Yankee, Come Back

By Scott WilsonSeptember 28, 2002

The homes, with their wide verandas, screened porches and peaked roofs, sit mostly empty now in Quarry Heights, the imposing hillside neighborhood where the head of the U.S. Southern Command and the governor of the Panama Canal Zone once lived.

On the flatlands below, Howard Air Force Base is empty. Jungle has crept a few feet closer to the base movie theater, now a dark, palm-framed shell. Row after row of apartment buildings, community centers, bowling alleys and baseball diamonds languish in the tropical dampness. Signs along streets urge commuters to "pick up a teammate," but there is no traffic on the roads.

The whiff of imperial America still hangs heavy over the Panama Canal Zone, the 360,240-acre strip that split the country from ocean to ocean and marked it as a quasi-U.S. colony for almost a century. The only thing missing from these neighborhoods -- resembling nothing so much as a movie-studio back lot awaiting an epic Hollywood production -- are the Americans, who pulled up stakes almost three years ago in a bittersweet departure.

Now a growing group of Panamanians wants to change that. Motivated by a sagging economy and nostalgia for the security that the U.S. bases offered, a coalition of rich and poor citizens has begun appealing to Washington to send back thousands of troops and civilians at a time when much of the world is suspicious of America's foreign ambitions.

The movement is being organized by a group of wealthy business leaders, who recently hired a blue-chip lobbying firm to carry the invitation to the State Department and Capitol Hill. But it has yet to receive the blessing of Panama's government, and U.S. officials have made clear that the idea is wishful thinking.

"We've been clear with the Panamanians that there is zero chance of the United States returning with bases or anything like that," said a U.S. official here.

That has not discouraged the Panamanian group. They say they represent a majority of Panama's 2.8 million people and have only begun their campaign to change minds here and in Washington. Octavio Vallarino, a successful downtown developer and leader of the new Foundation for the Future of Panama, whose agenda is to bring America back, said, "It seems like the two governments want to dance, so we're trying to get them to."

"The thing is that no one wanted the United States to leave," he added. "You pumped money into the economy. You kept us secure. We felt good with you here."

The unofficial invitation is being extended as Panama prepares for a civic celebration of its centennial next year. A flurry of books, university forums and newspaper columns is preceding the anniversary of Panama's independence from Colombia, and much of the discussion involves interpreting the central role that the United States has played in the country's political life since then.

After construction of the Panama Canal began in 1903, the United States controlled roughly 10 percent of the national territory, maintaining 40,000 U.S. troops and civilians here. The zone -- a five-mile-wide buffer running along both sides of the 51-mile-long canal -- was administered by a U.S.-appointed governor, usually a retired four-star general. The U.S. Southern Command operated a number of military bases in the zone.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed the Panama Canal Treaties with Gen. Omar Torrijos -- a nationalist, an anti-communist and a U.S. ally -- and set in motion a 22-year process that eventually left $4.5 billion worth of property in Panamanian hands. The inventory included 3,800 homes, 42 baseball diamonds, 11 schools, 10 gas stations, three airports, two hospitals and four bowling alleys. It also included the canal itself, much to the chagrin of conservatives in Washington who argued that it had cost the United States $350 million and thousands of lives to build.

In 1989, U.S. troops landed in Panama to depose the military dictator, Manuel Noriega. The invasion left 400 people dead, according to U.S. estimates, but many Panamanians said the country has benefited from the years of economic growth and increased social spending that followed. But the invasion disrupted the transfer preparations, partly by eliminating the Panamanian military that was in line to get much of the land.

"The mid-1980s was when the transfer was really supposed to be hashed out," said David Hunt, a retired Air Force colonel who served as director of the Center for Treaty Implementation and now heads the American Chamber of Commerce here. "Instead, you end up with Noriega, hostility between the governments and then all-out war. So we essentially started the whole process over again in 1992, and it was very rushed."

Up until the moment on Dec. 31, 1999, when the United States officially handed over the canal, even the Americans living in the former zone were not convinced it would happen.

Chants of "Gringos, go home!" accompanied the departure, and President Mireya Moscoso proudly declared that "there will be no more fences and no more signs blocking our entrance. At last, Panama has reached sovereignty." A last-minute agreement that would have kept a smaller contingent of U.S. troops at Howard Air Force Base as part of an anti-drug operations center foundered.

The departure removed an estimated $350 million from Panama's economy, a small fraction of its $10 billion gross national product but an amount that was immediately felt by Panama's poor who worked on, or in support of, the bases. Coinciding with a regional economic downturn, the U.S. departure has been difficult for many Panamanians to overcome.

David Heres, the former governor of Colon province, is one of many Panamanians who said Panama's economic slump began the moment the United States turned over the keys. His brother owns a factory that sold 1,000 mattresses a month to U.S. military bases. Since the turnover, sales have fallen 70 percent and the banks have stopped lending him money.

"That's just him," Heres said. "Imagine the number of people who sold milk, food and other products to the bases and what they have lost."

The wood-plank headquarters of the Union of Armed Forces Employees, Local 907, has a weedy front yard and a handful of broken windows opening into an unlit ground floor. Up a narrow flight of stairs, Mario Archer's view is not much brighter.

Once the leader of a 10,000-member union, Archer now oversees a local that exists only on paper. He said fewer than 1 percent of his former members, who cooked, cleaned and mowed lawns on the bases for wages averaging $10 an hour, have managed to find new jobs -- and none that pay that much. Those jobs, he said, "vanished overnight."

"The United States has always been on the side of the poor," Archer said. "Only a small group is against their return. Ninety-eight percent -- I'll bet it -- want the gringos back."

The economic hardships are magnified by the sight of prime real estate fading in the tropical weather. Hunt estimates that less than half of the former U.S. property has been leased, sold or otherwise used, and every day that passes means more renovation work once it finally is occupied. Meanwhile, Panama is paying $50 million a year just to keep the grass mowed while it shops the property around.

A consortium of U.S. companies passed on leasing Howard Air Force Base as a Latin American hub a few years ago. So did DHL Worldwide Express Inc. But one of the few bright spots sits near the canal's Miraflores Locks on what was Fort Clayton, a U.S. Army post. Called the City of Knowledge, it is a collection of fledgling high-tech companies and university extension programs benefiting from ready-made offices and low rent.

Nils Petterson, whose previous company laid much of Panama's fiber-optic network, has started a firm called Altec in a building once used by the U.S. Army for signals-intelligence gathering. The company provides data storage for firms looking for a remote location for a backup server, a field that had its profile raised by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. Petterson's neighbors include Cisco Academy, a Microsoft training center and a host of communications and software start-ups. But, Petterson said, this is the exception, not the rule.

Signs of a renewed fondness for the United States have appeared in recent months. In the waning days of the canal transfer, the United States canceled a goodwill program called New Horizons that brought thousands of reservists and National Guard troops to rural Panama public-works projects. It is going to be restarted in January, with the arrival of the first group of 3,500 Marine reserves and National Guard troops. They will build schools, roads, houses and wells. Not a single protest followed the announcement earlier this year of the program's return.