Panama's political crisis, with its uncertainties and hardships, has prompted concern among the more than 1,100 Americans and their families who still live in the former Panama Canal Zone.
The artificially high quality of life the zone afforded Americans for more than 60 years before it was returned to Panama in 1979 has changed, and there are fears that Americans could be casualties of the political turmoil.About 1,300 American troops are to arrive this week to protect the 10,000 soldiers assigned to watch the Panama Canal and to guard American lives and property.
But that does not convince all the Americans in the zone that they are secure. "The (U.S.) Army is for the Army," said Ann Fahren, the wife of a Panama Canal ship pilot who has lived in Panama 10 years.
During the worst days of the recent crisis, she said, she was refused permission to shop at U.S. military-run grocery stores even after the military advised against going into the city to shop because of protests and riots.
"It burns me up," she said. "The Army should not have slammed its doors in our face."
When the Panama Canal Zone existed, it had its own police force, courts, clubs, schools, stores and even postage stamps. The 10-mile strip that ran the width of Panama was a self-contained, subsidized enclave whose residents could forget they were in Panama. Legally, they were not.
The zone was turned over to Panama in 1979 as part of the 1977 treaties that transfer control of the canal to Panama at the end of this century.
The zone is now feeling the problems of one of the region's more unstable countries. Since June, Panama has been rocked by sometimes-violent protests as opposition groups pushed for the ouster of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.
Noriega, as head of the 15,000-member Panamanian Defense Forces, is the power behind the civilian government. He is under indictment in the United States on federal drug trafficking charges.
Panama's banks have been closed since March 3, creating a critical cash shortage. The United States has frozen Panamanian money held in U.S. banks and imposed other economic sanctions.
The unguarded entrance to the canal zone is across a boulevard from one of Panama City's toughest neighborhoods, which is filled with old barracks used in some cases to house workers who built the canal for the United States from 1904 to 1914.
Street gangs occasionally enter the area, something unheard of in the old days.
"It's the lull before the storm," said Fahren. "We used to go out to the beach, everywhere. Now you don't even see people out on the streets."
Some residents are third-generation Zonians, as long-term residents are known, but they are getting fewer in number and some zone residents talk now of sending families back to the United States.
"I have a daughter who will go to Florida State University this fall," said Jim Kaufman, deputy branch agent for the Panama Canal Pilots Association, the organization of pilots who guide ships through the canal.
"She is scheduled to come back but I may not bring her back," said Kaufman, who has lived in Panama 20 years.