With tear gas and rubber sticks, a fierce array of Panamanian national guardsmen skirmished today with hundreds of students demonstrating against what they called a "dirty canal treaty." They arrested an undisclosed number of Panamanians and briefly held an American television crew.
A few miles away, in the U.S. Canal Zone, angry American adults scheduled a protest march of their own, "a candlelight march of mourning," as they called it, "a funeral for the death of democracy and human rights."
Such was the mood in Panama today as most of this hemisphere's leaders attended the historic signing of the new Panama Canal Treaties in Washington, half a continent away.
That was the mood, at least among those who protested. On both sides of this stretch of land and water that has stirred so much passion in recent years, there is also a silent majority that stayed at home in approval, resignation or simple fear.
In Panama, many patriots say their country has been short-changed by the United States, although the majority of the 1.7 million population is expected to endorse the treaties in a plebiscite later this year.
In the Canal Zone, the mood among the 35,000 resident Americans has shifted from spirited lobbying to acceptance and often bitterness toward the treaties that will change their lives drastically.
The resentment among the Zonians is not directed against Panama's fight for the waterway or the United States giving in to Panama's demands, but against "the American government which has collected our taxes but not consulted us," as one Zonian explained.
"We say, 'Okay, Jimmy Carter, if you're pushing us into this, we want you to know how we feel,'" said Patricia Fulton, an organizer of the march in the Zone.
The "funeral was called to coincide with the time of the Washington signing ceremony and with the evident intention to turn it into a media event. Organizers have asked participants to "wear funeral attire, bring candles, posters and black umbrellas."
Yet, not all Zonians displayed this sense of anger.
John Williams, who presides over the 202-member Panama Canal Pilots Association and who met with President Carter 10 days ago, scoffed at the suggestion that democracy has been lost in this tropical slice of U.S. territory.
"There never was a democracy in the Zone. It's a government corporation run by an appointed governor," Williams said, "and we have had some dictators of our own here."
But Williams, who has lived in the Zone for 30 years, explained emphatically that Americans here are not upset by losing their "manicured lawns and middle-class privileges, as the press has called them, but by the loss of the U.S. court district which has always guaranteed Americans due process of law."
Alfred Graham, the president of the Canal Zone labor union that represents most of the 13,500 canal company employees, said the 21 unions in the Zone were basicly satisfied with the labor provisions written into the treaties.
Two major points still pending, he said, are the pay scales for nearly 600 Canal Zone schoolteachers and firefighters and a more liberal retirement system for key personnel such as lock operators and pilots. He said more advantageous retirement conditions are needed to entice these key employees to stay on during a transition. Without them, canal operations could come to a halt.
AFL-CIO President George Meany, Graham said, had made these last negotiations difficult. "We had almost won, when George Meany jumped the gun by endorsing the treaty earlier than we had agreed, and so he took away my baseball bats," Graham said.
Regarding the civil rights of the American residents, Graham echoed Williams, saying that Zonians "have a justified fear" of Panama's National Guard, which combines the functions of army and police force.
"This is a very different legal system," he said. "Political protest, for example, will not be put up with under this dictatorship."
A demonstration of heavy-handed National Guard tactics came this morning as almost 1,500 high-school and university students tried to march in protest to the Foreign Ministry in downtown Panama City. The students carried signs saying "No military bases" and "Dirty Treaty" and shouted slogans against their own leaders and the U.S. government.
With an impressive display of force, National Guardsmen carrying tear gas and rubber hoses, which they used as sticks, swept the students from the streets. The students threw stones at the guards and at passing traffic. They set one car on fire.
Clearly irritated by U.S. television crews filming the scenes, National guardsmen reportedly held one ABC television crew for 45 minutes and confiscated a reel of film from a CBS cameraman.
Students reported that some of the leaders of the leftist Revolutionary Student Front had been arrested, but these reports could not be confirmed.