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The new Panama Canal Zone

The residents of the Panama Canal Zone joke that this city of high-rise condos and ocean promenades is just like Miami or Los Angeles, except that more English is spoken here.

Four years after U.S. troops left and Panamanians regained control of the canal, their most important national asset, the "Yankee" legacy here remains deep and surprisingly welcome.

Even more surprising is, though anti-Americanism has risen sharply throughout Latin America, Panamanians willingly retain the values and symbols of their former occupiers, which range from language to music and fashion.  One thing that is vallued most of all the almighty U.S. dollar.

Tomas Cabal, a well-known TV commentator, recently stated "The motto here today is 'Gringo come back.' "Panamanians would like to see American troops come back and build a base on the Colombian border."

For nearly twelve years, Panama has been without an army of its own. When the U.S. armed forces invaded Panama in 1989, outsing General Noriego, the Panama Defense Forces were disbanded three years later.   But, by and large, most Panamanians are very grateful for the forced regime change.

"George Bush is a great leader! He got rid of the "Pineapple" (the nickname given Noriega), and he has gotten rid of Saddam Hussein,"  said a citizen..

The U.S. military action in Iraq is has caused a lot of political tension between Washington and a number of Latin American countries, from staunch allies of Mexico and Chile, to our traditional adversary, Cuba.  However, the Panamanians have kept their eyes on the bottom line more than the front lines.  The country's best and brightest benefited from generous scholarship programs which have  sent thousands of Panamanians to U.S. universities. Today, most of Panama's business and political leaders have picked up American customs as well as degrees.

A love-hate relationship existed for decades between the U.S. and Panama decades shortly after the canal opened in 1914, with Panamanians resentful of U.S. control of the waterway and the 12-mile-wide Canal Zone fencing off the Zone from the rest of their country.  But, on the other hand, the U.S.-built canal lifted the country from being a  "banana republic" to a global trading and maritime player.  When the canal was returned to Panama on Dec. 31, 1999, the only real thorn in the relationship fianlly fell away.

Much of these good feelings is the result of the high levels of intermarriage and dual citizenship during the U.S. occupation of the Canal Zone. Over 10,000 U.S. troops and civilian contractors lived in the zone until the waterway was returned  to Panama, and even children that were born to two U.S. citizens have retained the right to Panamanian citizenship after the U.S. withdrawal.

Hundreds of "Zonians" have remained in Panama, thereby strengthening the bonds between the two nations.

"I'm a Panamanian as much as an American. I was born here and spent my whole life here," said Llori Gibson, a 47-year-old artist whose parents were U.S. canal workers.  She married  another "Zonian", whereby she keeps a foot in both countries by visiting family members in the U.S. while working in Panama with indigenous groups in preserving their culture and marketing their crafts.

Because of the thousands of dual citizens, official statistics showing that nearly 10% of the population consists of foreigners probably fails to reflect the proportion of Americans in this cosmopolitan country.  Panama is also home to tens of thousands of people from Asia, Europe and other Latin America countries.

What keeps that U.S.-Panama bound together is economics. The U.S. is the largest user of the canal, is the Republic of Panama's most important trade partner and is also the de facto central banker and monetary-policy controller.

"Why is our currency the U.S. dollar? Because we were visionaries," said Romel Adames, vice minister for commerce and industry. Senor Adames also noted that using the U.S. dollar saves Panama the need to maintain a national mint and shields the economy from inflation and manipulation of the money supply.  "There's no sovereignty issue here," Adames insisted.

There is also the  strong new presence of U.S. retirees, who have been drawn to Panama by its low taxes, affordable housing, tropical climate and contemporary, bilingual entertainment.

"There's a lot of shared history here, a lot of cultural affinity. The long U.S. presence here affects the way people do business, the way things are viewed," said retired Air Force colonelDavid Hunt.

Though he does detect among Panamanian movers and shakers a increase in self-confidence and pride for finally achieving full control over their national affairs, Hunt said he has seen none of the resentment that U.S. citizens encounter everywhere else south of the border.

"It's all very subtle and very polite," he said. "There's a self-awareness in the post-U.S. age that I think is a good and natural evolution."