By the beginning of February, according to statistics kept by the American embassy here, 42 Senators will have visited Panama. Fewer than that have been to the Soviet Union. But the United States never built a canal through the Soviet Union.
"Isn't this a crazy situation? Half the, United States Senate trooping down to this two-bit country - crazy." The speaker was a Gringo resident of Panama City - a Yankee who will be happy to go home when the time comes. (Others feel differently.)
Gen. Omar Torrijos, Panama's "maximum chief" - the title is in the constitution - has promised to meet every senator who visits. Torrijos and the American embassy have collaborated on a "dog act" for the visitors, as one American described it.
The act includes briefings from the embassy, the U.S. military command and the Panama Canal Co., a helicopter flight over the canal and a visit to its locks, meetings with Panamanian politicians and officials, a session with the Catholic archbishop, an encounter with residents of the Canal Zone (which will disappear under the new treaties), a dinner with the president of Panama and a meeting with the maximum chief.
It all bears an eerie resemblance to the typical congressional visit to Vietnam in the heyday of the war. The jungle looks the same, the helicopters are the same, the U.S. military briefing officers sound the same and - most striking of all - the presumption of American preeminence and omniscience is often the same.
Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) arrived here the other day and announced at the airport that what Panama needed was not the canal, but a more substantial middle class, and the United States would like to help provide it.
At one of Panama City's fine, and expensive, seafood restaurants, a young Panamanian couple could not avoid eavesdropping on the dinner conversation of visiting American journalists.
They asked the Americans a few questions, then on their way out the wife stopped - to her husband's obvious discomfort - for a longer conversation. She spoke English with a Yankee accent.
"We were brought up as Americans," she said. "When we go abroad, we demand the 'American standard.' We are through-and-through pro-Americans . . ." She wanted us to understand that those Americans who though their government was giving the canal away to an enemy country like. "We were brought up that our water had to be good, our food clean - the American standard!"
Her husband tried verbally and physically to get his wife out of the restaurant, but she wasn't interested. "He's a lawyer," she explained, "Harvard Law School." He grimaced, the Senate refused to approve the new treaties on the canal "It's impossible," she said. "It's so much in the Americans' interest."
This even drew the husband into that conversation. "They can't be defeated outright," he said. "Postponed maybe, not rejected." He was sure of it.
That couple belonged to the light-skinned Spanish elite. Omar Torrijos does not.
Torrijos is a mixed-blood, born in a poor village, a self-made military man. He is a proud graduate of the School of the Americans, a training center for Latin American officers run by the United States inside the Canal Zone (despite an American pledge in the 1903 treaty to use the Zone only for purposes related to the canal itself).
Torrijos likes Fidel Castro - not so much for his politics, by all indications, but for his macho style. Torrijos apes Castro unabashedly, to the enduring dismay of American diplomats here who wish he'd show his more respectable and conventional side more often.
The maximum chief usually dresses in green army fatigues, U.S. Army jungle boots - the kind the Army produced for the Vietnam war - and a bush hat. He wears a pistol on his hip and smokes long, slim Cuban cigars from Castro. They have a red, white and blue band that reads: "Gen. Omar Torrijos."
Torrijos is a complex and intriguing politician who apparently remains genuinely popular among many of his countrymen - fewer than several years ago, according to many residents, but still popular. Part of the "dog act" is to show American senators how warmly Panamanians react to their maximum chief, and they do. Torrijos also likes to show visitors how he tries to help his people.
In last week's version of his performance - for Republican Senators Howard H. Baker Jr. (Tenn.), John H. Chafee (R.I.) and Jake Garn (Utah) - Torrijos was accosted on the streets of the city of Colon by parents who protested the $15 registration fee for high school.
Unemployment and poverty are both bad in Colon, Torrijos explained later. Something had to be done. He ordered his education minister, who was accompanying the day's tour, to cut the fee to $7.50. (The next day's papers carried the news - including a footnote that the cut was not retroactive. Anyone who had already paid the $15 this year was out of luck.)
Sen. Garn complimented the general on his ability to cut through red tape. Torrijos grinned.
Torrijos' best friend is a local tycoon named Rory Gonzalez. Reached by telephone, Gonzales cheerily invited a Gringo visitor to drop by his office. He said it was on the 13th floor of a downtown office building, but the building directory indicated there was no 13th floor. The elevator had a button marked 13, however, and it worked.
The entrance to the office was unmarked. Inside, people bustled to and fro. After a few minutes Gonzalez came into the anteroom, a small man, tightlacked. Someone was there to plead with him; Gonzalez listened, but apparently had no good news for the man. Then he turned to his Gringo visitor.
"I haven't got much time," he said. "Ride with me to my next appointment and we'll talk." He sat in the front passenger seat of the Mercedes, and put the visitor in back.
Gonzales is said to be stupefyingly rich. The nature of his business isn't widely known. "Business," diplomat explained lamely. Mining, real estate, export-import. Torrijos has a house in Panama City, but it is used by his wife and children, with whom he has not lived for some time. He usually stays with Gonzalez.
Some Yankee visitors to Panama have been converted by firsthand observation into treaty supporters, others remain opposed.
But a visit creates one impression that everyone must share - of the inevitability of frustration in Panama and the Canal Zone, whether the outcome of the current political struggle over the treaties.
If the Panamanians win their long struggle to gain sovereignty over the Canal Zone, for example, it is going to be an imperfect victory - won this year, but not consummated until the last day of 1999. Students have traditionally been the agitators in Panama. Will the students of the 1980s understand why they are waiting?
If the Panamanians lose and the treaties are defeated, the consequences are unpredictable, but will certainly be unpleasant for the United States and Americans here. Many of the senators who oppose the treaties argue that the Panamanians ought to see the benefit to continued American control. Perhaps so, but they don't.
Many Panamanians, Torrijos among them, are counting on ratification of the treaties to revive their slack national economy, but many independent specialists doubt this will happen.
Torrijos himself is caught between populist impulses and the fact of Panamanian subservience to foreign economic interests and bankers. "If he pursues his populism, the capitalists will flee, and then where will he be?" one foreign well-wisher here asked.
Faced with that dilemma, the maximum chief has decided to make the Canal the maximum issue. But for most of Panama's 1.7 million citizens, it may not be.