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By Stephen Currie

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Perhaps emboldened by the concessions they had won from the United States over the previous quarter century, many Panamanians began demanding that the United States split the canal proceeds equally with Panama. Others went further: they insisted that the United States cede the entire Canal Zone—and the canal with it—to Panamanian control. As in the past, US officials largely ignored the Panamanians’ demands. This time, however, the reservoir of anger and frustration was deeper than American officials realized.

The issues were especially apparent in the case of the unskilled laborers who worked on the canal, most notably among those who came to Panama from Barbados, Jamaica, and elsewhere in the West Indies. Known as “silver employees,” most likely because they were originally paid their wages in silver coins, they did not enjoy the rights and privileges granted to the canal’s “gold employees”—the skilled laborers and managerial professionals, most of them white, who typically came from the United States.

This time, however, the reservoir of anger and frustration was deeper than American officials realized. The use of flags—both Panamanian and American—soon became a touchstone for protesters on both sides. In 1963, responding to Panamanian requests, the US government decreed that the flags of both nations should fly at various locations in the Canal Zone; previously, only the US flag could be found in the territory. But when Americans in the zone objected, the order was replaced by another saying that no flags should fly at all.

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