Nisla Bernachina snarled and waved a finger when asked for her views on the legacy of the U.S. presence in Panama. "Satanic," she declared. "Some believe the Americans did all these great things for us, as if they painted angels in the heavens like Michelangelo. But not me."
A virtual town meeting of passersby eager to pipe up took shape in the impoverished neighborhood of El Chorrillo as Bernachina, 58, discussed the United States and Panama. The U.S. role here has long been a hot subject. Now that the gringos are finally gone, having turned over the Panama Canal on Dec. 31, the discussion is equally hot, but it has turned to the memories they left behind, to what Panamanians will remember after nearly a century of highly visible and influential U.S. presence.
Perhaps more than any other Latin American nation, Panama felt the daily reach of American culture. Legions of U.S. troops socialized in Panamanian bars and restaurants, becoming patrons that owners often catered to by serving American-style food and offering menus in English. One of the first TV stations was a U.S. military channel for the U.S. armed forces and other Americans who lived in the Canal Zone. Today, English, with a distinctly U.S. mark, is spoken by many Panamanians to varying degrees.
Panama's newspapers regularly mentioned weddings and other social events in the Canal Zone, which had American schools and was subject to U.S. laws. And besides the 50-mile-long canal, the most enduring symbol is the U.S. dollar, the main currency since President Theodore Roosevelt engineered Panama's independence from Colombia in 1903.
Opinions about the United States in Panama are particularly strong in El Chorrillo, a bayside neighborhood of 25,000 that was the site of the main barracks of president Manuel Noriega's military--and that therefore bore the brunt of a U.S. invasion 10 years ago. Although new apartments have been built, resentment persists among some residents, who argue they were never adequately compensated.
"I cannot forget how we were left in ruins and misery by the gringos," said Bernachina, whose home at the time of the invasion was destroyed.
But surprisingly, views in El Chorrillo regarding the United States are as divided as they are strident. They reflect a widespread ambivalence among Panamanians about the way the United States handled its role as master of the 10-mile-wide Canal Zone and whether the U.S. military's departure was in the best interest of Panama and its strategic waterway.
National fervor ran high over the long-awaited canal transfer, which ushered in a new era of sovereignty for this country of 2.8 million people that President Mireya Moscoso has tirelessly trumpeted. The jubilation has also been used by others to vent anti-American sentiments they have harbored for a long time, their voices finding prominence amid the patriotic euphoria.
However, polls over the last two years have consistently shown that while the majority of Panamanians favored the U.S. government relinquishing jurisdiction in accordance with 1977 canal treaties, they also wanted the United States to retain a limited presence. A survey of 1,200 Panamanians published by La Prensa newspaper showed 70 percent feel that Panama--which relies on a police force for security since its army was dissolved after the U.S. invasion--is incapable of defending the canal.
"I appreciated the fact the Americans soldiers took [then president] Noriega away in chains and knowing that if there was a real problem in this barrio or in the canal the United States was always close by. . . . For me, that sense of security has been replaced by a sense of insecurity," remarked Luis Rivera, 44, a tailor stitching cloth in his shop in a dilapidated apartment building in El Chorrillo.
"I will remember the time the United States spent here like a scale that tipped to both sides, but mostly toward the side of good," he added.
Graciela Medina, 35, an unemployed neighbor, sat nearby emphatically nodding. "I would have liked the United States to have stayed because I have no faith in our government. We are the poor, we are the devils who are ignored while we have to live with gangs, murder and poverty on every corner."
She added, "Now that Panama is on its own, I am afraid that things will only get worse around here."
But Julio Clinger, a jobless 22-year-old, dismissed any suggestion that the U.S. presence in this country was positive, shoving a friend who had expressed pro-American views. Clinger contended the United States debased Panamanians' self-esteem by fencing off the Canal Zone and creating self-contained communities where Zonians, mostly Americans, lived separate lives.
"The Americans manipulated our government and left us feeling like second-class citizens. That is their legacy," Clinger said.
"Injustice is what I will remember about the gringos, and nothing else," chimed in Gloria Maria Urtado, 65, who says she lost an aunt, a cousin and a nephew in the invasion.
Reflections about the United States have not only been stoked by the handover of the canal, but by the marking on Dec. 20 of the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion. On that day, about 2,000 demonstrators wearing black pelted the U.S. Embassy with rocks and paint as they chanted, "Out with the gringos!" and "Gringos! Assassins!"
A day earlier, a crowd gathered outside the headquarters of the party of Noriega, a former CIA collaborator who is now serving a life sentence in Miami on drug trafficking charges, and burned him in effigy. Many Panamanians blame Noriega as much as the United States for the invasion.
And on Sunday, Panama held its annual day of mourning to honor the Panamanian students killed 36 years ago by U.S. authorities while attempting to raise the country's flag in the Canal Zone during a demonstration. But this year's commemoration took on special significance since it was the first to be held with no U.S. military to be found in the country.
At the Amador Cemetery, where Ascanio Arosemena, the first student killed in the 1964 clash, is buried, history professor Luis Almanza, 46, paid his respects. then offered a list of attributes that the United States will be remembered for.
"The canal, good administration, good salaries and cultural coexistence," said Almanza, listing the good things left behind. "But unfortunately there will also be the issues of aggression, as well as arrogance on the part of the Zonians and military personnel."
CAPTION: Luis Rivera, a tailor in El Chorrillo neighborhood, says he remembers the U.S. presence in Panama as mostly good.