Panama's Long, Rocky Road

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 memories.

The transfer of the Panama Canal into Panamanian hands on Dec. 31 ended the U.S. military presence in this narrow waist of the American continent, where the waterway joins the Atlantic and the Pacific. The ceremony marking the transfer was held Tuesday.

Panama regains all 363,000 acres of lush tropical land the United States has used since the early century as military bases or part of the canal basin itself, 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 here.

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.''

Panama became an independent country in 1903 under the wing of the United States, which encouraged its leaders to separate from Colombia. Shortly thereafter, Panama signed an agreement with the United States for the construction of the Panama Canal, which was inaugurated in August 1914.

Panamanians and Americans, as well as contingents from nearby Caribbean islands, sweated and died of tropical diseases while building the canal that forged the binational relationship.

In the following years the United States built its military presence to defend 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 welcomed.

Most of the time, however, 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. Fedral Reserve.

Ana Maria Spada, a 16-year-old student, echoed the mixed feelings of many Panamanians:

"I think it is good that they [Americans] 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.''