Headlines - Los Angeles Times - "Americans still finding Panama a tropical comfort zone"

Americans still finding Panama a tropical comfort zone

By Carol J. Williams
Los Angeles Times

PANAMA CITY, Panama — Residents like to joke that this city of high-rise condos and ocean promenades is a lot like Miami or Los Angeles except that more English is spoken here.

Four years after the last U.S. troops pulled out and Panamanians gained control of the canal that is their most important national asset, the Yankee footprint here remains deep and surprisingly welcome.

Although anti-Americanism is on the rise in much of Latin America, Panamanians heartily embrace their onetime occupiers' values and symbols, from language to music and fashion — and the almighty dollar.

"The motto here today is 'Gringo come back,' " said Tomas Cabal, a TV commentator and English professor. "Panamanians would like to see American troops come back and build a base on the Colombian border."

Panama has had no army of its own for the past dozen years. The Panama Defense Forces were disbanded three years after a 1989 U.S. invasion ousted the last military strongman, Gen. Manuel Noriega, in an exercise of regime change for which Panamanians, by and large, remain gushingly grateful.

"George Bush is a great leader! He got rid of the Pineapple (a Noriega nickname), and now he's gotten rid of Saddam Hussein," cabdriver Manuel Garcia said, lumping together the father-and-son presidencies as if they were one.

The U.S. military action in Iraq is a point of political tension between Washington and many countries in Latin America, from staunch allies such as Mexico and Chile to historically adversarial Cuba. Panamanians, however, keep their eyes on the bottom line more than the front lines, Cabal said.

The country's best and brightest benefited from generous scholarship programs that sent thousands of Panamanians to U.S. universities. Most of today's business and political leaders, including President-elect Martin Torrijos and canal administrator Alberto Aleman Zubieta, picked up American habits as well as degrees, forging lifelong affinities for U.S. baseball teams, Fourth of July barbecues and fast food.

A love-hate relationship existed over the decades after the canal opened in 1914, with Panamanians resentful of U.S. control of the waterway and the 12-mile-wide Canal Zone that was fenced off from the rest of their country. On the other hand, the U.S.-built waterway lifted the country from banana republic to global trade and maritime player. When the canal reverted to Panama on Dec. 31, 1999, the only real thorn in the relationship fell away.

Much of the persistent good feeling is the result of the high levels of intermarriage and dual citizenship during the long U.S. occupation of the Canal Zone. More than 10,000 U.S. troops and civilian contractors lived in the zone until the waterway was handed over to Panama, and even children born to two U.S. citizens retained the right to Panamanian citizenship after the troops' withdrawal. Hundreds of "Zonians" have stayed here, strengthening the bonds between the two nations.

"I'm a Panamanian as much as an American. I was born here and spent my whole life here," said Llori Gibson, a 47-year-old artist whose parents were U.S. canal workers. Married to another Zonian, she keeps a foot in both countries, visiting family members in the United States while working in Panama with indigenous groups to preserve their culture and market their crafts.

Because of the untold thousands of dual citizens such as Gibson, official statistics showing that about 10 percent of the population consists of foreigners probably fail to fully reflect the proportion of Americans in this cosmopolitan country that is also home to tens of thousands of people from Asia, Europe and other parts of Latin America.

Underpinning the U.S.-Panama bond is economics. The United States is the largest user of the canal, Panama's most important trade partner and de facto central banker and monetary-policy controller.

"Why is our currency the U.S. dollar? Because we were visionaries," said Romel Adames, vice minister for commerce and industry. Using the greenback saves Panama the expense of maintaining a national mint and, more important, shields the economy from inflation and manipulation of the money supply, he noted.

"There's no sovereignty issue here," Adames insisted.

Tourism tracts boast of the strong new presence of U.S. retirees, who have been drawn to Panama by its low taxes, affordable housing, tropical climate and contemporary, bilingual entertainment.

"There's a lot of shared history here, a lot of cultural affinity. The long U.S. presence here affects the way people do business, the way things are viewed," said David Hunt, the retired Air Force colonel who closed up the U.S. canal shop four years ago, then jumped at an offer to run the Panamanian-American Chamber of Commerce.

Although he detects among Panamanian movers and shakers a slight increase in self-confidence and pride for having finally achieved full control over their national affairs, Hunt said he has seen none of the resentment that U.S. citizens encounter almost everywhere else south of the border.

"It's all very subtle and very polite," he said. "There's a self-awareness in the post-U.S. age that I think is a good and natural evolution."