U.S. force quietly folding its tent in Panama
By GLENN GARVIN
Herald Staff Writer
PANAMA -- With the Panama Canal scheduled to change hands at the end of
1999, the U.S. military bases that studded its banks are starting to resemble ghost
towns. Just five years ago, 10,200 troops were based here. Now it's about a third
of that, and by Oct. 1, a bare 400 will be left.
``The end will come, pretty much, with a whimper,'' said David Hunt, the
Force colonel who directs the U.S. military's Panama Canal treaty implementation
Actually, the U.S. military presence in Panama is not quite dead. But the
compilation of a list of 67,000 pieces of surplus equipment -- including everything
from demolition kits to desk lamps -- is a sure sign that, after 96 years, the end is
This is something of a surprise to many people in both countries. Although
military pullout was mandated by the 1977 treaties that turned the canal over to
Panama, there was a widespread belief on both sides that some sort of deal would
be struck to keep some American troops in the country.
But on-again, off-again negotiations between the two countries lurched
to a final
halt last August with the defeat of a constitutional amendment that would have
permitted Panamanian President Ernesto Perez Balladares to run for reelection.
The loss left Perez Balladares a lame duck without the political clout
and by the time a new president takes office in September, it will be much too late
to resume negotiations.
``This process is irreversible,'' Hunt said flatly during a recent interview.
The only negotiations between the United States and Panama these days are
the date for a ceremony marking the change in control over the canal. Panama
originally planned an extravagant celebration Dec. 31 but discovered that none of
the foreign leaders it expected to attend were willing to miss millennium
celebrations in their own countries.
The ceremony now appears likely to take place between Dec. 5 and 15. Panama
is pressing for Vice President Al Gore to head the U.S. delegation. Overtures also
have reportedly been made to former President Jimmy Carter -- who negotiated
and signed the canal treaties.
By that time, Panamanians may be heartily sick of turnover ceremonies anyway.
Scarcely two weeks go by without one, as the U.S. decommissions one installation
after another. Already this year, American troops have closed the electronic
eavesdropping shop at Galeta Island on the Atlantic side of the canal, and Rodman
Naval Station on the Pacific side.
Still has property
Despite all of the closed bases, a tremendous chunk of Panamanian territory
remains under U.S. control. Of 93,000 acres of land occupied by the United
States when the treaties were signed 22 years ago, only 35 percent has been
turned over to Panama. Of the 5,000 American buildings in 1979, just 48 percent
are in Panamanian hands.
``What is coming this year is huge,'' admitted Nicolas Ardito Barletta,
head of the
Interoceanic Region Authority, the Panamanian office in charge of developing
territory turned over under the canal treaties.
The next major round of closings will take place in November, when Howard
Force Base and the army's Fort Kobbe, Fort Clayton and both East and West
Corozal shut down.
The bases will be nearly empty long before that. A major exodus of U.S.
will begin in late May, when the school year ends and the six remaining schools for
the families of servicemen close their doors for the last time. Families will start
streaming out at the rate of 600 per month, straining the capacity of Panama's
Already the once-bustling bars and movie theaters on the U.S. bases are
deserted. Gossip is dominated by a single theme, the higher prices and limited
on-base housing options available in Puerto Rico at Roosevelt Roads Naval Base
and Fort Buchanan, the destinations for many of the soldiers left here.
``I wouldn't say there's a lot of sentimentality here,'' said Lt. Col.
Conover, spokesman for the U.S. Army South. ``The majority of military
personnel came here knowing we were pulling out.''
But Panama -- despite the heat, the bugs, and the long tropical Cold War
now-deposed regime of Manuel Noriega -- did work its way into the hearts of a
handful of American soldiers. One of them is Conover, now on his third
assignment here in 18 years.
He thought he was leaving for good last year when the U.S. Southern Command
moved to Miami, but four months in South Florida changed his mind. ``It's a good
place to visit,'' he observed diplomatically, ``but I'd rather live here.''
``If I stopped to think about it for a minute, I could get a little sad,''
``I love Panama. I have a lot of connections here. . . . But, ultimately, this is a
mission, and the mission's over. There are 32 countries in our area of
responsibility, and this time next year, Panama will be just one of the 32, no more,