bergamonta de la Ossa and niece María Emilia de la Ossa Bergamonta, clandestinely replicated three versions of the freshly conceived flag. Subsequently, following Panama's declaration of separation in 1903, the flag was disseminated throughout the nation.

Manuel Encarnacion's original design diverged from the contemporary Panama Flag, featuring a blue upper left quadrant. In its current rendition, blue occupies the lower left quadrant. Post-independence, blue was adopted as the hue of the Conservative Party, the political faction to which the first president of Panama was aligned.

History of the Panama Flag

The Colonial Years: Before Panama became a republic, the country was under Spain until the early 19th century. During its colonial years, Panama carried the Spanish flag until 1820. It then became a province/ state of Colombia during which it was called the province of Istmo (Isthmus).

Following its representation under the Colombian Flag, Panama, as an entity with a burgeoning sense of autonomy, bore its own flag as the Province of Istmo within the Republic of Colombia. Over time, this provincial emblem underwent approximately four modifications with subtle alterations as Colombia transitioned from Gran Colombia to the Republic of New Granada, the Granadine Confederation, and finally, the Republic of Colombia in 1886.

Separation from Colombia marked a pivotal moment for Panama. In 1903, amidst tensions with its parent nation, Panama declared its independence and adopted a newly crafted flag, overseen by María de la Ossa de Amador, the inaugural First Lady of the nascent country. Notably, the separation from Colombia was facilitated by support from the United States. The US backed Panama's bid for autonomy, envisioning direct negotiations with the fledgling nation regarding the assumption of control over the construction of the Panama Canal.


Panama’s first flag of independence from Colombia was almost identical to its present-day flag. The only difference is the blue quadrant is located at the top left corner of the flag beside the red quadrant. Thus, the bottom half of the original flag was all white. When the post-independent Conservative political party chose blue to represent their organization, the blue color was relocated to the bottom left corner of the flag. The red color located at the top right corner quadrant represented the Liberal party. Together, they represent the unity that stands for the new republic.

Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla. Before the flag made by María de la Ossa de Amador was actually used, a Frenchman by the name of Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla was the first to propose a new flag for Panama. Philippe Bunau-Varilla was a French engineer and soldier. He worked diligently with President Theodore Roosevelt to orchestrate the Panamanian Revolution, to safeguard his multi-million dollar investment in the construction of the Panama Canal.

The first proposed design of the Panama flag was made by the wife of Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, who took inspirations from the flags of the United States and the former colonizers of Panama, namely Columbia and Spain. The designed featured thirteen stripes for the fly, which was based on the stripes of the US flag.

However, instead of red and white, the stripes were red and yellow, which are the prominent colors of the flags of Spain and Columbia. The designed also featured a blue canton in the upper hoist quarter. The canton contains the emblem of two interconnected yellow suns. The two suns are supposed to symbolize North and South America. They are connected by a line to emphasized Panama’s strategic position that links the two continents.

Manuel Amador Guerrero, alongside his compatriots in the revolution, rejected the proposed flag design due to its overt resemblance to the flags of the United States, Colombia, and Spain. Guerrero ardently sought a design that exuded originality and authentically symbolized Panama as a sovereign republic, free from the shadow of colonial influence. Consequently, the flag crafted by María de la Ossa de Amador garnered favor and was subsequently embraced as the emblem of Panama's independence, resonating with the nation's aspirations for autonomy and self-determination.

The Role of the Panama Flag in Panama’s Sovereignty

The Panama flag played a central role in the genuine sovereignty of the country from colonial powers or influence. The desecration of the Panama flag by Zonians (Americans living in Panama), served as the catalyst for the ensuing U.S. relinquishment of its perpetual control of the Canal Zone and the gradual transfer of the Panama Canal to the Panamanian Government, which culminated on December 31, 1999.

The Cessation of the Panama Canal. After Panama declared separation from Columbia in 1903 with the assistance of the US, Panamanians detested the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty, which relinquished their control of the Panama Canal Zone in favor of the U.S. who shall have its permanent control. The US compensated Panama for $10 million, an annual rent of $250 thousand and guaranteed the freedom of the new Republic. In brief, the Canal Zone became a de facto US territory.

The Flagpole Incident. U.S. President John F. Kennedy allowed raising the Panama flag alongside the U.S. flag in non-military sites within the Canal Zone. After Kennedy’s assassination, the Panama Canal Zone Governor Robert J. Fleming issued an order that proscribes both the US or Panama flag to be flown in all civilian sites in the Canal Zone, which angered Zonians who deemed the decree as a renunciation of US sovereignty over the Canal Zone.

The enraged Zonians began raising the U.S. flag everywhere within the Canal Zone. When a U.S. flag was raised at Balboa High School inside the Canal Zone, a protest ensued. School officials and students walked out, took down the US flag, raised the Panama flag and guarded it to prevent its removal.

The Balboa highschool incident triggered more student protests. One such movement involved students from Instituto Nacional, Panama’s top public high school. Over a hundred students marched inside the Canal Zone carrying the Panamanian flag and placards declaring Panama’s sovereignty over the U.S. Canal Zone. They headed to Balboa High School to raise the Panama flag alongside the US flag, where they met by US police forces.

While a few students were allowed by the police to carry their flag near the flagpole, Zonians began besieging the flagpole while singing the Star Spangled Banner to prevent the students to approach the pole. A fracas ensued between the students, Zonians and the police that resulted in the Panama flag getting trampled and torn.

Ensuing Riots. While who or what actually caused the Panama flag to get torn during the incident remained unsettled, violence broke out when news about the desecration of the Panama flag spread. Thousands of angry Panamanian crowds stormed the Canal Zone to protest and hold series of anti-American riots. The aftermath of the riots resulted in the death of 28 people and injuries of thousands more.

Torrijos–Carter Treaties. The conflict between Americans and Panamanians reached the international level. UK, France, the Soviet Union, and other countries joined in criticizing US imperialism. Diplomatic relations between Panama and the US broke down. Talks between the two countries started to re-establish diplomacy. The talks concluded with the Torrijos–Carter Treaties that ended the US perpetual control of the Canal Zone and guaranteed Panama to regain control of the Panama Canal after 1999.
The Flag of the Martyrs of the Federation of the Students of Panamá
The torn Panama flag that was used by the students of Instituto Nacional today represents a strong symbol for Panamanian national identity and sovereignty. It was restored by Antón Rajer. The restored flag is kept on display at the “Museo del Canal Interoceanico” to preserve its heritage for future generations.

 

Conclusion 

 The Panama Flag symbolizes more than just national identity; it embodies Panama's unwavering quest for independence and self-determination. Crafted amidst tumultuous times, it became a rallying point for Panamanians striving to break free from colonial shackles. Through rejection of designs echoing past oppressions, the flag emerged as a beacon of autonomy and defiance. 

Its history intertwines with pivotal moments, from declarations of independence to protests against foreign dominance, showcasing its tangible impact on shaping Panama's destiny. Today, as the restored flag of the Martyrs of the Federation of the Students of Panamá stands as a testament to sacrifice, the Panama Flag continues to inspire hope and resilience. 

It serves as a poignant reminder of the struggles endured and the triumphs achieved, cementing its place as a symbol of courage and unity for generations to come.

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