As the finality of the Canal hand-over nears, an air of uncertainty pervades country
BY GLENN GARVIN
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
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
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
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.
HOW PANAMANIANS SEE IT
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
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
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
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,
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
things like that,'' Rognoni says.
Many Panamanians, struggling to explain the complex relationship
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,
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
''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.''
AN AIR OF PATERNALISM
Reality sinks in that Uncle Sam won't be solving problems
The new government of President Mireya Moscoso, who took office
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
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
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
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.''
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.''