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Panama’s ‘Zonians’ Near Extinction

August 8, 1998

DIABLO, former Panama Canal Zone (AP) _ The dying days of a society are always sad, and the Busch beer is only making Gary Folger more bitter.

For two decades, Folger has watched his people hand over their houses, schools and baseball fields, their broad avenues and manicured lawns, and flee to America.

He has watched them dwindle away from thousands in the late 1970s to hundreds today. And he has shuddered at the thought that, next year, the few remaining will surrender what is left.

``This was God’s country, and it has gone to the dirt,″ says Folger, 50, a heavy equipment operator.

In a Friday night tradition out by his boathouse, Folger is grilling steaks, selling beer at 50 cents a can and commiserating with some of the last ``Zonians″ _ a society neither American nor Panamanian that has populated a lush strip of land along the Panama Canal since 1903.

On Dec. 31, 1999, the United States will turn over the canal and the last of what once was a vibrant colony.

And the Zonians’ extinction will be complete.

``It’s like your whole life just ending,″ says Lauren Othon, an 18-year-old student drinking beer and tequila shots.

Folger, Othon and hundreds of other Zonians young and old are leaving.

They know they can stay, but it will never be the same. The Zone is the only home they have ever known, and _ especially with many Panamanians clamoring for the departure of what they call a coddled gringo elite _ there’s little reason to stay in Panama.

The Zone began at the beginning of the century, when the United States built the Panama Canal and got permanent control of the waterway and a five-mile strip of land on either side, known as the Canal Zone.

The area later filled with military bases, research centers and residential areas for thousands of Americans who came to work on the canal. Many of their children were born here, and their children’s children.

For them, the Zone was home _ and a good one.

Housing was subsidized, as were telephones, electricity and water. Wages were decent, and jobs on the canal or in the military were guaranteed to any Zonian who graduated from Balboa High School. A complete system of U.S. government benefits kept residents apart from the realities of life in Latin America.

``We had our own police department, fire department, everything,″ says Jim Fehrenbach, 50. ``When you came across the border (of the Zone), it was like coming into a whole other country. It was Utopia.″

But in 1977, after more than a decade of violent anti-American protests in Panama, President Carter signed treaties committing to a gradual pullout, turning over pieces of the Zone, and finally the canal, by the end of 1999.

``Mr. Peanuts gave us away,″ Folger says, on the verge of tears.

Along with the canal and the bases, what he gave away was a singular society _ a group of people who thought of one another as family, and interacted little with the Panamanians around them.

``At school there were Panamanians _ they were tuition students _ but we didn’t associate with them too much,″ says Jason Gomeneck, 21. ``It was mainly the Zonians who hung out together.″

And while many Zonians look down at the Panamanians they grew up next to, there is little love lost among Panamanians when the subject of Zonians comes up.

``Those people lived like kings in a foreign land,″ says Jacinto Gonzalez, an activist against U.S. military bases in Panama.

Carlos Brown, a 70-year-old man who has a sandwich shop near the border of the zone, is more diplomatic: ``The Zonians live in comfort, shielded by the military forces of their country, and they have created a certain dislike among certain Panamanians.″

Of course, as in any society, there are great differences among the Zonians. It is a class-driven society in which the families of canal administration executives generally find more in common with upper-class Panamanians than with the canal machinists.

But the bulk of the canal workers rarely travel beyond the Zone. Many take a taxi when they do, unwilling to negotiate the foreign streets.

Most of the Zone is already in Panamanian hands. Panamanian stores now share the strip-malls with McDonald’s, and the Panamanian government is knocking down Zonian landmarks to build hotels, highways, shopping malls.

``What gets me is that they don’t like to preserve the culture,″ Fehrenbach says. ``They want to change the street names, everything.″

Brown calls that silly.

``Panamanians will have their own way of using the area,″ he says. ``The important thing is that they do it in their way _ and without the presence of the gringos.″

Slowly, that is happening. No one counts how many Zonians remain in Panama, but the number of American employees of the Panama Canal Commission _ who with their families make up much of the population _ fell from 2,105 in 1979 to 592 last year.

Even so, turning from Panama City’s Avenida Arnulfo Arias onto the former Zone’s Morgan Avenue remains a shock.

The tenements of the Chorillo neighborhood, which the United States bombed during its 1989 invasion, are surrounded by piles of trash, rusting cars on cinderblocks, laundry lines in the courtyards and barefoot men selling contraband Old Milwaukee beer from coolers.

A block away, the Zone’s streets are lined with tidy sidewalks and towering palms. Manicured lawns give way to handsome wood-and-concrete duplexes, with two or three cars per driveway.

Many Zonians are convinced their former haunts are destined to decay when the Panamanians take over.

Folger says that’s why he’s moving back to the United States next year for the first time since he was 4.

``I can’t wait to get out of here,″ he says. ``In the last five years, this place has been going downhill. These people are going backwards, not forwards.″

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