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Tied to Panama Crisis : Uncertainty Cuts Across the Canal

Times Staff Writer

Dark green military helicopters settled to the ground, their silhouettes looking for a moment like the dragonflies that swarm through Panama’s jungles in the rainy season. As the big blades slowed, the choppers disgorged dozens of crouching U.S. soldiers in combat dress.

The soldiers fanned out to protect the old installations of the Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal from imagined saboteurs. Here was American power on display the way it is supposed to work, in defense of important American interests.

No matter that the easiest way to cripple the Panama Canal is to drop a wrench into the works that control the gates of the locks, something no helicopter-borne troops would be likely to prevent.

‘Hands Off the Canal’

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Still, there was an unsubtle message for Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, the ruler of Panama, who is wanted in the United States for drug smuggling: “Hands off the canal. It’s not yours yet.” For despite the canal’s gradually shrinking importance in world trade and its uncertain practical future, it stands near center stage in the conflict here.

At issue for the United States are its fading hopes of turning the canal over to a stable, democratic and above all friendly government that would run the waterway pretty much the way it has always been run--by a lean and dedicated civil service insulated against political tomfoolery.

Under agreements with the United States, Panama is to get full control of the canal at the end of the century. American reluctance to use military force to oust Noriega from Panama is based, in part, on fears that he would retaliate against the waterway.

The canal treaties signed in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter and then-Panamanian military ruler Omar Torrijos include provisions for a return to democracy in Panama, the gradual ascension of Panamanian administrators and the buildup of a professional army to secure the canal as Panama acquires operational control. The Panamanian army, in this scenario, would stand guard over the canal and defend it from terrorists and invading armies.

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Plan in Disarray

Twelve years later, the plan is in disarray. The transition to democracy as spelled out in the treaties has been sideswiped by one of Latin America’s last military dictatorships. The Panama Defense Forces, armed and trained by the United States to defend the canal, have embarked on a more traditional mission--putting down domestic opposition to the government. The greatest physical threat to the canal is perceived as coming not from abroad but from Noriega himself.

Critics, American and Panamanian alike, assert that Panama’s government is doing little to ensure an effective operation of the canal after the year 2000.

The United States, helicopters and all, seems helpless to do much about any of this. In a place where 85 years ago the mere appearance of a U.S. gunboat was enough to bring about Panama’s independence from Colombia and open the way for the building of the canal, any show of Yankee force is the butt of insulting jokes. U.S. Marines are depicted as marijuana-crazed, trigger-happy louts who fire at their own shadows. The immense U.S. military establishment in bases along the canal is compared sarcastically to a once-potent lover now in old age.

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The past glory of the Panama Canal has given way to a kind of quiet routine in which the waterway seems more a relic of robust American growth than a symbol of its driving force.

The canal was opened 74 years ago as the United States blossomed into a world power, an unpredictable teen-ager of a country that emulated European powers in a grab for territories and then, in building the Panama Canal, outdoing them.

Promotional films shown at the canal administrative building reflect Washington’s lingering pride at having beaten Europe to the punch. They describe how an effort by France to build the canal across Panama gave way to the energetic and successful American project.

“The French canal effort struggled and failed,” an enthusiastic narrator says. “The Americans took up the challenge.”

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U.S. nationals on the canal staff see its operation as a kind of missionary service. “The canal is run for the good of the world,” a canal spokesman says.

650,000 Ships

Like baseball, descriptions of the canal are infused with the American love of numbers. Statistics flow like the water that spills into the canal (52 million gallons every time a ship passes through). The locks are 1,000 feet long and 110 feet wide, and they raise ships 85 feet above sea level to make the eight-hour, 50-mile passage from sea to sea. More than 650,000 ships have passed through the canal. The highest toll was $106,782.33, charged to the liner Queen Elizabeth 2 in January, 1988. The lowest: 36 cents, to the adventurer Richard Halliburton, who swam the canal in 1928.

One statistic offers a clue to the settled economic status of the canal: Over the past 15 years, the share of world seaborne trade passing through its locks has leveled off at 5%. Much traffic has been siphoned off to the containerized ship-to-railroad trade. And many ships, notably the supertankers, are too large for the Panama Canal.

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“The canal is in a period of declining relative value,” said Richard Wainio, the chief economist for the Panama Canal Commission, which operates the waterway.

If the canal were closed, or traffic disrupted, alternate routes could be found, Wainio said, although for some cargoes, added costs would cut sharply into profit margins and perhaps make them unprofitable.

“There would be winners and losers if the canal closed,” Wainio said. “In a broad sense, however, adjustments can be made.”

Few Carriers

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Even the strategic importance of the canal has diminished, since it cannot accommodate the U.S. Navy’s largest aircraft carriers.

Nevertheless, the canal’s greatest importance, except for Panama itself and its immediate neighbors, is still to the United States. One of the most important U.S. exports, grain, is shipped through the canal to Asia. Closure of the canal could cause hardship in the Farm Belt and greatly affect the prosperity of ports up and down the Mississippi River.

Dreams of a wider canal persist. There is a plan to widen the Gaillard Cut, the narrow passage across the Continental Divide, in order to permit two-way traffic for the largest ships that now pass through the canal.

Although canal authorities are hesitant about discussing Panama’s political turmoil, the word is that such a widening will not take place so long as Noriega is in power. One reason: A Panamanian director for the Panama Canal Commission, which is an agency of the U.S. government, is scheduled to be named next year. The position has always been held by an American, and the U.S. Senate must ratify the new appointee. If Noriega makes the selection from among his officers or his political cronies, the selection may well be vetoed, along with money needed to finance major work on the canal.

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A study is being made to develop a new and wider canal, at sea level, that could handle the largest ships now at sea. Reflecting the changes that have taken place since the United States replaced France here, the new study is not being undertaken by Washington alone. Panama is taking part in it, along with Japan.

The short passage from Panama City to what was once the Canal Zone, where the United States was sovereign, is almost Disneyesque--a trip from Adventureland to Main Street U.S.A.

The neighborhoods of Panama City that border on the old zone are typical of poor districts in many Latin American capitals. Clapboard tenements teem with laundry and children. Salsa music blares from municipal buses. The unemployed sip their morning beer waiting for the hot day to pass. Soldiers in lemon-green berets guard Gen. Noriega’s headquarters, sometimes chatting with girlfriends through a wrought-iron fence. Graffiti on faded pastel walls give an official, if not popular, view of current events: “Viva Noriega,” “Death to the Yankees,” “Hands Off Panama.”

Across a wide boulevard, the landscape turns uncommonly serene. Neat homes, four apartments to a building, stand on well-trimmed lawns. There is a Christian Science reading room, a place called Frenchie’s tavern, a National car rental office, a Baptist church and numerous public buildings constructed in a style that fits somewhere between the Pentagon and the Everytown post office.

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On the surface, little seems to have changed in what is now called the Canal Area. Besides the red, white and blue quadrants of the Panamanian flag, the boldest signs of the post-American era are the presence of Noriega’s troops at the old Balboa police station, headquarters of Panama’s feared National Department of Investigations. In command here is Col. Nivaldo Madrinan, a Noriega associate frequently linked with drug trafficking by the general’s foes.

Nightmarish Vision

For the dwindling colony of American canal workers, the change has been profound and unwelcome. The Americans harbor a nightmarish vision of Latin chaos encroaching on what they describe as a near-perfect tropical reflection of American life. Their feeling of alienation has been increased by the recent turmoil.

Lou Hilzinger, 39, a crane operator, told a reporter: “We feel uncomfortable. Most of us lived here expecting things to stay the same. Suddenly it was all very different. Now, of course, we feel more insecure than ever. The situation is volatile.”

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For Hilzinger, Panama is home. He is a second-generation “Zonian,” as Americans in the old zone were called. His father was the zone’s last U.S. postmaster.

These are momentous days for Hilzinger. He has decided to send his wife to live at their second home in Texas to ride out the political crisis, perhaps never to return. Hilzinger himself will stay on in Panama at least until retirement, which is two years away.

Questioned by Police

The Hilzingers began to rethink their plans after the police stopped and questioned her when she drove into Panama City with their two daughters to buy ice cream cones.

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“We don’t feel we can do the normal things we did anymore,” Hilzinger said.

Discontent among Zonians predates the turmoil of Noriega’s rule. Zonians chafed under Panamanian law, which was imposed in 1979. They complained about losing U.S. postal privileges and Canal Zone commissaries. Golf courses were lost to weeds, roads became potholed and the docks at the Balboa Yacht Club rotted. More and more jobs were allotted to Panamanians, reducing opportunities for Americans born and bred in the zone.

Of about 8,000 canal employees, only about 1,000 are now American nationals.

Zonians’ complaints have taken on what some regard as a spoiled-child tone. A few months ago, when Americans picketed the headquarters of the Canal Commission, their principal demand was that commissary privileges be restored, so that they would not have to buy groceries in Panama City.

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“The food tastes different there,” one Zonian complained.

Such grousing may seem out of place on the lips of the descendants of the rugged canal pioneers. But in a sense the Zonians are also heir to a long history of coddling. Even before the Americans broke ground here, the workers’ needs were attended to.

Like a Company Town

Special housing was built for them, drainage was dug and hospitals opened. The zone was run like a company town in order to attract skilled employees to an out-of-the-way corner of the tropics and keep them here.

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As far as the Zonians were concerned, good fences meant good neighbors. There are still American residents who rarely cross into Panama City or the other towns along the fringes of the old zone.

The insulation is rapidly crumbling. The recent turmoil has encroached on the Zonians’ domain. Strikes by dockworkers attracted riot police to the canal. Crime is increasing. When there are street protests, children may be stranded at school, wives at church, husbands at work.

“You can’t work in this kind of atmosphere,” Hilzinger said. “We were accustomed to living much like in the United States, and obviously we don’t anymore.”

It is not only the Americans who fret about the future of the canal and a fading way of life. Panamanians who work on the canal also worry about the canal and their jobs after the year 2000. The Panamanian canal workers, known as canaleros , are among the most ardent if not outspoken foes of Noriega.

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The Panamanians are not nostalgic for American rule. When the United States held full sway over the canal, few Panamanians could hope to get a canal job. They were subject to scorn and discrimination when they entered the Canal Zone. Their forebears may have dug the canal and even died along its still-dry banks, but when the work was completed, Panamanians were not welcome.

However, now that they are taking over the jobs, Panamanian workers have become staunch defenders of the American style of running things.

For now, canal salaries are relatively high, and the work is secure. But many of the workers suspect that the canal will become a source of political patronage for the military-dominated government. The lean, well-paid work force may become diluted by Panama-style featherbedding, which is called la botella --the bottle.

Maintenance Fears

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As political appointees suck on the bottle, many Panamanians fear, money that should be used for canal maintenance will be diverted to the pockets of idle employees and administrators.

“The Panamanian government is more interested in owning the canal than running it properly,” said canal pilot Jeremias de Leon, one of the corps of experts who guide ships through the canal.

De Leon would seem to have little in common with American workers like Hilzinger, who have come to feel ill at ease in Panama. But the turmoil has led De Leon, like Hilzinger, to send his wife and children abroad--to Costa Rica, perhaps never to return.

“Anything can happen here,” De Leon said, in the dramatic style typical of Panamanians in crisis. “The country could become Communist. The Libyans could take over.”

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De Leon, 57, fought long and hard to get a job on the canal. His applications went unrewarded for many years until 1975. Then, at a time when the United States was under fire at the United Nations for barring Panamanians from canal jobs, he was hired as an apprentice pilot.

“I had the feeling that I was taken on for political reasons,” he said. “Newspapers published an account of how I got the job before anyone had even notified me.”

Unconscious Rejection

He faced resentment from his fellow workers and a certain unconscious rejection from ship captains on the canal.

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“Sometimes, when I would go aboard, someone would hand me laundry, thinking I was there for the dirty clothes,” he recalled.

The canal treaties, although a source of pride, have also meant insecurity for workers like De Leon. Signs of things to come have not been comforting. The cross-Panama railroad and ports, turned over to the government, have begun to deteriorate. On the railroad, brush fires have weakened wooden ties, but they have not been replaced. At the ports, piers have been left to rot.

“Without maintenance, the canal will fail,” De Leon said, echoing a common feeling among canaleros.

De Leon fears that workers will lose their privileged status. He notes that housing once reserved for American workers has been turned over not to canaleros but to government functionaries. Jitney service provided by the Americans for canal workers has not been continued by the Panamanian government.

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“The government has never helped the workers,” he said. “That is why so many of us oppose it.”

Stirrings for Strike

There have been stirrings among the canaleros for a strike against the Noriega government, but they have been warned off by American canal officials and by the Panamanian government. Earlier this year, canal administrator Richard McAuliffe warned canal workers that they could be fired if they walked off the job. Last month, the Panamanian police seized a canal worker in his home and accused him of planning sabotage.

Paralyzed by uncertainty, De Leon looks to the United States to resolve his country’s political crisis.

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“The United States is guilty for much of what is going on,” he said. “They have permitted our military to get strong. Now it is out of control.”

What should the United States do? Invade? Carry out a swift operation to whisk Noriega away? De Leon is silent.

The U.S. military has a long history at the canal. The military oversaw important construction projects at the waterway. U.S. troops--today numbering 11,300--have been stationed at bases along the canal that exist partly for defense, but also as a kind of Pentagon branch office to maintain contact and influence with Latin military establishments.

Last year, Gen. Fred F. Woerner, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, which is headquartered in the old Canal Zone, outlined the aims of the American presence. Among them, in addition to keeping in touch with Latin military personnel: keeping an eye on drug traffic and guerrilla movements and promoting “professional military institutions that support democratic development and respect human rights.”

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Measured against such aims, U.S. relations with the nearest Latin American army, Panama’s, have been a failure.

Woerner wrote that in Panama, “a democratic outcome is not possible as long as the Panama Defense Forces is the decisive element in national politics and as long as the civilian community suspects the institution has been corrupted. Our concerns have been conveyed to the Panamanian government.”

Gatun Locks

Last month’s helicopter exercise at the Gatun Locks lasted four hours. When it ended, the troops reboarded their aircraft and noisily departed. Concern had been conveyed, so to speak.

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Later, U.S. officials canceled a follow-up helicopter training assault on Ft. Amador at the Pacific end of the canal. The demonstration was planned to take place in sight of one of Noriega’s offices--a “message” to the general, according to a U.S. diplomat.

It was called off as the Reagan Administration backed away from a demand that Noriega leave Panama as a condition for settling the political crisis here. Noriega could stay if he shed his uniform.

The general, meanwhile, has not indicated that he will leave power soon, if ever.


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