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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. Will there be work slowdowns or resistance? “There is already a slowdown. Efficiency is off, absenteeism is up. The apprenticeship program is falling apart. Its two-track system [a quota for training Panamanians] is a farce.” Trouble in paradise.

It looks like a rather seedy paradise. “We wouldn’t live in houses like this back home,” several told me. “Our famous P-X privileges have been scaled out of existence lately.” Only a few can remember the “good old days” when, before air conditioning, tropic pay and a 25 percent discount were used to lure people down to this sweltering isthmus.

But houses are small here because they are only temporary residences. No one was permitted to live in the Zone after retirement or loss of work with the Company or the Department of Defense. Moreover, no child could stay with parents after reaching legal majority, or finishing studies at the Canal Zone College, unless he or she found Canal work too. This meant that everyone was planning and saving for a life elsewhere while clinging to the amenities of this place. Next to the small homes there are still large “campers.” This is a world of picnics, biking, horse shows, birdwatching, hikes, church outings—the clubbiest of places. Balboa bristles with signs for the Scottish Rite, Kiwanis, Boy Scouts, Knights of Columbus, YMCA. There is cruiser camaraderie—or was until a year or so ago. In the Zone, Main Street was floated off, isolated, out of time—urgently remembering; ignoring everything outside the compound.

The Southern and the military versions of patriotism are combined and heightened here, given the peculiar twist whereby those at the edges of society become its profoundest centrists—which makes them distrust those at the center. Missionaries are more orthodox than popes, which means some of them become heretics. It is the mentality of Henry Luce born in China, or Douglas MacArthur born in the Philippines. Distance is compensated for by loyalty. But the same psychological distance makes colonizers suspect the loyalty of those at home; they fear that “safer” people are selling out the outposts. (One of the dangers of Israeli settlements in occupied territories is that they attract and instill such embattled superpatriotism.)

I went to see a group of Zonian volunteers paint welcome signs for a delegation of feminists. The woman who organized this project, a liberal ardent for the ERA, is the wife of Gorgas Hospital’s chief of nuclear medicine. She bitterly denounced President Carter for “buying” senators in the first treaty vote. “I used to be proud of our system. But everybody’s for sale now.” Like others I talked to, she hated most the senators who held back and argued with the treaties’ provisions. “I thought DeConcini had some principle. But he was bought with a little copper contract.” Shortly after, the same woman said, “The Senate wants to hurt us.” Then why did the president have to buy its members? She brushed aside the inconsistency: “Everyone dumps on us. As my husband says, ‘I’m the world’s worst man. I’m white. I’m a Southerner. And I live in the Zone.’ ”

Why do people want to live where they feel they will be hated? They are proud of each other and themselves, of “their” Canal, which is a cult object. (Visitors are constantly told how complex and ingenious are the Canal’s works, how skilled its keepers.) Besides, people do live well here. That is why children of residents so often come back to work for the Company themselves—often after a stint of military service. I met one man whose great-grandfather helped build the Canal and whose grandfather and father came back to work for certain periods of their lives. In one sense, the retirement of parents out from the Zone gives children a chance to return without family complications—they can run away to home.

We have the world’s best school system,” I was flatly assured. Heads nodded all around me. It may or may not be true, but people think it is—in a sense, a more astonishing fact than the excellence that is claimed. People are hard to satisfy: but Zonians proclaim their satisfaction with themselves on all occasions. And it is quite true that the Canal Company has reduced its declared profit by plowing much of the intake back into stellar community services justified as “maintenance” of the Canal. Since all grown children must leave home or go to college, the school system sends over 90 percent of its seniors to college, in the Zone or in the States. Police are everywhere, and are true servants of the community. One man said, “I have lawn chairs in my back yard, and around three AM our local patrolman sits down for a rest there. Sometimes his walkie-talkie chatters and wakes me up, but I feel good knowing he is out there.” The knowledge that this model force will be broken up under the treaties has led some police departments in the States to “raid” it for new officers.

The Zonians’ world turned neatly on its few certitudes. They served the Canal. The Canal served them. This arrangement benefited the world. So the world should leave them alone.

The world wouldn’t, of course. But it might have left them alone for a longer time if they had not been “more Catholic than the Pope” in 1964. Since Panamanian citizens who work in the Zone are allowed to live there, the governor of the Company was asked to fly the Panamanian flag outside his administration building. He complied, putting up two flagpoles equal in height, flying flags the same size. But he feared his own people’s superpatriotism, and was too timid to put up equal poles in front of schools. In what should have proved a Solomon’s decision, he found that this was one community service the Company could not afford—extra flagpoles at the schools. He decreed that no flag should fly there. The American students, egged on by their parents, would not follow their own leader—he, too, had sold them out behind their backs. When they put the American flag up on their own, Panamanian students tried to substitute theirs, and the riots began.

Those riots changed the whole face of Panama City and the minds of many Panamanians. The iconography of that day is everywhere. It fills one room of the Panama museum, with a relic case for the flag carried in tribute to students who died. Fourth of July Avenue, running along the Zone’s edge, became The Avenue of the Martyrs. (Americans still call it Fourth of July Avenue and use the term “martyrs” only with contempt.) The palatial Tivoli Hotel, perched over Panama City as a sign of Zone affluence, was dismantled. As riposte, the Panamanian Legislative Palace faces the Zone with a huge stone bas-relief portraying the 1964 assault, with Torrijos symbolically watching from the left while gas-masked American soldiers spew machine gun bullets on the right. The buttons Torrijos distributed urging a referendum vote for the treaties bore the scene of the 1964 assault. Americans had given him the excuse, the symbol, and the cause. And they still have not learned. Students, egged on by their parents, left classes to demonstrate against the treaties this spring.

Hatred and fear of Panamanians keep many Americans from traveling out of the Zone—they do not want to obey the National Guard that polices Panama City. Convoluted racism makes them prefer the black Jamaicans, descendants of those brought in to build the Canal, over Hispanic-Indian Panamanians. Jamaicans have been favored for Canal jobs, and tend to know more English than do the ordinary run of Panamanians. Every Zonian I talked to swore that his or her favorite Jamaican voted against the treaties, and that may be largely true—Jamaicans get the United States minimum wage for work in the Zone, and fear they will slip to the Panamanian average when the Company is disbanded.

Jamaicans born in the Zone could vote against the treaties because they are, legally, Panamanians—which undercuts the American residents’ naïve belief that the Zone was sovereign American territory. An American born in the Zone must get a certificate of citizenship from the States. That, along with the forced departure of all Americans who are not heads of families actively employed by the Company, destroys at a blow the claim that America ever held the Zone “just like Hawaii or Alaska.” But it leads to a further complication. One man told me: “I was at the airport, flying out of Panama City to Florida, and the customs official saw CZ as the birthplace marked in my American passport. He told me I was a Panamanian citizen, and had to take out a Panamanian passport. I called the naturalization officer here in the Zone, and he said, ‘Yes, that is their law, go along with it.’ ” The man refused; returned to the Zone; contrived to fly out of its military airport. He would not submit to the indignity of being treated as a Panamanian, even as a formality.

The memory of a thousand affronts exists or is suspected in the very Panamanians who will police civilian areas of the Zone when the treaties go into effect. Some Zonians are arranging to move onto the military bases. The schools will be shifted to the Department of Defense, run like any schools for military men abroad. (There were elaborate negotiations for the present teachers to keep their higher pay and privileges over DOD scales.) Hundreds of new residences are being put up in the military areas—Zonians are not sure how many will be reserved for civilians. If mass retirements and transfers occur, the army must swiftly find or train military replacements. A way of life is disappearing for over ten thousand people. The flag is not merely flying alongside a partner nation’s. It is, in civilian areas, coming down. It is easy to sympathize with the Zonians, these victims of their own illusions.

But the alternative was to let that band of transient Americans blackmail us into their own extremist claims. The colonist is often his own country’s enemy, simultaneously dispersing power’s reality while escalating its claims. The exile upholder of orthodoxy loves “his own” and hates “the other” so much that he soon comes to hate his own for not hating the other enough. “Everyone dumps on us,” the educated feminist told me. What is the “natural” response to that feeling?

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