Panama: A New Peril

The loyal employees of the Panama Canal Zone and the Canal Zone government also deserve our gratitude and our admiration for their performance during these months of great uncertainty, and General Torrijos and the people of Panama who have followed this debate closely and through every stage have been willing partners and cooperative and patient friends.

There is no better indication of the prospect for friendly relations between us in the future than their conduct during the last few months.

—Jimmy Carter, speaking after the Senate approved the Panama Canal Treaty on April 18

Those were President Carter’s words just after the second Panama treaty passed the Senate. But I was in Panama shortly before that vote, and I had lengthy interviews with thirty or so American residents there. I found only one couple that supported the treaties, and their friends accused them of supporting them because they are about to leave the Zone. Others said they would retire early, or transfer out under the civil servants’ “adverse action” provision, if the second treaty passed. It is hard to know which poses the greater threat to orderly transition under the treaties’ provisions—abrupt drainage of civilian skills from the Zone or a lingering population whose emotional stake is in making the treaties fail. Some senators who opposed the treaties talked of unruly Panamanians, but the real trouble in the past has been caused by unruly American citizens in the Zone. That is a factor still to be considered as the Senate and the House take up implementing legislation on the treaties. “Zonians” have, from the start, thought of the House as their last refuge.

They hardly look like rioters, these courteous Americans, many of them Southerners with soft accents and model children. Yet I heard one group, chatting in a front room, work itself up through hours of bitter attack on the treaties to wishful talk about making them fail if they passed. “We hear a lot about guerrillas being able to close down the Canal. Don’t they know we can close it down? We’ve done it twice.” They recalled with laughter the attempt to replace striking Canal pilots with “outsiders.” (The pilots are this deferential community’s aristocrats and proudest boast.)

The sabotage, some concluded, would not have to be deliberate. Some thought the transfer of skill to Panamanians would never take place because it could not. A teacher who is convinced his pupils cannot learn is a teacher who cannot teach. A teacher who, consciously or unconsciously, does not want the pupil to learn will only teach hatred. Though they profoundly resent being called “colonists,” the Zone residents sound like those of some English outpost in Kipling’s tales, who have just heard the British army has withdrawn and left them stranded.

In a world of intense but temporary clustering, morale is everything. A school counselor told me, “Divorce is soaring here. So is alcoholism.” Early retirements and transfers have been common for over a year.…

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