COMBAT IN PANAMA : Panama a Longtime Secure Home for Many Americans : Expatriates: Military and civilian workers greatly outnumber colorful and well-known canal employees and their families.


Unlike Lebanon or Iran or many of the other foreign places where American citizens have been caught in dangerous cross-fire, Panama is a land many Americans have long called home.

A good number of them are part of the Panamanian landscape in one way or another, making it all that much harder for American forces to protect them during the U.S. invasion.

Most American residents once found living in Panama much like living in a peaceful American company town--and in this case, the big company that ran everything was the U.S. government. But that changed drastically for many Americans during the last five years and, even with the ouster of Panamanian dictator Manuel A. Noriega, may never be the same.


About 35,000 Americans usually live in Panama. Most of them, about 25,000 to 27,000, are military service personnel or Department of Defense employees and their dependents. Another 4,500 to 6,500 are private Americans working in businesses or married to Panamanians or holding both Panamanian and American passports.

The smallest group--3,500 Panama Canal workers and their families--are probably the most colorful and, as a result of the peculiar history of Panama, probably the best-known. The canal workers--known for many years as Zonians--once lived much like colonials, isolated from most Panamanians except those who also worked on the canal.

The Americans tended to resent the American journalists who would travel to Panama and write articles about the contrast between “the manicured lawns” of the Zonian homes and the Panamanian slums just a few blocks away.

“Our lawns are not manicured,” an irate Zonian once declared to a reporter, insisting that the tropical grass was too lush to be kept very short.

He was probably right, but the contrast was still enormous.

The Canal Zone, a strip of land 10 miles wide, was treated as if it were sovereign territory of the United States. The Zonians had their own shops (with prices no higher than prices in New Orleans), post office (selling U.S. Canal Zone stamps prized by collectors), schools, police, courts, hospital, movie theater and American Legion post. The Panama Canal Co. even sold its own brand of wooden matches so canal workers would not have to buy inferior Panamanian matches.

And--in one of the most embarrassing reflections of Americana--the Canal Zone for all practical purposes operated a segregated system, housing and schooling Americans, mostly white, separately from the black West Indians who did most of the menial work on the canal.

Zonian life was doomed with ratification in 1978 of the agreement to turn the canal over to Panama. Panama assumed jurisdiction of the old Canal Zone Oct. 1, 1979, and the Zonians soon found their courts, police, post office and shops gone. They were even forbidden to use the American military commissaries to buy food and supplies unless they were retired military personnel or married to military employees.

To placate frustrations over dealing with the Panamanian post office, they were eventually allowed to use either the American military post office or the U.S. Embassy diplomatic pouch. But this amounted to no more than a sop to Americans used to far more privilege.

A crisis came two years ago, when the United States first tried to pressure Noriega into quitting. Americans had always been fearful of dealing with Panamanian police on what once seemed like American streets. Suddenly these police, members of the Panama Defense Forces, were really the enemy.

“The Panamanian Defense Forces had the authority to protect our people,” said Michael Rhode Jr., Washington secretary of the Panama Canal Commission, “and they were led by the very guy our government was trying to get.”

The former Zonians were subject to continual harassment, an ugly fact of life that persuaded a number of canal workers to take advantage of an early retirement program and quit. The numbers of Americans employed by the canal dropped from 2,700 in 1979 to 960 last month.

In addition, under terms of the treaty, the Panama Canal Commission is supposed to try to fill all posts by Panamanians by the end of the century. “And we are just about on target to do that,” Rhode said.

Most of the American military and Pentagon families live on the self-contained American bases in Panama and are more easily protected than other American families. But because of a shortage of base housing, a number of military and Pentagon families have off-base homes, mainly in Panama City. In fact, in the years before the troubles with Noriega, soldiers were encouraged to live off base as a way of learning more about Panama.

The private Americans, many longtime residents of Panama, are the U.S. nationals most integrated into Panamanian society and therefore most difficult to protect. Panama has long been a haven for American business and investment. Its use of the American dollar as its currency has served as both an attraction and a symbol of economic stability.