April 8, 2008 / 12:04 PM / 11 years ago

Tropical decay blights McCain's Panama birthplace

COCO SOLO, Panama (Reuters) - John McCain’s birthplace in Panama was an idyllic tropical posting for U.S. sailors that the Republican presidential candidate speaks fondly of but the Caribbean port has crumbled into poverty and decay.

Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain (R-AZ) addresses Veterans' of Foreign Wars guests at National WWI Museum in Kansas City, Missouri April 7, 2008. REUTERS/Dave Kaup

McCain was born in 1936 on the Coco Solo submarine base in a U.S.-run territory in Panama where his father was a Navy officer.

Now, children play next to open sewers in the town that was built around the base and large homes once inhabited by American service families lie abandoned and strewn with debris.

Bored young men stroll around topless, sporting gang tattoos that boast of the number of people they have killed. Areas that were once softball fields have been taken over by rough saw-grass.

The Coco Solo area was part of the Panama Canal Zone where American laws and culture prevailed for decades.

Panama gradually took back control of the base and the rest of the Canal Zone after a 1977 treaty with the United States, and Coco Solo has since been converted into a huge container terminal known as Manzanillo. Washington handed over its last remaining Panamanian outposts in 1999.

Former U.S. residents recall an easy life in the Canal Zone, where Americans enjoyed both imported comforts of home like Hershey chocolate bars and plucked exotic fruit from trees at the road side.

“It brings back memories of a simpler time,” McCain recently told Reuters on the U.S. campaign trail.

“My mother, at the hospital where I was born, still relates that on Friday afternoon just after I was born, from the hospital she could hear from the officers’ club, all of them celebrating, singing songs, congratulating my father on my birth,” he said.

McCain’s family returned to the United States within three months of his birth and he has no other connection to Panama.

Earlier in the presidential campaign, he was dogged by claims that his birth outside the United States prevented him legally from running for president but the Canal Zone was a U.S. territory when he was born and the controversy has since died down.

TOUGH NEIGHBORHOOD

Panama was not one of the venues on a nostalgic tour that McCain went on last week to places that marked his life like Annapolis, Maryland where he attended naval academy.

A visit to Coco Solo would take McCain to a tough neighborhood of the port city of Colon, one of the poorest areas of Panama.

“People don’t have money and I don’t have money. I don’t have a pension and I don’t have a job,” said resident Pablo Wilson, 65, sitting in a park in Colon.

Coco Solo’s McEwen Street, which once housed officer-rank families like the McCains, has been abandoned. Its once neat row of three-story buildings are now roofless and the window frames in Art Deco pink and green lie strewn among old newspapers, beer cans and waste.

There is a constant hum from the end of the street where cranes stack some of the tens of thousands of red, blue and green 20-foot-long shipping containers onto carriers bound for China or the east coast of the United States.

On Severn Street, previously home to non-commissioned U.S. officers, children splash around in open sewers, although palm trees still line the street.

The old post office and dispensary at building 1140 Fulton Road is today home to around 100 displaced Panamanians who lost their homes in fires or building collapses.

One resident, aged 39, whose arm is badly twisted by a long-untreated breakage, said this had been his “temporary accommodation” given by the government for 15 years.

Dale Cockle, who was born a month after McCain near Coco Solo, remembers the Canal Zone of his childhood as a “paradise”, with days spent cycling between U.S. bases, stopping to pick mangoes or bananas by the side of the road.

The zone brought U.S. military and civilians together with Hispanic and black immigrants working on the canal or the railroad.

Racial discrimination was institutionalized by a system that separated the better-paid white “gold roll” workers from their “silver roll” Caribbean or Hispanic colleagues.

“It was flat out segregation,” said Cockle.

“It was not only pay,” said John Carlson, a local historian. Up until the mid-1950s there were gold and silver roll shops and even water fountains off limits to silver roll workers.

Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Kieran Murray

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