It's their canal now; U.S. strikes colors
BY GLENN GARVIN
PANAMA -- Decades of threats, blandishments, dire predictions
appeals came down to four words Friday:
``The canal is ours!'' shouted Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso,
and at last
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
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
A VOW `FULFILLED'
``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 --
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.''
STREETS FILL UP
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
Meanwhile, thousands headed for the site of what used to be Balboa
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,
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
building, overlooking a monument to George Goethals, the U.S. Army engineer
whose humorless but efficient direction of the project completed construction six
No foreign heads of state were present -- a half-dozen presidents
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.
NO D.C. TOP BRASS
President Clinton, Vice President Gore and Secretary of State
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
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
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
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
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!
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,
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