By Serge F. Kovaleski
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 15, 1999; Page A01
PANAMA CITY, Dec. 14óWith the words, "It is yours," former
president Jimmy Carter symbolically turned over the Panama Canal to
Panama at a ceremony here today, marking the end of American control of
the 51-mile waterway that for nearly a century represented the projection
of U.S. power in Latin America.
Although the United States will not relinquish ownership of the canal
officially until Dec. 31, today's ceremony was scheduled to avoid any
conflicts with millennium activities. It was the culmination of the transfer
launched by Carter in 1977 with the signing of the Panama Canal Treaties.
"Today we come together with mutual respect to acknowledge without
question the complete sovereignty of Panama," Carter, who represented
the United States, told a gathering of dignitaries at the canal's Miraflores
Locks that included six Latin American presidents and King Juan Carlos of
The festivities were overshadowed by the absence of President Clinton
and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, both of whom stayed away
from a ceremony that focused attention on the turnover of the strategic
waterway--a move that remains highly unpopular among American
Speaking under a light rain, Carter said the original canal accords signed
the birth of Panama as an independent country in 1903 were unjust and
that the United States "did not understand clearly enough that the
arrangement defined a certain element of colonialism."
Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso heralded Panama's assumption of
the canal "trophy" as a consolidation of her country's sovereignty. She went
out of her way to reassure other countries and international shippers that
the interoceanic waterway, which is transited by 14,000 vessels a year,
would be well maintained and improved under Panamanian control and run
under a "code of ethics."
"Our final objective is to guarantee safe, efficient and uninterrupted
operation of the canal to satisfy our customers and to benefit our country,"
The 29-member U.S. delegation was headed by Carter, who signed the
treaties with Panamanian leader Gen. Omar Torrijos to hand over the
canal, as well as 360,240 acres of land. The agreements, which also called
for the eventual withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Panama, were
unpopular in the United States but were ratified by a one-vote margin in
the Senate in September 1978.
Clinton has not said why he opted to skip today's ceremonies, but the
White House denied that U.S. conservative opposition to the transfer
played a part in the president's decision. "This decision is not made based
on the politics," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters in
Albright was to have represented the United States but remained in
Washington because of the start of peace talks Wednesday between Israel
U.S. conservatives have criticized the handover of the canal--which cost
the United States more than $350 million and 5,600 lives to complete in
1914--saying Panama has no army and that the canal's security could be
vulnerable to left-wing rebels in neighboring Colombia who have launched
incursions into southern Panama. This concern was highlighted on Sunday,
when hundreds of rebels attacked a Colombian navy base on the Pacific
coast 15 miles from the border with Panama, killing at least 34 marines,
one policeman and a civilian.
Critics also have contended that China is seeking to control the waterway
through the Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., which operates
cargo terminals at both ends--assertions that the White House and the
Pentagon have dismissed. Others have expressed concern that the canal
may be mismanaged and fall into decline, becoming a vehicle for corruption
The Panamanian government has undertaken several measures to insulate
the canal from such abuses, including a 1994 constitutional amendment
making the Panama Canal Authority an autonomous body.
Carter addressed the treaties' critics in his remarks today. "In my country
and in this one there were demagogues who exaggerated problems and
spoke about catastrophic events. There are still some in my country
spreading false stories about security of the canal," Carter said, standing in
front of a line of large container ships.
The transfer treaty permits U.S. intervention if the canal's neutrality
threatened. In a statement in Washington, Clinton expressed "a continuing
commitment" to the canal's security and a determination that the waterway
will remain open.
The transfer of the canal, as well as surrounding properties and a number
of military bases, will give this country of 2.8 million people full sovereignty
over all its territory for the first time since the United States helped it win
independence from Colombia in 1903.
Noting how the United States has operated the canal in what amounted to
"state socialism," Carter said Panama now faces the challenge of bringing
free enterprise to the waterway and running it on a for-profit basis. "It is
yours," a smiling Moscoso recalled Carter telling her today after they
signed a document marking the transfer.
The ceremony was full of fanfare as Carter, Moscoso and the other
dignitaries were brought ashore at the locks on the Pacific Ocean side of
the canal aboard a "mule," a large engine on railroad tracks that tows ships
into the locks. Rows of flags flapped in the breeze as a marching band
The United States, which is the largest customer of the canal, is expected
to keep a close eye on the operation and security of the waterway, which
provides a vital commercial link between the Pacific Ocean and the
Caribbean. With all but a handful of U.S. troops gone from Panama--there
were about 10,000 here when the treaties were signed--increased drug
trafficking has been a major U.S. concern. The Pentagon has transferred
the headquarters of its Southern Command from Panama to Miami.
Last year, Washington and the administration of former Panamanian
president Ernesto Perez Balladares failed to reach an agreement that would
have allowed the United States to maintain a regional anti-drug center here.
Moscoso does not seem keen on the idea either.
The handover has been smooth for the most part, largely because
Panamanians have been operating the canal for years. Its administration
has been Panamanian for the last 10 years, and more than 70 percent of
the canal's managers are Panamanian, as are the overwhelming majority of
its floating equipment operators.
The canal, which is Panama's top economic resource after the Colon
free-trade zone on the Caribbean, is being turned over to Panama in good
operating and financial condition. Several modernization projects are also
underway. These initiatives, costing about $1 billion, include the widening
of the Gaillard Cut, the narrowest part of the canal, so it will be able to
accommodate two-way traffic.
At least for the time being, shipping industry officials expressed confidence
in Panama's ability to run the canal as well as, if not better than, the United
States, but they stressed the need to enforce the laws designed to ensure
the canal's autonomy.
"The transfer is just a change of flag for us; we do not see any reasons
concern," said Jurgen Dorfmeier, president of Boyd Steamship Corp., a
major shipping agent here. "If the canal closes tomorrow, the shipping
industry will continue to live, but the canal is all that Panama basically has,
along with the free-trade zone. And one thing is for sure: Panamanians are
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