PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) -- With their partnership approaching its
100-year anniversary, Panama and the United States are officially going their
separate ways. Panama gets to keep the real estate; the United States gets
The transfer of the Panama Canal into Panamanian hands on December 31 ends
U.S. military presence in this narrow waist of the Americas, where the waterway joins the
Atlantic and the Pacific. The ceremony marking the transfer is planned for Tuesday.
Panama will regain all 147,000 hectares (363,000 acres) of lush tropical
the United States has used since the early century as military bases or part of
the Panama Canal basin -- as well as the canal itself.
The end of the partnership, although planned for 20 years since President
Jimmy Carter and Panamanian strongman Gen. Omar Torrijos signed the
Canal Treaties, nevertheless came in a rush as the United States hurried to
close all its installations.
And Panama is still struggling to come to grips with the fact that the
Americans are really going.
"Deep down we still cannot believe they have left," said Roberto Eisenmann,
an adviser to President Mireya Moscoso and a former newspaper publisher.
"Panamanians lived with and loved the Americans."
Panamanians and Americans, as well as contingents from nearby Caribbean
islands, sweated and died of tropical diseases while building the canal.
U.S. enclave in the tropics
Panama became an independent country in 1903 under the wing of the
United States, which encouraged its leaders to separate from Colombia.
Panama then signed an agreement with the United States for the construction
of the Panama Canal, which was inaugurated in August 1914.
In the following years the United States built its military presence to
the canal and to train thousands of its soldiers to fight in foreign wars. It
fenced off the Canal Zone, creating a U.S. enclave in the tropics.
Relations were rocky at times. In 1964 Panamanian students tried to enter
the Zone to raise the Panamanian flag. In the shooting that ensued 22
Panamanians and four U.S. Marines died.
Panama briefly suspended relations with the United States.
Then in 1989 the United States invaded Panama to capture military dictator
Gen. Manuel Noriega, who had nullified an election and was wanted on drug
charges in the United States. It was an invasion many Panamanians
Relationship mostly one of acceptance
But for most of the time, the relationship was one of acceptance on both
sides. For generations, U.S soldiers were part of Panamanian social
landscape, and thousands of them married Panamanians.
"We are pro-Yankee," Eisenmann said. "We do not go to Europe. We go to
Miami. We are more like Americans than any other Latin country. U.S.
businessmen can relate to Panamanian businessmen."
Panamanian currency, although officially named the Balboa, is the U.S.
dollar. The exchange rate is 1-1, and the only paper money comes from the
U.S. Federal Reserve.
Ana Maria Spada, a 16-year-old prep school student, echoed the mixed
feelings of many Panamanians:
"I think it is good that they are leaving because we now have total
sovereignty. But it is sad to see them go because they have been here for a
long time and we are used to them. They have been our protection."
Added Fitz Luwe, 79, who lives near the banks of the canal and is a former
canal employee: "It is good that they go. They did a lot of good in Panama,
but the time has come for Panama to rule over its entire territory."
Resentment in U.S. Congress
But while Panama is rejoicing, there has been resentment in the U.S.
Congress, and U.S. officials are largely staying away from the festivities.
President Bill Clinton declined an invitation to attend Tuesday's ceremony,
and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright canceled her trip at the last
minute. Some Panamanians were offended.
"They have their reasons and they have their priorities," said Panamanian
Foreign Minister Jose Miguel Aleman.
Added Eisenmann: "The United States missed a good chance to look good
in front of the world. There was a lack of class in its attitude."
Copyright 1999 The Associated Press.