Panama Canal

On the bridge of a ship moving through the Panama Canal, you can see Gatun Lake high above and then feel the locks by the Atlantic Ocean elevate you up to it and later drop you down from it on the Pacific side. The experience conjures up all the schoolbook stories about the American Army Engineers who succeeded where Ferdinand de Lesseps of the Suez Canal had failed, wiping out the malaria that had slaughtered his men. devising the system of marvelous locks to take the place of his useless ditch.

The Canal is the last splinter of Teddy Roosevelt’s Big Stick. The Canal is an engineering marvel, but it is also a colonial anachronism. To feel that, you must leave the bridge of the ship and sit in magistrate’s court in Balboa, capital of the U.S. Canal Zone.

“In perpetuity”

I listened one morning to the American judge who, with his white hair and resonant though gentle voice, looked and sounded like Lewis Stone playing the judge in the old Andy Hardy movies. The judge was lecturing a seventeen-year-old Panamanian after convicting him of driving in the Zone without a license. The judge was explaining why the government required a license and tested people to see if they were fit to drive. I shifted the scene in my imagination to Rhodesia, where judges, bearing the white man’s burden, try to civilize the primitive black, and I could find no difference. The boy was fined $10.

Under a 1903 treaty with Panama, the United States owns the fifty-milelong Panama Canal and runs a zone of five miles’ width on each side of the Canal. The treaty, according to its terms, lasts “in perpetuity.”For all practical purposes, the Zone is a sovereign part of the United States, and the U.S. government has the right to arrest, try, and punish all Panamanians who break the law inside it.

The United States thus holds colonial power over a 500-square-mile slab of territory that cuts Panama in two. This arrangement is so anachronistic that even the U.S. State Department agrees it must come to an end. American and Panamanian negotiators are close to agreement on a new treaty that would give Panama jurisdiction over the Zone in three years, and control of the Canal in twenty-five years. But talk of a new treaty has provoked strong opposition in the U.S. Congress, which must approve it. As a result, the negotiators are marking time, waiting for this year’s presidential elections to pass before offering a new treaty. But there is no certainty that Congress will accept it, even in quieter post-election times.

It is hard to strip emotion from the problem. Representative Daniel Flood, Democrat of Pennsylvania, the leader of those in Congress who oppose the change, insists that the Canal and the Zone are as much a part of America as the lands bought from Mexico in the Gadsden Purchase. An American pilot taking a ship through the Canal once turned to me on the bridge and said, “It’s part of the American way of life.”Panamanians, of course, see the Canal with different emotions. Dr. Jorge IIlueca, a Panamanian treaty negotiator, has said, “Panama wants a Panamanian canal operated by Panamanians for the benefit of Panamanians.”

Panama is a tiny country, slightly smaller than South Carolina, with a population of only 1.6 million. It has a single natural resource—its geography. The Isthmus of Panama is the narrowest stretch of land in the Western Hemisphere between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. All Panama’s history is tied to this geography. The Spaniards moved gold and silver from South America across the isthmus by mule to galleons waiting in the Caribbean Sea to carry the precious metal to Spain. In the nineteenth century, the Forty-Niners scrambled through the isthmus on foot, by canoe, and finally by rail to reach California. Since its opening in 1914, the Canal has made Panama the main bridge between the two oceans for commercial shipping in peacetime and for the U.S. Navy in times of military crisis.

Panama has benefited from its resource. Its economy depends on the Canal. The U.S. government estimates that Panama earns almost $200 million a year in direct and indirect income. The Canal accounts for one fourth of Panama’s gross domestic product and one third of its foreign exchange earnings. Undoubtedly because of the Canal, the United States gives Panama more foreign aid per capita than we give to any other country in the world. Panamanians have the third highest average income in Latin America. Without the Canal, many Americans insist, Panama would be just another impoverished banana republic.

But, unlike the Arabs and their oil or the Canadians and their forests or the Zambians and their copper, the Panamanians have no control at all over their natural resource. Panama cannot tax the Canal or license it or set its tolls or direct it or take it over, for the Canal is American.

This peculiar arrangement comes out of a peculiar episode in American history. In 1903, Colombia, which then controlled the territory that was to become the country of Panama, refused to sign a treaty with the United States allowing a canal across the isthmus. A few rebels in Panama then declared their independence from Colombia over the issue. The United States rushed a warship to Panama, recognized the new country immediately, and negotiated a treaty.

There have always been suspicions about the American role in the rebellion. President Theodore Roosevelt wrote years later, “I took the Canal Zone and let Congress debate.” That may have been an exaggeration, but there is no doubt that the United States insured Panama’s independence against any attempt at suppression by Colombia.

The man who negotiated the treaty with Teddy Roosevelt’s secretary of state, John Hay, was not a Panamanian at all. The country had barely come into existence. The task of negotiating with the United States fell to Philippe Bunau-Varilla, a representative of the French company that had tried under the leadership of De Lesseps to dig a canal across the isthmus in the nineteenth century. Bunau-Varilla was less concerned about the independence and sovereignty of Panama than about protecting his outfit’s investment. To head off any opposition to the treaty in the U.S. Senate, Bunau-Varilla gave the Americans even more than they had asked, including the right to run the Zone in perpetuity, as if it were a colony. There are no monuments to Bunau-Varilla in Panama today.

Resentment against the treaty festered in Panama and then erupted in violent rioting in 1964. Four American soldiers and about twenty Panamanians died in the fighting. At one point the Americans fired into crowds on the street that separates the Zone from Panama City. That street, then called Fourth of July Avenue by the Americans, is now called Avenue of the Martyrs by the Panamanians. The riots forced the U.S. government to recognize the need for something more modern than the imperialist 1903 treaty. Negotiations for a new treaty began in 1964. But they have started and stalled again and again for more than a decade.

Company town

The main aim of the Panamanians, of course, is to rid their country of the colonial enclave. The U.S. Canal Zone has a population of 40,000, of whom 25,000 are U.S. servicemen and their dependents living on fourteen military installations. Their life is much like that of any other American military families on a base. The civilian population of the Zone comprises 10,000 Americans, almost all white, and 5000 Panamanians, almost all black. They give the Zone its special atmosphere.

The American civilians are rather touchy about their life, resentful that so many journalists have come down in the last few years to write about the colonial atmosphere. One journalistic cliché that irks the Americans is a description of their “manicured lawns” in contrast to the squalor of the Panama City slums just outside the Zone. On my first trip to Panama, almost every American brought up the lawns in any conversation with me.

“I hope you are not going to write one of those articles about the wellordered Zone with its manicured lawns.” said an American who worked for the commissary. “People get out of something what they put into it. The Panamanians don’t put anything in. That’s why Panama looks so rotten.” A canal pilot said, “Please don’t talk about manicured lawns in your articles. We ought to let them grow weeds so we could be more like Panama.”An official of the Panama Canal Company said, “The only reason our lawns are manicured is that we cut them to keep out the mosquitoes.”

On first glance, the lawns do seem a useful symbol. They give the Zone the image of an ordered, efficient, healthy island of American life within a disordered, inefficient tropical country. After a closer look, however, the neat lawns fade as an image. There is no doubt that the U.S. Canal Zone is ordered and efficient. But it is also authoritarian. restricted, out of date and out of step, sterile, racist, and unhealthy. It is a strange brand of colonialism and a strange advertisement for the United States. The image of manicured lawns hardly does the Canal Zone justice: the Americans there are right about that, but for the wrong reasons.

The Americans do not live in a grand, privileged way, as did British or French settlers in the old colonies of Africa or as whites do now in Rhodesia. Life in the Canal Zone for an American is more like life in a company town. It is a company town, however, where the company is the United States government and the governor is a general from the Army Corps of Engineers. “This is an unusual community,” said an American doctor. “People live in a socialized welfare state under a military dictatorship, and they like it.”

Lieutenant General Dennis P. McAuliffe, the commander of the U. S. Army’s southern command, outranks the governor of the Canal Zone, Major General Harold R. Parfitt. Their lines of command, however, are distinct; Governor Parfitt reports to the secretary of the Army, not to General McAuliffe. But as a practical matter, General McAuliffe, since he is responsible for defense of the Canal, presumably would run the Zone in a defense emergency.

Besides supplying ordinary government services like police, firemen, courts, schools, and post offices, the U.S. bureaucracy operates stores and movie theaters, sells Christmas trees, runs a railroad, rents houses, provides free medical care, and publishes a newspaper. The government even markets its own brand of products such as bread, milk, and matches.

The Americans are paid more than they would earn working in equivalent jobs for the federal government in the United States, and their rents are lower than they would be in the United States. But, in return, the Americans give up their right to make decisions for the community in which they live. Decisions are made by the general and his bureaucrats. There are elected civic councils to advise the governor, but they are ornaments, not agencies of decision and power.

The bureaucracy intrudes into a good deal of everyday life. A Zonian, as residents of the Zone are called, needs to get government approval if he wants to paint his walls any color but white. The government selects the movies that will be shown in the subsidized theaters. Zonians cannot own land or build homes; most rent houses that come out of a government mold — pale and dull wooden cottages or huge blocks of concrete on stilts.

The government commissaries supply the civilians with food, clothing, shoes, furniture, and appliances at American prices, which makes for a substantial savings over prices in Panama. The military personnel enjoy the further advantage of PX prices. There are weekend and red-tag specials at the commissaries to make them seem more like stores in the United States. But there is a big difference. Within the Canal Zone, bureaucrats select the brands and fashions for monopoly stores. The only recourse for a dissatisfied customer is to head for Panama and pay much more. This causes some grumbling, particularly among women who feel that the bureaucrats could do a better job in fashion selection. But most Americans still look on the commissaries as one of their great privileges.

The town of Balboa, the administrative center of the Zone, resembles a somnolent, motionless, noiseless Mississippi town in August. Except during the weekend shopping hours, few people walk on the sidewalks during the midday heat. Balboa has an elaborate array of traffic and pedestrian lights, and a visitor feels like a foot waiting amid the palm trees in the glorious sunlight for the signal to change when there isn’t a car in sight. Nevertheless, the visitor waits, either out of respect for the mores of this out-of-date community or out of fear of its efficient police with their traffic tickets. “It’s a funny thing.” said the American doctor. “Some people drive like filthy pigs in Panama. But once they cross into the Zone, they drive like lambs.” In Panama, a motorist locks his car; in Balboa, he does not.

“Gold” and “silver”

The Canal Zone is a racial embarrassment. During construction days, the U.S. government hired 45,000 contract laborers, mostly blacks from the West Indies. Few blacks left when the Canal was finished in 1914. They stayed on to help run the Canal or work in Panama. Their children did the same.

A caste system developed in the Canal Zone, hidden somewhat by code words. The U.S. government, at first, paid American citizens in gold coin, others in silver. The pay windows were marked “gold” and “silver.” Before long, everything else was labeled that way. There were “gold" and “silver” toilets and “gold” and “silver” counters at the post office and “gold” and “silver” housing and, later, “gold” and “silver” schools. “Gold” and “silver” were code for white and black, and remained so until the terminology was officially abolished in 1947.

But the end of “gold” and “silver" did not mean an end to segregation. Zone officials simply found new terminology and new tortuous reasoning. Under a strange interpretation of law, the U.S. government runs the Canal Zone as if it were sovereign in all matters except birth. A child born in the Zone of American parents is granted American citizenship. But a child born in the Zone of black West Indian parents is not. He is considered Panamanian.

As a result, the black descendants of the West Indians now go to “LatinAmerican” schools in the Zone under the official rationale that they are Panamanian citizens in need of learning Spanish language and culture. Their career advancement is blocked because more than a thousand jobs on the Canal are considered security positions that must be filled by Americans. The blacks also live in “Latin-American” communities. The official excuse is that there is not enough housing in the “U.S.” communities to take care of Americans, let alone foreigners.

Segregation is so blatant in the Zone that the U.S. government has finally decided to do something about it. In November 1975, the current governor, General Harold R. Parfitt, announced plans to reduce the number of security positions, phase out the Latin-American schools, and merge the American and foreign communities. His plans on housing, however, were so vague as to ensure continued segregation of the communities for some time. In any case, the easing of segregation a few years before the planned transfer of the Zone to Panama will hardly wipe out the long colonial record.

There is tension in the Canal Zone these days. The American civilians are adept at lobbying Congress; they send congressmen exaggerated tales about injustice and communist inroads in Panama. The response from Congress has heartened them at times, but it has not removed their uncertainty. The Americans fear that, under a new treaty, corrupt and inefficient policemen will walk their streets, that strange Latin-American legal procedures will imperil them in courts, that crime will come to the Canal Zone, that their children will have inferior schools, that Panamanian postal clerks will delay their mail, that their cost of living will go up, that they wall lose their jobs and their retirement benefits, that the Canal will be run in chaos, that they will lose pride in their work.

Douglas C. Schmidt, the president of one of the Zone’s civic councils, has been acting as a spokesman for the Zonians. The thirty-nine-year-old Schmidt, his wife, and their eight-year-old daughter were all born in the Zone. “I believe the Canal is ours,” he said recently. “It’s American. But rather than being an echo in the dark, I am trying to do the best I can to shape our destiny as best we can. I want us to get the best deal we can from a treaty.”

Schmidt said, “We’re very fearful of living under another system. I knowother Americans overseas do. But we came here knowing that we were going to live as we would in the United States. The Bill of Rights would prevail here. You can really get on the flagraising kick on this one. But it’s the big issue.” There have been hints that the authors of the new treaty might try to calm the Americans by allowing for private guards around their homes. But Panamanian police would still have jurisdiction.

Schmidt also wants the U.S. government to promise to place American canal workers in similar jobs in the United States if they leave the Zone. Perhaps from fear of encouraging an exodus of skilled canal workers, the U.S. government has not made such a promise so far.

“A promise like this,” Schmidt said, “would result in an immediate easing of tension. You cannot believe how much day and night tension we live under now. Should we leave? Should we stay? How will it be? The fact that we are in limbo has put a tremendous strain on family life.”

Saving face

While Americans in the Zone are tense, many Panamanians outside the Zone are impatient. “We are trying very hard,” said Vice President Gerardo Gonzalez, in a recent interview, “to keep emotions under control.” When Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Panama’s Foreign Minister Juan A. Tack signed an agreement of principles for a new treaty in February 1974, many Panamanians expected a treaty in a year or so. That has not happened. Brigadier General Omar Torrijos, the man who runs Panama as chief of state, has made it clear that he is now willing to wait until after the American elections in November. Torrijos obviously does not want any violence that might cripple the Canal or hinder Panama’s chances of taking it over peacefully in a quarter of a century.

A peaceful solution depends a good deal on Torrijos’ control of tempers. The son of poor, rural schoolteachers, Torrijos is popular in the countryside, but disliked both by leftist students and by the conservative business community. He took over in a 1968 coup that ended sixty-five years of rule by the Spanish-descended oligarchy known as the rabiblancos, or “white tails,” in Panama. The coup was a kind of social revolution, with Torrijos personifying the masses of mestizos who make up most of the population.

Torrijos is a shy country man who speaks Spanish with rural accents and gestures. There is no doubt about his support in the countryside. While on a visit to Mexico in 1969. Torrijos was ousted by a coup in Panama City. He immediately flew by private plane to the western town of David and led a march of peasants and loyal soldiers to the capital. The coup leaders caved in quickly.

Torrijos, however, has his troubles in Panama City. Businessmen and professionals think of him with contempt as a country bumpkin. They also chafe under his government’s abolition of political parties and restriction of liberties. In January, the business community staged a short strike in protest against the government’s deportation of eleven prominent businessmen on charges of subversion.

The leftists believe that Torrijos is too soft on the Canal, and too susceptible to American pressures. They attack the United States as a way of attacking him. In September 1975, Secretary Kissinger. in an evident slip of the tongue, said, “The United States must maintain the right, unilaterally, to defend the Canal for an indefinite future, or for a long future.” The word “unilaterally” contradicted all the assurances of chief American negotiator Ellsworth Bunker that, under a new treaty, Panama would share defense of the Canal. Despite a quick State Department retraction, the Kissinger statement angered the Panamanians. A few hundred universitystudents demonstrated in front of the U.S. Embassy, throwing rocks that broke two hundred windowpanes. There are still “Yanki, go home” signs in front of the Embassy.

The students obviously were intent on embarrassing Torrijos as much as the U.S. government. Officials of both countries now fear an attempt by students to invade the Zone in a demonstration that would provoke a confrontation between Panamanians and Americans. That might upset the neat schedule of the diplomats who are waiting for the 1976 American election to be over.

Kissinger’s statement angered the Panama government so much that it published a report on the negotiations, the only reliable document describing what a new treaty may be like. According to the Panama government, the negotiators have agreed that three years after the signing of a new treaty, the U.S. Canal Zone government would disappear and Panama would take over jurisdiction of the Zone, ending colonial rule. The negotiators, according to Panama, also have agreed that Panama would join the United States in running and defending the Canal for the duration of the treaty, probably twenty-five years, and take over the Canal by itself after that. On defense the United States would evidently be the senior partner under the treaty.

The main areas of disagreement, according to Panama, are military. The United States wants its right of defense to extend for at least another twentyfive years beyond the expiration of the treaty, perhaps for an indefinite period. The United States armed forces, which now use the Canal Zone as the headquarters for their southern command, also want to keep their fourteen bases in the Zone during the first twenty-five years. Panama insists that three should be enough.

It is fairly obvious that the disagreements represent more of a dispute between the Department of State and the Pentagon than between the American and Panamanian negotiators. There are, however, indications that the Pentagon is easing its hard-line stand on these defense issues. Much, of course, depends on whether the Pentagon considers the Canal—and the Zone—a convenience or a vital strategic necessity.

Since they do not fit into the 1000foot by 110-foot locks, the thirteen aircraft carriers of the U. S. Navy cannot transit the Canal. The 106 U. S. nuclear submarines can fit in the locks, and sometimes do go through the Canal, but the Navy does not like to expose the submarines for the five to six hours that a trip through the Canal takes. As a Navy spokesman puts it, “The silent service likes to be silent.”

Nevertheless, the Canal, in the view of American military officials, does have strategic value. Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt. Jr., the former chief of naval operations and now a candidate for the Democratic nomination for U. S. senator from Virginia, says: “The United States no longer has a two-ocean navy. Cuts by the Congress on defense budgets have reduced us to a one-ocean navy. In case of a war, the United States would have to abandon the western Pacific and concentrate on the Atlantic. Everything we have would have to be moved from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Some ships could not go through the Canal. But all other ships would save a lot of time by using the Canal.”

But this does not mean the Pentagon opposes a new treaty. Its position is that a new treaty is acceptable so long as it guarantees American military use of the Canal.

The Panamanian view is that the strategic importance of the Canal has been exaggerated. The Panamanians contend that, in these days of nuclear weapons, the Canal does not dominate the Pentagon’s strategic thinking. “If the Canal really was vital to the United States,” said Dr. Carlos Lopez-Guevara. one of the Panamanian negotiators, “we wouldn’t have a chance.”

Keepers of the myth

The issue narrows down to Congress. The Vietnam debacle has provoked some congressmen to hang on to old myths of American power with a vengeance. The Canal is one of the glories of that old mythology. In 1974, a group of thirty-seven senators, enough to block ratification of a treaty, sponsored a resolution demanding that the government “in no way cede, dilute, forfeit, negotiate, or transfer any of these sovereign rights [in the Canal and its Zone].”

In June 1975, the House, by a vote of 246 to 164. passed an amendment denying funds to “negotiate the surrender or relinquishment of United States rights in the Panama Canal.”The denial of funds was taken out by a Senate-House conference committee, but the vote was a clear warning of trouble ahead. Although only the Senate would have to ratify the treaty, the House would have to approve any transfer of property, such as the Canal, under the terms of a new treaty.

These congressional postures may ease by 1977. If not, the future is not pleasant to contemplate. The rejection of a treaty in Congress would give General Torrijos little choice but to unleash violence as a way of persuading Americans that the Canal is not worth holding. His action would receive widespread support in Latin America. We would then force the spectacle of American troops killing Panamanians in defense of a ridiculous and out-of-date colonial enclave. It would be an ugly, bloody, and shameful chapter in a story that had such a romantic beginning.

—STANLEY MEISLER