Thousands of jubilant Panamanians rushed into the streets last night cheering ratification of the final Panama Canal treaty by the U.S. Senate.
Firecrackers popped across the city and radio stations began playing the Panamanian national anthem when the vote was announced. Hundreds of Panamanians gathered in Cinco de Mayo Plaza, where one celebrant said, "It is a big drunken street party."
Panamanian ruler Gen. Omar Torrijos told the country in a television address that his mission to achieve a new canal treaty was accomplished.The ratification vote by the U.S. Senate, he said, was a great triumph for Panama.
ABC news correspondent Barbara Walters reported that Torrijos jumped up and hugged those around him.
Torrijos' speech clearly indicated complete acceptance of the treaties as modified by the Senate.
"For us this is a moment of great emotion," he said. "I feel proud that my mission is completed."
Referring to the concerns of Panamanians that the United States might still have the right to take unilateral action in Panama, Torrijos said: "I can assure you with all sincerity that there is nothing in the treaties that justifies intervention here."
Most of Panama's 1.8 citizens had huddled around radios listening to the live roll call from Washington and broke into shouts of happiness when the necessary 67th "yes" vote was cast.
Truckloads of national guardsmen cordoned off Santa Anna Park in Panama City where about 200 students had gathered to protest the treaties, claiming that they gave too much "to the Yankees."
Earlier, special correspondent Marlise Simons reported from Panama City:
Confident that the treaty would pass the government told its workers to go home at 4 p.m. and to return for an official celebration rally planned in the center of the capital. But only blocks away, hundreds of students gathered to protest the "dirty treaty" and the "traitor amendments" attached to the pact by the U.S. Senate.
Yesterday morning som e 500 nationalist and leftist students demonstrated angrily in front of Panama's once snow white Foreign Ministry building, now covered with anti-American and anti-treaty scrawlings. They stayed away from the American Embassy, whose drab beige facade had been spattered Monday as demonstrators hurled bottles of paint and left it covered with huge blotches of red, white and blue.
The embassy yesterday took strict security precautions. The staff worked inside with the curtains drawn, the entrance gates were locked and a metal detector was used at its front door.
In the Canal Zone, U.S. troops were put on alert but there was none of the agitation usually seen among the American Canal Zone residents when Panamanians demonstrate. Treaty opponents in the zone say they feel that they have lost their long battle, have been shortchanged by their government and press and are now tired and exasperated.
"We don't care anymore what happens," said a canal company employee who was born in the zone. "Whp bother, since no one else in the States does."
Before the treaty goes into effect, the U.S. Congress must pass implementing legislation and both governments must exchange instruments of ratification. Then Panana will get sovereignity over the 533-square-mile zone. Sovereign rights "in perpetuity" were granted to the United States in 1903, for a $10 million flat payment although Panama began hotly disputing them a year later.
To a Panamanian, the new sovereignty means that if he is accused of a crime in the zone, he will no longer be tried in an American court or sent to an American jail in the zone. U.S. police, courts and post offices will be phased out over a 30-month period after the treaty takes effect.
For the American residence of the Canal Zone, Called zonians, it means that the world's most complete company town will be dismantling in the 30 months after the treaty takes effect. Americans in the zone will live under Panamanian law and will no longer be able to import duty free articles from the United States or go to a movie house, bowling alley, restaurant or commissary subsidized by the U.S. government.
The ports, docks and the famous bridge of the America's and Transisthmian Panama Railroad will become Panamanian property.
But despite the despondency among the resident Americans, the zone, which looks like a vast national park, will not look very different for many years to come.
A new agency will replace the U.S. government-owned Panama Canal Co. and will run the canal with a mixed U.S. Panamanian board. It will retain more than one-third of the zone area' for canal operations." Almost half of the zone will be kept by the U.S. military for its bases, which include housing, schools, shooting ranges, and defense sites.
The amount of real estate that will be returned to Panama before the year 2000 - when the canal and its operations became fully Panamanian - is actually very little.
The most coveted portion, an unused strip, lies at the canal's Pacific entrance and with its lush vegetation and beaches would make prime residential real estate. Another area at the Atlantic entrance will be used for much needed expansion of the Colon free zone, after Hong Kong the world's largest free zone depot.