Scrawled in large blue letters on an overpass outside of Panama City is the slogan: ``El Canal Es Nuestro. Fuera Los Yanquis.'' (``The Canal Is Ours, Yankees Out.'') Even in the political turmoil of the past several weeks, there has been no dispute over the patriotic symbolism and importance of the Panama Canal. Both supporters and opponents of de facto leader Gen. Antonio Manuel Noriega take pride in the 1977 canal treaties, which provide that Panama will gradually take full control of the canal from the US by the year 2000.
For Panama, a country created as a transit zone, the treaties represent the focal point in its progess toward a more independent national identity.
``We are now prepared to take over the canal,'' says Diogenes de la Rosa, a longtime politician whose luminous, 83-year-old eyes have seen nearly all of modern Panamian history. Born just 84 days after Panama won its independence from Colombia in 1903 - and just months before workers started carving out the canal - he played a key role in the 1977 treaty negotiations.
Now Mr. de la Rosa says it's time for the Yankees to start packing.``The canal already has 80 percent Panamanian labor,'' he says. ``We have enough skills and experience to take over full control by 1990.''
But saying adios to any foreign power - especially the US - has proven difficult for Panama.
This sinuous land mass, stretching 400 miles east and west like a recumbent Incan god, has been used as a path to riches ever since conquistadors plundered Indian treasures here nearly 500 years ago. The US showed little interest in Panama until 1848, when the California Gold Rush lured thousands of adventurers across the slender isthmus. The continent's first coast-to-coast railroad began seven years later, giving Panama a bustling international commerce unique in Latin America.
The red, white, and blue flag dominated Panama's horizon even more after the canal's completion in 1914, when it became a strategic interest both as a passage for US warships and as a potential military target.
Since 1915, a small flag-covered hill here has marked the US's top military headquarters in Latin America. Today the US Southern Command, whose 9,800 servicemen carry out Pentagon policy for all Latin American countries south of Mexico, also faces eviction by the year 2000. In the treaties, there is no special clause protecting the base. And as part of the Southern Command's focus has shifted from protecting the canal to promoting the contra rebel effort in Nicaragua, Panamanians seem more anxious to have it leave the country.
``They've been intervening in our affairs for a long time,'' says Emelia Garc'ia, a resident in the downtrodden Santa Ana neighborhood, ``and now they want us to close our eyes as they conduct their war.''
The presence of the US military base has bred a certain dependency, says Alfredo Castillero, a history professor at the University of Panama. ``It makes it difficult for Panama to mature as a nation.''
Today the sense of the US presence in Panama City seems inescapable, even though US military families and 7,000 other ``Zonians'' who live in the canal zone are isolated from Panamanian society. The scores of skyrises in the downtown banking district make the 468-year-old city look like a modern Miami. Middle-class communities, with wide streets and manicured lawns, seem modeled after US suburbs. It's rare to find a member of the middle class who hasn't learned English or studied abroad.
US influence extends into the lower classes as well. In public schools, children learn an anti-US version of history while emulating the latest US fads and fashions.
Panamians see no contradiction between pursuing American ideals and wanting a diminished US presence.
Arcelio Moreno, a canal worker's son who lives in a small village, says: ``It's not that we dislike North Americans. It's just that we want to make our own decisions.''