The Country with Five Frontiers

The American worked in the Canal Zone, but he lived in Panamá, so he was generally regarded as an agent of the CIA, but nobody now seems much afraid of the CIA. When he heard that I was moving around, he asked my friend Chuchu, “What’s the old goat doing here?”—a fair enough question, I often asked it myself, for since the Thirties I had wanted to visit Panamá—perhaps because of a romantic French novel I had read which was set in dangerous, ramshackle, poverty-ridden Colón, perhaps because even then I felt a premonition of Panamá’s importance. Panamá’s importance is not in fact the importance of the Canal, which becomes less and less with every year—a smaller tonnage passing, a smaller revenue, a channel too shallow and locks too narrow for the great tankers of the Seventies and the aircraft carriers. The Canal is now only important as a symbol of colonialism, a narrow splinter of colonialism cutting the country in two. The situation is watched with sympathy by Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru: Panamá doesn’t stand alone.

The hurried, dishonest treaty of 1904, which was signed on behalf of Panamá only by a French engineer, granted the United States all the rights, power, and authority within the Zone “which the United States would possess and exercise if it were the sovereign of the territory…to the entire exclusion of the exercise by the Republic of Panamá of any such sovereign rights, power or authority.” Imagine yourself a Panamanian suspected of a crime in the Zone; you can under the law of the United States be hauled off for trial in New Orleans even though your home is on the other side of the street in which you were arrested, beyond a boundary line less visible than a traffic line.

After the riots of 1964 when eighteen Panamanians lost their lives and millions of dollars of property were burned, President Johnson promised the abrogation of the old treaty: a new one would be signed which would integrate the Zone with the Republic and recognize Panama’s sovereignty. That was twelve years ago. The Arias oligarchy which had ruled Panamá since 1903 were in no hurry—their fortunes rested in the United States. In 1968 the young colonel Omar Torrijos, with a right-wing colleague, Colonel Boris Martinez, made a military coup d’état which rid the country of the oligarchy; a year later Martinez followed old Arias to Miami, and four years ago General Torrijos, the chief of state, held conversations with Kissinger, which led like so many of Kissinger’s conversations only to more conversations. Once again last December a delegation arrived for talks, as usual led by Mr. Ellsworth Bunker, the former ambassador in South Vietnam: they stayed for the inside of a week on the pleasant tourist island of Contadura where it had become a habit to hold such parleys, then they went home.

The diplomats, of course, are always reassuring: to …

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Letters

Danger Zone? April 14, 1977