Some people call Nicky Barletta a dreamer. Others say he is the future of Panama.

He may be both, but more important, for the moment, he is third in Omar Torrijos' ruling triumvirate with President Jimmy Lakes and Colonel Manuel Noriega. The three make up Panama's separation of powers, its checks and balances.

It is Nicky Barletta who is trooped out for every visiting representative, senator, U.S. administration official, journalist. It is Barletta who is trying, singlehandedly, to create an image for Panama as a young, forward-thinking, growing country. It is Barletta who is American educated (a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in economics), speaks fluent English, is articulate, intelligent, clever and optimistic about Panama.

It is also Barletta who is admired by almost all Panamanians, who is tall, dark, handsome, suave, a movie idol type. Young Panamanian women swoon over him as much as American economists do.

"That has become a problem for me," he says, flushing slightly with embarrassment.

A problem in more ways than one. For Barletta represents everything that Noriega, head of the National Guard is not. Noriega reportedly calls him "a pretty boy." And resents the fact that Barletta is paraded about while he is kept in the background. And there is friction between Barletta's idea of what Panama should be and Noriega's. Torrijos has cleverly kept the three powerful men at odds so that at no time does one have an alliance. And he likes Barletta because Barletta makes him look good. Barletta makes Panama look good. Even his optimism, which people tease him about, is a plus.

Sitting in his office talking to him, being taken on a guided tour of the old part of Panama, listening to him speak rapturously of the possibilities, the potentialities of his country, one almost can believe that one day Panama will be one of the greatest countries on earth.

"I know I'm idealistic," he says. "But you have to have a mixture of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Life is both."

"You have to keep your mind on the stars and your feet on the ground if you're going to be a complete human being."

Nicky Barletta has no major goal.

"What we are seeing today," he says, his voice full of enthusiasm, "is Panama ready to take hold of her destiny. Panama has a piece of geography that is important to almost every country in the world. If we could use this location to help develop and grow, to make this a viable, vibrant, working, dynamic small society because of her geography, because of the canal, it could be our claim to universality." Pride and Outrage

It is hot in the Bouches' little apartment in the old wooden French-style building in the Canal Zone. They prefer to sit downstairs in the public rooms of the building where there is a large old-fashioned ceiling fan which circulates the sultry tropical air.

Each chooses a rocking chair and they launch with relish into their views of where things went wrong with the Panama Canal Zone since they came here in the early 1900s.

Adrien Bouche is 80; his wife, Marguerite, is 78. His father came down to the Canal Zone in 1907 "during the first depression, you don't remember that, do you?" He came to take an engineering job. "There were inducements to come down here then," Bouche says. "Free coal and wood and free housing."

Her father came in 1908 and the two of them knew each other as children before they were married in 1919 Adrien Bouche went to work as an office boy at the Gatun locks when he was 11 years old, in 1909.

He made $88.88 a month.

"Everything," says Marguerite Bouche, "was mud, mud, mud. I remember there was a little Chinese store and we'd go say, 'Cholly give me 5 cents-worth candy?' There was no telegraph, no water, no electricity."

"They used to butcher cows on the side of the road and sell the meat to passersby," says Adrien Bouche. "It was gruesome."

"We used to watch them fill in the swamp when we were kids," she says. "We collected the most beautiful shells that were dug up for the canal. We took some of them to the Smithsonian."

They speak with proprietary pride of those days. And the pride turns to outrage when they think of the treaties about to ratified.

"Get this straight," says Adrien Bouche, waving a gnarled finger, "we do not pay a lease on this place. The railroad company acquired this land. And we bought it from the French, and took over the railroad. Until 1914 it was called the Panama Railroad Company. It was an entity unto itself. Then they merged and called it the Panama Canal Company."

"We are totally against the treaties," says Bouche indignantly. "We're giving away something and paying them to take it. It's absolutely 'Alice in Wonderland.' I don't get it."

"The Panamanians don't want the treaty," she says. "They think their government is loco."

"I worked on the construction of the canal for two years," he says, "in order to get my service medal. Anybody who came here after the construction was a newcomer. So I know what I'm talking about. These Panamanians are not interested in anything that has work connected with it."

He shakes his head, his wife sighs and they both rock silently for a moment, plainly disgusted.

"Well, I'll tell you this much," says Bouche finally. "If they ever turn the canal over to the Panamanians they'll beat the hell out of it. They'll ruin in. They'll spoil it. They can't take care of anything." Creating a Priority Issue

"I never thought," says Nick Barletta, "that we would get the Panama Canal tomorrow. We had to adapt to a middle of the road, workable solution. But I have felt for many years that this is a crucial issue. Getting the canal meant putting together our identity as a people. Consolidating our development potential. Now we live in a very special time and Panama is consolidating things. Many people just don't see them."

The words flow, the thoughts pour from Barletta in a calm and reasoned manner. The only emotions he shows are enthusiasm, optimism.

"We are always aware," he says, "that the 1903 treaty was unfair to us, that it was signed by some Frenchman in turmoil, in a speedy fashion and we were faced with a fait accompli. And yet the Panamanians have always been friendly with Americans. But I don't think the U.S. ever was really aware of Panama. We were 74th on the U.S. priority totem pole. We wanted to make the canal a priority issue."

"The U.S.," says Barletta, "is getting out when it needs to get out. And it's not at all out of my mind that the Panamanians may not be able to run the canal efficiently. There are 2,000 jobs being held by Americans and I would guess that no more than 200 are really crucial. There is no doubt in my mind that today we could find Panamanians to fill those jobs. We would just have to take them out of other jobs. But there is a great certainty that between now and the year 2000 we can produce 2,000 Panamanians to do the rest." Segregated Payrolls

Racism in the Canal Zone was blatant and taken for granted by many whites who built and ran the Panama Canal.

Much remains.

In the Zone, several people make a point of telling how the term "spic" was coined.

It seems that in the early days the Panamanians who wouldn't speak English did learn to say "No speaka de English." The Zonians began to call them the "spiggoties," and eventually shortened it to the pejorative term.

This and other terms such as "little brown brothers," still seem to be second nature to many older Zone residents although the Bouches use the term unthinkingly rather than maliciously.

Now retired, the Bouches run the extensive Alcoholics Anonymous program in the Zone and live in a free apartment in the building.

And they have plenty of time to reminisce and talk politics.

"Years ago," says Marguerite Bouche," we didn't have automobiles. There were no roads across the Isthmus. So we had to go by motorcycle. And the commissaries were so much better. For one thing, the colored and the whites had their own separate commissaries. It was called the gold and silver."

(In the early days the gold roll was the payroll for the Americans because they were paid in gold coins, the silver roll was the payroll of the non-Americans, the Panamanians and the West Indians, as they were paid in silver. From then on everything segregated was called "gold" and "silver".)

"The colored," continues Mrs. Bouche, "were happy as a clam at high tide. They were so nice and happy and willing to work. Now they steal everything."

"Oh, yes," she continues, "those were the days. We used to have dances and Halloween parties."

"Then we were a real community," says Adrien Bouche. "Now we're scattered from hell and gone."

"That's right," says Mrs. Bouche. "In those days people in the Zone stuck together. Now they're not as close."

She firmly believes there is only one reason for the disintegration of Zone society.

"Air conditioning," she says, her lips tightening in disgust. "It was that darned old air conditioning that everyone made such a squawk over. We used to have lots of screened-in windows and big fans. Now everybody shuts themselves off in their air-conditioned house and you never see them. Well, not us. You can believe that."

"In those days," says Bouche, shaking his head in agreement, "people were calm and serene. Now it's helterskelter, dog-eat-dog. Now instead of coffee breaks people here in the Zone are taking highballs. In the old days you had to know your business or you didn't last. Now you got hippies, mop heads, drug addicts." Banks and Buildings

Nick Barletta is only too aware of the Zonian mentality, particularly that of the older people. "This is typical of a colonist mentality," he says. "I think the biggest mistake of 1903 was to set up an apartheid situation. You know that when they had the gold and silver rolls, the silver was for all foreigners, not just the black West Indians. I knew a Swede once who was on the silver roll. He was so outraged he quit and went to work in the Interior.

"There are many Americans who live and work in Panama," says Barletta. "There may be things they don't like but they're used to us, they know us, they're not scared of us. Yet the same Americans a few blocks away feel and act totally differently. That's colonialism. And it has had a profound effect on Panama and on America. In many ways because of this Panamanians have felt that they must feel and act like Americans, with equal houses and jobs. We want to change all that."

Barletta insists that it is not what one reads in the daily paper that counts. "You have to see things in perspective."

"People will tell you what you've heard. About our dictatorship, about the injustice, this was done to that person and so on. And the Zonians will talk about their little brown brothers and how we can't possibly run the canal. But that's not what's going on. Look around you. Look at all the international banks and there are more coming each day. Look at all the construction, the building. It's pretty good architecture. Look at the Indians and their creative spirit. Look at the schools we are building and the cooperative farms, the arts and the culture, the renovation . . . and after the treaties are ratified it will all accelerate." Nick Barletta likes to see symbols.

Barletta says he likes to find "historical meaning in things." And for this reason he most admired Henry Kissinger as a "wonderful mind, a brilliant guy." In a sense he sees his role in Panama a little as that of a Kissinger.

"Take these treaties, for instance," he says. "Because of 3,000 or 4,000 people we cannot wreck an issue. But we do have to have human sympathy, to help them out, to show them things will be all right, but we have to see the historical significance."

For all of Nick Barletta's dreaming he has paid the price. Last year, his American wife, of 19 years, fed up he feels, with his obsession and his dreams for his country, left him. She took their three children and went back to America.

He is desolate. But he knows that he had to make a choice too and he made it in favor of nationalism.

"I have a vision of what Panama could develop into and a good deal has become reality," he says. "Panama is trying to take hold of its destiny, mold its future. The whole thing is not beautiful. We have made many mistakes along the way. But that is part of the price of growing up. We're like children and we have to make mistakes in growing up. We have to crawl first, then walk, then run. In a sense the people in the Canal Zone are behaving like a schoolmaster with the attitude that we Panamanians can't learn."

Barletta throws his head back and laughs, shaking his head almost in pity for the poor fools across the fence.

"How ridiculous" he says. "We've got to learn. There is a will there, a desire there, that should supply Panamanians the energy to get the job done. And it will.