The Miami Herald
December 12, 1999

Adios, Panama

As the finality of the Canal hand-over nears, an air of uncertainty pervades country

 PANAMA -- It seemed a simple question to the gringo in the back seat of the cab, but the
 staccato burst of Spanish from the taxi driver, as harsh and angry as a machine gun, made it
 clear he was wrong.

 ''How am I doing?'' the cabbie snapped. ''How am I doing? I've been at the airport all day, 12
 hours, and you're my second customer. Nobody's coming to Panama. Everybody's
 leaving with the Americans.'' He paused, then practically spat it: ''And our politicians wanted

 The day that so many Panamanians and Americans alike have yearned for and dreaded
 for more than two decades is finally at hand: The gringos are saying adios. This past Monday
 a handful of American soldiers pulled down the flag at the last U.S. military base and headed
 north. And Tuesday, Jimmy Carter, the U.S. president who signed the treaties that
 established the end of the U.S. administration of the canal, will be there as the keys to the canal
 are handed over. Top officials of the Clinton administration declined to attend.

 And though it won't be official for weeks -- the treaty the two nations negotiated in 1977 says
 the canal doesn't come under Panamanian control until noon on Dec. 31 -- the American
 Era in Panama will end.

 Or, as they like to say around the U.S. Embassy here, Panama becomes nothing
 more, and nothing less, than the country that comes between Pakistan and Paraguay in the
 State Department phone book.

 The Embassy is not alone in its lack of sentiment over the upcoming departure. The
 thousands of Americans living in the Canal Zone who were traumatized when President Carter
 and Gen. Omar Torrijos signed the 1977 treaty are long gone. The few U.S. soldiers who remain
 came here knowing they were short-timers, and have attended closing ceremonies for so many
 bases that they're sick of the whole thing.

 ''I took some of my men on a run from the Atlantic to the Pacific side of the canal, telling
 them how the Marines arrived here in 1903,'' dryly notes Michael Aguilar, the brigadier
 general who is the last U.S. Marine here. ''But I don't know that they appreciated my efforts to
 create a sense of history for them. The only question was, how much longer do we have to run?''

 The U.S. Army, for its part, will spend its last five hours in Panama running
 American flags up and down the pole outside the Corozal base, then selling them
 to anyone with a keen sense of history plus $25. With luck, the soldiers will avoid
 an ignominious exit like the one the Marines suffered last month, when they
 looked out the windows of their departing planes to see Panamanian security
 guards looting bed linens and ironing boards from their barracks.


 Cheers and tears will greet the official U.S. departure

 On the Panamanian side of the equation, it's different. For some people here, Tuesday will
be a day of exultation. ''It means everything,'' crows Mario Rognoni, a Panamanian
 businessman and political activist. ''Finally, we are getting them out.''

For others, it will be a profound tragedy. ''On that day, I am going to cry,'' says Patricio
Palma, bleakly anticipating the end of 10 profitable years shining boots and washing
cars at U.S. military bases. ''To me, the Americans have always been nice. I don't want
them to go.''

And for many, it will be simply unbelievable. ''I was listening to a TV program the other day,
and people were calling in and arguing, the Americans should go, no, the Americans
should stay,'' says Roberto Eisenman, he founder of Panama's leading newspaper La
Prensa. ''And finally, somebody said, look, they're gone, they're already gone, and they're
not coming back, so what are we arguing about this for? . . . A lot of people still really
don't believe it.''

And no wonder. When the last 45 American troops left on Monday, it became the first time
since the U.S. Marines midwifed the birth of Panama in 1903 that gringo soldiers have been
 absent from the country. After American military might created Panama,
 American money and engineering know-how built (and, for eight decades, ran) the
 transoceanic canal that made it viable. American global power spun a cocoon
 around Panama that was at once protective and suffocating.

 ''To Panamanians,'' muses Rognoni, ''the United States has always been the
 world. We always thought it had the best schools, the best technology, the best
 culture. It was where we wanted to send our children to college and take our
 vacations. We never looked at Europe, we never looked at Asia. We didn't even
 see Canada. We didn't see past the United States.''

 In no other nation in the world have American politics and culture wound
 themselves so thoroughly into the warp and woof of society. The national currency
 is the dollar. It takes three columns of the Panama City phone book to list the
 businesses whose names begin with ''American.'' For years, the only television
 station here was the U.S. military station broadcasting programs in English.

 Panama is virtually the only nation in Latin America where hardly anyone pays
 attention to soccer. The national sports are baseball, basketball and boxing -- the
 favorites of the Americans who lived in the Canal Zone, the 10-mile-wide strip of
 land along the canal where the Stars and Stripes flew and U.S. law prevailed.

 It was the Zonians, too, who made July 4 a national holiday here. For years, Panama was
 the only Latin American country to celebrate Halloween, Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day.
 Even Spanish itself was infiltrated and subverted by the American presence.

 A security guard here is called a wathiman. A peasant from the rural jungle is a bushy. Streets
 are not solo una via but oneway. And just outside Panama City is a town called Arrahijan, which
 got its name because Zonians used to direct one another to a favorite bar there with the
 instructions, ''Drive down the corridor, and at the right hand side. . . .''

 Many Panamanians had no idea how pervasive the American influence on their country was until
 they left. Rognoni recalls an evening during his freshman year at Georgia Tech, arguing with a
 Puerto Rican friend about the proper Spanish word for ''wastebasket.'' Tinaco, insisted
 Rognoni; safacan, argued the Puerto Rican.

 Finally an exasperated classmate from Colombia exploded. ''G--dammit, neither
 one of you idiots can even speak Spanish!'' he screamed. Most Latin Americans
 would call a wastebasket a basurero, he explained when he calmed down.
 Safacan is a corruption of ''safety can,'' U.S. Navy jargon for trashcan, and tinaco
 comes from ''tin can,'' the U.S. Army term.

 ''It's hard to think of yourself as a full grown-up when you're always discovering
 things like that,'' Rognoni says.

 Many Panamanians, struggling to explain the complex relationship between the
 two countries, describe the United States as a sort of 1950s sitcom Dad:
 omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, albeit with the best of intentions for his
 adolescent offspring. Others prefer the less charitable comparison of an abusive
 spouse, or even Big Brother. Whichever metaphor they employ, they all agree
 that Panama is going to have some growing up to do now that it's on its own.

 ''Panama should have grown up a long time ago,'' says Eric Jackson, the
 Panamanian-American editor of Panama News, an English-language weekly. ''In
 some senses, it has, but in some senses, we're still waiting -- and we may wait a
 long time.

 ''There's a streak running through Panamanian society, from the very poor to the
 very rich, that has always believed that the United States will solve all Panama's
 problems. That's going to require some rethinking.''


 Reality sinks in that Uncle Sam won't be solving problems

 The new government of President Mireya Moscoso, who took office in September,
 learned that lesson early. Several of her advisors, meeting with U.S. officials for
 the first time, assumed that the Americans would try one last time to cut a deal
 allowing some U.S. troops to stay in Panama.

''We waited, and waited, and they didn't bring it up,'' recounted one of Moscoso's aides.
''Finally, we said something. And the answer was, 'We've already left. And we're not
 interested in coming back.' I said, what if FARC (Marxist guerrillas in neighboring Colombia)
comes across the border? And they said, 'That's you're problem.' Let me tell you, we
were in shock.''

Moscoso's startled aides immediately went to work hammering out a budget for 600 new
policemen to protect the canal. They began drafting a package of new laws on the canal.
''We discovered that, as things stand now, it's not even illegal to jump in the canal,'' said one
aide. ''When the Americans ran the place, nobody had to worry about things like that.''

 Now, say officials and political analysts in both countries, there are a lot of things
 Panama will have to start worrying about.

 ''We never thought about communism, not during the whole Cold War, because
 we knew it could never come here,'' notes Rognoni. ''The Americans wouldn't let it.
 We knew we could never go bankrupt, no matter how much we spent; the U.S.
 wouldn't let us. If our water plant broke down, we knew the Americans would bring
 us water. Now those are all our problems.''

 Some people think, frankly, that Panama is not up to the task. ''This is going to
 be a long, hard lesson about not wishing for things, lest you actually get them,''
 says Mark Falcoff, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and
 author of Panama's Canal: What Happens When the United States Gives a Small
 Country What It Wants.

 Falcoff, citing a long list of scandals and imbroglios that have occurred with
 property turned over to Panama by the United States over the past 20 years,
 thinks there's a good chance the canal's operations will be ruined by corruption
 and political interference once the country is on its own.

 There are plenty of American officials who agree with him, though it's considered
 political suicide to say so on the record.

 ''I give them about 18 months until the first major breakdown, and about five years
 until the shipping lines are screaming bloody murder,'' predicts one U.S. military
 official with extensive service in Panama. ''Given the politics of the place, there's
 just no way you can turn down your nephew who has a degree in engineering, but
 no job. The canal is too big a target for nepotism and corruption.''

 Not surprisingly, Panamanian officials see it very differently. ''More than 95
 percent of the canal employees are Panamanians, and that's been true for several
 years,'' argues Roberto Roy, a member of the Panama Canal Authority, which will
 manage the canal beginning Dec. 31. ''We already are running it, and there
 haven't been any significant problems. And there won't be. The government has
 built a firewall between the canal and politics.''


 Some predict new investment will get economy humming again

 Potential problems with the canal in the distant future take a back seat to the here and now for
 many Panamanians, who wonder what's going to happen to the jobs that have steadily dried up
 over the past year as the U.S. exit has accelerated. The government's own studies
 show that the loss of the American military bases is costing Panama $180 million a year,
 nothing to sneeze at in an economy with a GNP of around $3 billion.

 ''It pains me to see the gringos leave,'' says Kengifo Navas, a 45-year-old Kuna Indian who
 works in the kitchen at Corozal, the first U.S. military base to open here and the last to close.
 ''I have a child in the university, and that is because of the gringos. . . . They have
 enabled our children to become doctors and lawyers. But that will all end now.''

 American military kitchens here have always been run by Kunas; at one time, as
 many as 2,000 worked for the United States, though only a couple dozen remain.
 Their $5.70 an hour wage may not sound like much, but in a country where the
 minimum wage is 95 cents an hour, the Kunas see them as irreplaceable -- so
 much so that they're negotiating for kitchen jobs with U.S. peacekeeping forces in

 The U.S. departure has rippled through the Panamanian economy. Dozens of
 small restaurants and stores clustered around the edges of U.S. military bases
 have gone out of business. Even Josephine's, the legendary chain of
 nude-dancing clubs, closed down one of its three bars here.

 But James Shackleford, the 65-year-old transplanted Georgian whose family owns
 the bars and several tourist-oriented businesses, says it's a temporary setback.
 He believes that, as foreign investors acquire what used to be U.S. property along
 the canal, Panama's economy will take off like a rocket.

''I'll be honest with you, five or six years ago, I told my family, get out, sell out, let's go,''
Shackleford says. ''But I've seen the changes the country is going through, and I've changed
my mind.''

Plenty of American investors agree with him, from Michael Kelly, chairman of the board of
Avanti Motor Corp., who's putting up $100 million for a new luxury hotel, to Dave French,
who just came to Panama from Sugarland, Texas, to open a 20-table barbecue restaurant.

Says Kelly: ''Panama is the great undiscovered business environment in Latin America.''

Says French: ''All those people making big investments can't be wrong.''

 And that may be the final secret of the American withdrawal from Panama: It isn't

 ''You're leaving, but you're not,'' says Samuel Urrutia, the insurance executive who
 heads the American Chamber of Commerce here. ''The soldiers are going. But
 Citibank is staying. Xerox is staying. Kodak and Federal Express and Texaco and
 Bank of Boston and Bristol Myers are staying. BellSouth just got here. DHL is

 ''I don't care what the newspapers say. Nothing is happening here. The
 relationship with the canal -- well, the canal was always inside fences. We didn't
 have much contact with it. But the American businesses were outside the fences.
 That's who we had a relationship with, and they don't care who runs the canal.
 They're staying. . . .

 ''We grew up wanting not carne y frijoles  but a McDonald's hamburger. All
 Panamanians want to travel to the United States to shop, and the ones who can't,
 buy American goods in the stores here. All the movies we see are American, all
 the music we listen to is American. The influence is everywhere. I don't see that
 changing. And I'm glad.''