Doug Schmidt was so upset about the Panama Canal treaties that late one Friday night last year he decided to call President Carter about it.
"I had just had it," he says, "with all the uncertainties and the cloak-and-dagger operations. And besides, Carter had said that he'd be available to the man on the street. I mean, I don't make a habit of calling Presidents."
So Doug Schmidt, 41-year-old second-generation Zonian, placed a call to Jimmy Carter at the White House.
He told them it was very important for him to talk to the president. The operator told him the president had gone to Plains for the weekend. He asked to leave a message and was told they didn't take messages. She told him all the offices were closed.
"I said, 'you mean the US of A is closed for the weekend?'" says Schmidt, still incredulous.
He then tried to call Plains, Ga. "The operator was real nice. She said 'I don't think you'll get Jimmy but would you like to talk to Billy?'"
There was no answer at Billy's and finally he gave up. "It was getting too expensive," he says.
But Doug Schmidt has been depressed about it ever since.
"I have never felt so absolutely removed, so completely in solitary confinement in my life. I felt totally incommunicado from my own country."
One thing you have to say about Otilia Arosemena. She doesn't hesitate to say what she thinks.
Ask her, for instance, why her leader, Omar Torrijos, is supporting the Canal treaties.
"I am not an expert in psychology," she says vebemently stabbing her cigarette at the air. "I cannot tell you how crazy people are. They do anything now. With no rhyme or reason."
Otilia Arosemena, 72, Panamanian feminist, author, moderate-left agitator, is against the treaties.
And she is enraged.
"The treaties are good for the U.S.," she says matter-of-factly. "They are getting rid of something not functioning anymore. By (the year) 2000 the canal will be functionless.
"I voted no."
But that's not the only reason. "The Americans will have the control forever because they can intervene in any way without letting us know, if they fell the canal is in danger. The U.S. is getting everything and we are getting hardly anything. We call this treaty 'the treaty that gives without getting.'"
"The popular belief is that we cannot run the canal. There is a blackout every day in Panama City, so our efficiency is a joke. But I do believe the Panamanians can be trained."
Otilia Arosemena's idea was to let the U.S. keep the canal, but make them pay high rentals for the military bases.
Ahahhhhh, but that would have been much too clever . . . The emphasis has been on the canal not the bases. We have been so patriotic that we have been stupid," she says. 'Canal Zone Brats'
"I'd really like to tell you my feelings," says Doug Schmidt. "I'll probably ramble a lot though. It's such an emotional issue."
Schmidt is a tall, dark-haired, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] -skinner, good-looking man. In fact he flinches when asked if he is Panamanian. He has enormous sad eagle eyes and a beguiling grin. He seems & nice man too, a gentle person, and he is deeply wounded.
He sits in the conference room of the Administration Building, dressed neatly in a coat and tie. Throughout the interview he unconsciously swings his foot back and forth in agitation.
Schmidt is a Canal Zone brat," born and raised in the Zone, attended the Canal Zone Jr. College, then studied in Florida to become a flight instructor. But like most Zonian children he was drawn back to his homeland and his unique way of life. For the last 16 years he has worked his way up from a manual grade employe to the Administration Building. Today he is the administrative officer of the Marine Bureau which he says, proudly, "is the real heart of what the Canal is."
His wife is also a "Zone brat" and works a few doors down the hall from him in the building.
For the next hour or so Doug Schmidt poured out his anguish over the prospect of the treaties being ratified.
"I'm in a quandary," he says, "a dilemma about what to do with my life."
This whole thing is like a dripping water torture that the State Department has dropped on us and it's spilled over to our family life, everyone's family life. I'm very bitter. There's a lot of alcoholism. There's a mental instability. There's tardiness. People are getting sick and don't know what's wrong with them. They feel edgy, ill, don't want to go to work. There are a lot more divorces directly related to the treaty pressures.
"Some of my friends have bitten the bullet and left. The rest," he says, are doing our jobs and now we're asked to teach others how to do it. It's like having a man standing over you with a rifle making you dig your own grave." Treaties to Fight
To describe Otilia Arosemena one might say that she is a cross between a Lillian Hellman and a Bella Abzug. The leading feminist in Panama, she is also one of the leading intellectuals and writers and was the first female dean of the faculty at the University of Panama. She is the only Latin American woman elected to the board of UNESCO, and she is a member of the Inter-American Commission on Women at the OAS.
Otilia Arosemena has tanned, Leathery skin, a lot of well-earned crinkles, piercing eyes that can turn beady with mischief, or cloudy with rage. She is a passionate woman; one would not want to be her enemy.
She sits at a table at one of Panama City's better restaurants and talks loudly, in a rasping voice, regardless of who might listen. In the midst of one of her anti-government tirades, in fact, Rory Gonzalez, Torrijos' best friend, wanders in for lunch and she smiles and waves as though he were a great buddy, then goes back to denouncing him and his leader.
She is the illegitimate daughter of a middle-class Panamanian woman and a man from one of the best families in Panama, and she is proud of the fact that her father's family has had more people elected president than any family in Panama. "Elected," she says wryly, "is the key."
She is open about her illegitimacy. As she explains, "70 percent of all children born in Panama are born out of wedlock. Women are most often heads of families. It is not unusual for one woman to have five children by five different men. Panamanian men," she says, "are very, very irresponsible."
She worked her way through high school, then got the first scholarship awarded to a Panamanian woman to Columbia University where she graduated.
Returning to Panama to set up a new educational system, she found herself in the midst of the women's suffrage movement, picked up the banner, fought vigilantly for the cause and played a major part in getting the vote for women in 1945.
One of the reasons that Otilia Arosemena is so controversial is that she does and says exactly what she pleases, rare for a woman in a Latin country. She is iconoclastic, intelligent, shrewd, witty, often outrageous and very, very tough.
In between all this she managed to marry a man who became the vice minister of agriculture and remained so for 20 years. They had two children: the daughter a dancer, the son a doctor. "My husband," she says, "leaves me alone." He has never stopped her from her activities, and she isn't finished yet.
She still has the treaties to fight, another plebiscite to push, the Torri-jobs government to oppose.
She hasn't slowed down a bit, and she hasn't stopped making enemies and she loves every minute of it.
"This is a small place," she says. "We all know each other. Of course some people don't like me. But that," she grins, "is no trouble for me." Fear of Moving
Doug Schmidt has worked his way up in the Zone, professionally and socially. And since his parents were Zonians he has the added status of having roots, a major element in Canal Zone life. To leave is to sever his heritage.
"Myself," he says, "I had aspired some day to be Marine Director of the Panama Canal, which holds prestige as well as a higher salary. Nobody here aspires to be millionaires. We aspire to get as high in 'The company' as we can.
"But now we're mentally geared to make the move back to the States. Even though the U.S. is where we want to go we do feel some void, not growing up there -- from football games to a mortgage on a house. We're very frightened about the move. It's such a big thing to do, to purchase a house.All these things are scary to us. Things that are normal to others."
By now Doug Schmidt has worked himself up to a feverish pitch. "I can't sleep beyond 3 in the morning," he says. "I take sleeping pills. When I wake up at 3 my mind is racing. What can I do? I did everything I possibly could to make our feelings known." It's a complete giveaway".
He stops talking for a moment and his big dark eyes well up for a moment. "Do you know that my little daughter came to me the other day. She asked me, 'Daddy, is it true that the Panamanians are going to take over the canalz' I have tried to explain it the most middle-of-the-road way. To not let her hate the Panamanians. I have tried to tell her that the young Panamanians have a pride in their country just like she had a pride in hers." He sighs. "But it's hard." Gallows Humor
Now Otilia Arosemena is almost raging. At times feisty and then resigned, scornful then funny, hopeful, then pessimistic.
"We never dreamt of having a dictatorship in Panama, she says. "So it happened. The rich educated people didn't pay attention. So little by little we lost everything. Now we have no freedom of information."
"The way we talk now," she says, "we look at people and if they are very close and reliable we speak. If not we just speak about the weather. In Panama people are afraid, people are killed, exiled, tortured, beaten up. That they are killed is not easy to prove -- there have been only a couple of dozen. But 300 have been exiled and many have been put in jail and released. I speak openly myself. But they get people to call us up and insult us."
Arosemena herself says she is not all that scared, really, for her safety. "Oh," she says dismissing the idea. "They wouldn't put me in jail. Too many people would scream."
She believes strongly, however, that "there will be immediate political per-secution after the treaties are ratified. We even have our jokes about it. We say that there will be so many of us to exile they won't have enough planes, and widows and single women joke about how they hope all the independent lawyers and anti-government people will be there with them without their wives." She gets a good chuckle out of this one, relishing the gallows humor for a moment.
Her catalogue of outrages by the government continues as she talks about the plebiscite in Panama on the treaties. "Look. Let me tell you something. We know that nearly 12,000 of the 'no' votes counted on the plebiscite were annulled because voters insulted Torrijos on the ballots," she claims. "And for them to claim there was a 90 percent turnout. Ha! I was president of a booth. I stayed there from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. We worked up to 10 a.m. Then after that we had nothing to do. The streets were empty. Almost nobody voted. They have never published the results by booth. That's because they stuffed the ballots."
"The cream of the intellectuals is against Torrijos. Only the undereducated, the illiterates, the mediocrity, are for him. The peasants are being indoctrinated into communism.
"But Torrijos doesn't care. He cannot have a bad night. Because his skin is coarser than a rhinoceros.
"Nothing," she says finally, "that Torrijos government has done has worked. Since he has been in power it has been like, how do you say, 'a tropical bureaucracy?'"
Could she mean "banana republic?"
"That's it," she says with a throaty laugh. "A banana republic." Fatcats & a Dirty Word
The one thing that upsets Doug Schmidt and his friends more than anything else is the image that has been created of them in the United States.
"We're so sick of hearing about manicured lawns and servants and people taking pictures of the Panmanian shanties instead of the rich Panamanians in their fancy houses with their servants. We're not living like fatcats. We've got constant inconveniences. The commissary is expensive. The cookies have weevils in them."
And too, he says, "We resent being called 'Zonians.' We used to be proud of it but now it's a dirty word. It used in any sense of the word, who can't and dedicated to their job. A certain middle-class person, not a stumble bum or a millionaire but a good solid person, dependable. Now it means a redneck, a person who's not objective in any sense of the word. who can't accept change, like somebody from the deep south. We end up apologizing for our clean yards. I cut my own grass. So do my neighbors. The Company felt it had a certain image to uphold. so we have to apologize for it."
He looks up from his monologue, his eyes flaming with fury.
"And," he says, "It burns me up." 'The Clowns Have Died'
"We are all just waiting now," Otilia Arosemena says with an air of resigned frustration. 'We want the treaties to be over. We want them to be over to see what happens. After the treaties we won't have a scapecoat anymore. Our government will have to come up with something else to keep the circus going. You know that at Carnival this year the government gave the people three days holiday plus the weekend. That has never happened. It's usually one day. But they did it because everyone was so depressed about the treaties that they wanted to make the people happy. But all the clowns have died and everyone else is sick. It's like having a disease where you don't die. You just suffer every day. But I am old. I cannot leave."
She stubs out her cigarette in the ashtray, long after the flame is gone, then looks up. And in a voice grown husky with too many cigarettes and too many years, she says, "My dear. For you this is just a story. For me it is my life."