Roberto Chiari

Roberto Chiari (1905-1981) president of Panama (1960-1964), negotiated with two U.S. presidents in a futile effort to settle peacefully problems of the Canal Zone.

Roberto Chiari was born in 1905, a member of a well-known Panamanian family. His father, Rudolfo, was Panama's president from 1924 to 1928. But two years later the depression (which devasted the American economy) also wracked Panama, and Chiari had to go to work as a crew member aboard a ferry belonging to the Panama Canal Company. His job was that of a wiper in the engine room.

Such a job was quite a come-down for this proud young man who had gone to LaSalle School in Panama City and had served his father as an aide. The 1930s were tough times in Panama as well as elsewhere. But during World War II the Chiari family turned things around, and by the end of the decade its sugar plantations were prospering. In the late 1940s, a time of political turbulence in the country, his father served briefly as president but was tossed out after only five days in office. On October 1, 1960, he was inaugurated chief executive again.

In November 1959 serious disturbances over Panama's status in the Canal Zone had strained U.S.-Panamanian relations. The issue was symbolized by Panama's determination to fly its national flag over Zone territory to demonstrate that the ten-mile-wide strip was Panamanian soil. After the 1959 riots President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced that both the U.S. and Panamanian banners could fly in a small triangle at the Zone entrance, but Panamanians insisted that their flag should be raised in other places in the Zone.

Chiari began a program of limited social reform aimed at convincing Panama's rapidly expanding poorer classes that he cared about their situation. He gave his salary to the Red Cross. He improved public health services and pushed low-cost housing, though as a member of the elite he was slow to promote substantial reforms. In international affairs he was strongly anti-communist and pro-United States. However, he chided the United States for spending so much on neutral countries while neglecting its friends. When the "flag issue" came up again, he naturally sided with his country's citizens and further criticized the American government for its employment policies that, he argued, discriminated against Panamanians.

Pressed by the lower classes to move faster on social issues, Chiari began to press harder on the "flag issue." He went to Washington to discuss the matter with President John F. Kennedy. The two presidents created a joint commission to study the problem. The commission settled a few labor disputes in the Zone. Then it declared that Panama's flag would fly alongside the American flag at civilian buildings in the Zone. Americans in the Zone condemned this decision. Angered, Chiari removed Panamanians from the commission.

As tensions mounted in late 1963 the Canal Zone governor ordered that neither flag fly over civilian institutions. This predictably angered the Americans, and on January 9 a group of students at Balboa (Canal Zone) High School defiantly raised the American flag. When Panamanian students heard about this, about 200 came into the Zone and tried to raise their flag alongside the American banner. The Americans stopped them and in retreat the Panamanians began trashing garbage cans. When news of the incident reached Panama City, 30,000 Panamanians rushed into the streets. The ensuing riot lasted for four days and spread to Colón and into interior cities. It took four American and 24 Panamanian lives and destroyed two million dollars in property before it ended.

Roberto's reaction surprised the Lyndon Johnson administration in Washington. Chiari suspended diplomatic relations on the grounds that American troops had committed aggression against Panama. He publicly challenged President Johnson to negotiate outstanding issues between Panama and the United States but privately assured the irritated American president that he would not demand revision of the hated canal treaty. Panamanians were afraid that the United States might construct another canal elsewhere.

Later in 1964 Chiari backed his cousin, Marco Robles, for president. Robles won a narrow victory over several-time candidate Arnulfo Arias and began serious negotiation for revision of the canal treaty (but it would take another 13 years to make an agreement). Roberto Chiari died in 1981.


Further Reading on Roberto Chiari

For more on Roberto Francisco Chiari see John and Mavis Biesanz, The People of Panama (1955) and Walter LaFeber, The Panama Canal (1978). Chiari's obituary can be found in The Annual Obituary, St. James Press, 1981.