The Miami Herald
January 1, 2000

It's their canal now; U.S. strikes colors


 PANAMA -- Decades of threats, blandishments, dire predictions and plaintive
 appeals came down to four words Friday:

 ``The canal is ours!'' shouted Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso, and at last
 it was.

 Thirty-six years after anti-American rioting turned the Panama Canal into a
 political hot potato, 22 years after the United States agreed to give it to the
 Panamanians, the transfer finally took place Friday at noon.

 Thirty thousand balloons -- red, white and blue, the colors of the flags of both the
 government that was leaving, and the one that was staying -- soared into the sky
 as Moscoso counted down the final seconds of U.S. dominion over the canal.

 As a giant digital clock in the background hit zero, a band struck up the
 Panamanian national anthem. Thousands of spectators bolted through barricades
 and ran up the steep hill to the flagpole of the canal administration building, where
 a Panamanian flag -- so gigantic that it required a motor to raise it -- was being


 ``We have fulfilled our promise,'' U.S. Ambassador Simon Ferro told Moscoso as
 he handed her a diplomatic note formally turning over the canal and its equipment.

 Moscoso's reply was lost in a cacophony of air horns and whistles from ships on
 the nearby canal, and the ebullient roar of the crowd -- which didn't seem even
 slightly downcast by the unseasonably windy and wet weather. The ceremony
 began in a mild drizzle and ended in a genuine thundershower. But Panamanian
 officials laughed at the suggestion that the showers were any kind of an omen.

 ``If we saw omens in rain in Panama, we would have been omened to death a long
 time ago,'' said Roberto Roy, a member of the Panama Canal Authority, the new
 agency that is running the canal.

 Roy said the ceremony signified everything, and nothing at all.

 ``In the eyes of the world, I think, everything is different -- Panama changes
 leagues, Panama gets out from under the U.S. umbrella,'' he mused. ``But the
 canal continues to work just as it has for the past 85 years. The only difference is
 the huge party in the streets.''


 And what a party! Tens of thousands of Panamanians marched -- and in many
 cases, danced -- through the streets after the ceremony, singing and dancing.
 Famed salsa singer Ruben Blades was scheduled to give two concerts later in
 the day -- one free, the other $100 per pop -- and a presidential ball was set for
 Friday night.

 Meanwhile, thousands headed for the site of what used to be Balboa High School
 in the old Canal Zone, where a delegation of Panamanian students raised their
 national flag. It was a confrontation over which flag, Panamanian or American,
 would fly over Balboa High that touched off rioting in January 1964 that left 23
 people dead and hundreds wounded.

 That rioting caused Panama to briefly break relations with the United States and
 triggered the negotiations that eventually ended in the treaties signed between the
 two nations in 1977.


 In a speech that was fairly harsh toward the United States -- Moscoso called U.S.
 involvement in Panama ``generally unjust for our people'' -- the president paid
 homage to the students who fought to raise their flag in 1964.

 ``So many martyrs we had to offer to finally achieve this recognition, that permits
 us to enter the 21st Century fully sovereign,'' she said, ``without a foreign
 presence in our territory and as absolute owners of one of the most important
 means of communication and commerce in the world.''

 The ceremony took place on the steps of the imposing hilltop canal administration
 building, overlooking a monument to George Goethals, the U.S. Army engineer
 whose humorless but efficient direction of the project completed construction six
 months early.

 No foreign heads of state were present -- a half-dozen presidents attended a
 ceremony Dec. 14 that Panama set up after realizing that few leaders were likely
 to leave their countries on the eve of the new millennium -- and the U.S.
 delegation was led by Army Secretary Louis Caldera.


 President Clinton, Vice President Gore and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
 were all invited to Friday's ceremony but declined to attend. Caldera's presence in
 their place was emblematic of the way the plans for the transfer frayed nerves in
 both governments -- especially in the past few days.

 U.S. officials quietly seethed over what they saw as an ungrateful and
 unnecessarily triumphalist attitude on the part of Panama, while Panamanians
 accused the U.S. government of snubbing the celebration of the most important
 event since the country became independent at the dawn of the century.

 U.S. irritation was most obvious in the American insistence that Friday's
 ceremonies not include the lowering of the U.S. flag. Instead, the flag in front of
 the canal administration building came down for the last time Thursday evening in
 what was supposed to be a small, private ceremony.

 Panamanians, for their part, sneered that the United States was trying to slink
 away in the night.

 ``Somehow, I think it would have been nobler to lower the flag at Friday's
 ceremony,'' said former Panamanian Foreign Minister Jorge Ritter. ``It would have
 been better for the two countries to end the relationship with a gesture of nobility
 and patriotism.''


 But a sample of what U.S. officials were trying to avoid was on display at a Friday
 rally of Ritter's Democratic Revolutionary Party, where much of the rhetoric had a
 distinctly anti-American flavor. There, a huge crowd chanted ``They're gone!
 They're gone!''

 Said a tearful Martin Torrijos, son of the military strongman who negotiated the
 canal treaties: ``It's not that Panama will be an enemy to the United States but
 this has been a painful, complex and unequal relationship. We won't ever go back
 to being a colony.''

 Yet it was apparent that many Panamanians also feel unease at the departure of
 a world superpower that helped them win independence, protected them through
 two world conflicts and the Cold War, kept them out of the economic chaos that
 enveloped Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s, and arbitrated Panama's
 own political disputes.

 A poll published this week in the daily paper La Prensa showed 68 percent of
 Panamanians opposed the withdrawal of U.S. troops and 50 percent expect the
 economy to suffer as a result. A startling 45 percent said the U.S. withdrawal will
 weaken Panamanian democracy.

 ``Great, we've got the canal, but I don't have lights at my house,'' grumbled a taxi
 driver after the ceremony. ``I don't own any boats. My neighbors don't own any
 boats. What good does the canal do me?''

 But as the live television coverage of Friday's ceremonies demonstrated, the
 commercial and cultural entanglements of the United States and Panama are
 likely to survive the transfer of the canal. As Moscoso declared triumphantly that
 ``The canal is ours!'' advertisements for Old Milwaukee Beer and McDonald's
 streamed along the bottom of the screen.

                     Copyright 2000 Miami Herald