President Roberto F. Chiari belonged to one of the five wealthiest families in Panama, and his main businesses did trade with the United States. However, after the events of Jan. 9, 1964,* he did not for a second hesitate to make the right decision, putting the dignity of the country of Panama ahead of his personal, commercial and ideological interests. He decided to terminate relations with the United States, and did so unhypocritically and without superficial nationalism.
On Jan. 9, 1964, left-leaning student leaders from the University of Panama sought out President Chiari to ask that he take a firm stand against the colossal northern power of the United States. The students were late, however, and Chiari informed them that he had already terminated relations with the U.S. The student leaders were incredibly surprised; this was a brave and unprecedented action they had not anticipated.
Whenever Chiari spoke with President Lyndon B. Johnson, he always did so in Spanish despite the fact he spoke perfect English. His message was clear: The Treaty of 1903 had to be modified because its provisions, steeped in colonialism, were the cause of the sad events that had subsequently taken place in Panama. President Johnson attempted to reconcile their differences, assuring Chiari that he would contact the secretary of state in the coming hours, but Chiari repeated the message, “What I have said to you is the same as what I will say to him.”
The “President of Dignity,” as Chiari was known, continued to demonstrate that the defense of Panama’s interests was the most important matter by appointing Miguel J. Moreno, his political rival, as head of the mission that would travel to Washington to negotiate conditions for a new treaty. Moreno was the appropriate person for a mission of such a delicate nature, as he possessed a mix of both knowledge of, and love for, country.
After four months of intense talks, the Moreno-Bunker agreement was signed, which established the foundations for the negotiations that subsequently made possible the Torrijos-Carter Treaties. It’s worth noting that Ellsworth Bunker, who signed the agreement on behalf of the United States, was also part of the diplomatic team that negotiated the 1977 treaties.
We must also note the honorable and patriotic role of Moreno in those negotiations, despite pressure not only from the United States, but certain countries in Latin America at the heart of the Organization of American States that wanted him to immediately reestablish relations with the United States even though an agreement on the canal treaty had not been reached. The book “Misión en Washington,” compulsory reading for all Panamanians, describes the difficulty Moreno and his team experienced in their important mission.
This event paved the way for us to establish the legal basis 13 years later for Gen. Omar Torrijos to implement what President Chiari had discussed with President Johnson.
Torrijos, of course, played an important role in the history of our country and one that we should not overlook, as he developed an extremely intelligent strategy and brought Panama’s cause to international attention in order to achieve exactly what Panama’s people wanted.
However, we must give equal credit to Chiari, who orchestrated something that was unimaginable and unprecedented by making Panama the only country in the region to break off relations with the United States. His action was brave for a small country in the tumultuous years of the 1970s.
The nation is still in debt to President Chiari and chief negotiator Moreno. The nation must continue to celebrate these two great Panamanians by ensuring that history remembers their brave actions and listens to the recorded conversations between Chiari and Johnson; by reading the book “Misión en Washington”; and by honoring the memory of those who made it possible for us to be sovereigns of the whole of our national territory today.
This is the legacy of Jan. 9 and the “President of Dignity.”
*Editor’s note: Jan. 9, 1964 marks the day when anti-American riots broke out over sovereignty of the Panama Canal Zone in which roughly 22 Panamanians and several U.S. soldiers were killed. The event is commemorated in Panama each year on Jan. 9 as Martyrs’ Day.