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COLUMN ONE : An Uneasy Passage in Panama : New leader assures the world that his nation will be ready to take over the canal as deadline nears. But many residents see stability and profits leaving with U.S. troops.

June 06, 1994|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PANAMA CITY — You would think Jasmine Nelson, a Panamanian law student, would have more reasons than most people to want to see an end to 90 years of U.S. domination of her country.

After all, U.S. firepower destroyed her neighborhood during the 1989 invasion that ousted Gen. Manuel A. Noriega. She spent her formative years schooled in the anti-imperialist rhetoric of the 1980s. She believes that the Panama Canal ought to be run by Panamanians and that U.S. military installations that control her country's midsection are an affront to national sovereignty.

But she says she wants to be realistic.

"If the gringos go, there goes our economic stability," she says. "Without the dollar, we are nothing. We don't want the gringos to go."

For years, Panamanians dreamed of the day they would take charge of the canal and the acres of U.S.-controlled real estate attached to it. As the deadline for the hand-over inches closer, however, they are racked with doubts and fears about whether they are ready--and whether perhaps they are losing more than they are gaining.

The election last month of a president whose government will handle most of the transition has focused new attention on Panama's spotty preparations to receive the canal and the network of U.S. military bases built along it.

President-elect Ernesto Perez Balladares promises a smooth transfer at century's close. But his words have yet to calm the uncertainty, which in many ways highlights the longstanding ambivalence Panamanians have felt toward the United States and toward their own sense of national identity.

Created as a nation so the canal could be built, Panama faces daunting questions about whether it can operate the waterway efficiently and properly develop the accompanying 500 square miles of land. And the departure of U.S. troops attached to the Panama-based U.S. Southern Command will mean a huge loss of income and jobs.

Under 1977 treaties, the United States must hand over the canal and all property by Dec. 31, 1999; and all troops--which until last week numbered close to 10,000--must leave by that date.

Governments until now have done little to get Panama ready.

Although the date for concluding the transfer may seem far off, the prerequisite changes are monumental. Only recently has the pace of both the turnover and the preparations quickened: A government commission has finally drafted a plan for the canal's future operation, and an autonomous agency is entertaining development projects for the land that is coming under Panamanian control.

As the first contingent of U.S. troops began pulling out Friday, senior U.S. officers said they hope that the withdrawal of the 193rd Infantry Brigade will force Panamanians to overcome their doubts and realize that the United States is serious about leaving.

The issue of Panama's readiness weighs heavily on governments such as Japan, whose trade relies on transit through the canal, and on the multibillion-dollar shipping industry.

Yet for thousands of workers who depend on the canal and the military bases, there are much more basic questions about jobs and livelihoods. Panama is home to multiple generations of both Panamanians and Americans whose lives are intertwined with the canal, and the world they have known is ending.

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Beverly and Joe Wood are part of the dwindling community of Americans connected to the canal. Once called "Zonians," the Americans had numbered more than 4,000, but now there are fewer than 800. As the canal is transferred to Panamanian control, Americans are being phased out of the operation, and the Woods must leave their home next year.

Second-generation canal employees, the Woods had what they considered ideal lives, serving their country, serving the world and residing in paradise. They were born here and met, married and had children in the territory once known as the Panama Canal Zone--a strip of land around the waterway that was physically part of Panama but that administratively belonged to the United States.

It was a separate and privileged world of neat clapboard homes and manicured lawns lined with palm trees and orchids. The Zonians had their own schools, stores and hospitals--a last bastion of U.S. colonialism that is fading.

The Woods, in essence, must find a new country.

"The whites who were in South Africa, the British who were in India . . . they probably had similar feelings," Joe Wood said, seated on the couch in his home in Balboa, once a part of the Zone off limits to Panamanians without special permits. "Our home is gone. Our kids can't come back. It's a wonderful life that is coming to an end."

The Zone was a country within a country, comfortable and insular to the Zonians inside but bitterly resented by Panamanians on the outside, who saw it as an affront to self-rule and self-respect.

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