The government declared today a national holiday, and newspaper flashed the word "Treaty" across their front pages. But in Panama City there was none of the mood of victory or euphoria that was expected on the day the United States finally said the canal would soon belong to Panama.
No flags are raised in celebration in the capital, and the streets are deserted.
"It's an anticlimax for us Panamaians," said a usually well-informed local banker. "The basic problem is we still have no idea what we really got."
After 30 years of verbal battles and sometimes bloody riots against the United States. Panamanians seem to have little idea just what their government has extracted from Washington on their behalf.People who normally are politically aware say they have just spent their day making telephone calls, "dialing around to find out who knows what," as one lawyer said.
United late into the night radio broadcasts tried to stir some popular enthusiasm telling people that the "canal, the buildings, the houses, the land of the zone, is all ours."
Yet there has been no attempt so far by the government or the media to explain the complex give-and-take of the negotiations or even the fact that there is a long and difficult period ahead to obtain U.S. Senate ratification.
Panama's negotiators have promised that the government leader Brig. Gen. Omar Torrijos, will explain the agreement in a televised broadcast.
A few miles away, past the canal entrance where freighters and tankers await their turn to leave the Pacific Ocean, the U.S. residents seemed equally hungry for information.
Last night, after the agreement was announced, U.S. negotiator Richard Wyrough met with some 70 labor union leaders and community representatives to give them a broad outline of the agreement and above all provide the details of how the changes are likely to affect the lives of 33,600 U.S. nationals in the zone.
The civilian minority learned that they will become employees of the Department of Defense since the Panama Canal Co. is to be abolished. This means that they will go to U.S. military schools, hospitals, PXs and mail boxes for five years after the treaty takes effect.
Many of the Americans in the Zone seemed resigned to the fact that their lives will drastically change. "If only I knew how to go about getting a transfer," several said. Others just wanted to know "when and how I can get out of here."
Canal company employees actually have been resigning at the rate of 1.8 per month since early 1974, when the treaty talks were given new impetus by Washington. This trend, which is expected to increase, is worrying company officials, who believe that the drain of highly trained specialists may seriously affect operations.
"We are very much in a state of suspension about how to reorganize ourselves," said Patricia Fulton, a community leader in Balboa.
"We feel left out in the cold. Officials have been treating us like small children, always saying everything is confidential. A lot of people are at the end of their nerves."
According to Mrs. Fulton, union leaders are talking about staging a "sick out" in the Zone that could halt most canal operations. It is not that people are still opposed to the changes, she said. "It's more a feeling of rejection and disgust."
Despite its silence about the contents of the agreement, the Panamanian government is clearly preparing for a nationwide campaign to persuade people to vote yes in the plebescite required for ratification.
Torrijos said last week that voting against the treaty would be equivalent to "treason against our father-land."
The separate neutrality pact, which will guarantee the United States the permanent right to defend the canal, also prompted protests last week from lawyers, who criticized it as "disguised American intervention." Political observers here believe that this will be the most difficult part for the Panamanian government to sell.
The only open sign of protest today came from a leftist student group demanding that Torrijos keep his promise to declare a general amnesty and to allow 234 exiles, leftists and rightists, to return to participate in the plebescite.