November 1, 1999
U.S. air base closes as Panama Canal handover looms

                  PANAMA CITY (Reuters) -- The last wave of U.S. airmen pulled out of
                  Panama Monday, as Howard Air Force Base reverted to Panamanian
                  control, bringing eight decades of U.S. air power in the Central
                  American nation to a close.

                  "It has been a good partnership, and we leave with pride in our hearts,"
                  base commander Col. Roger Corbin told dignitaries and reporters at a
                  steamy reversion ceremony.

                  Howard's closure marked the end of a U.S. air presence in Panama that
                  began in 1917, when pioneer army fliers unpacked two biplanes at Balboa
                  docks, at the Pacific coast entrance to the Panama Canal.

                  A ceremony December 14 will mark the final withdrawal of all U.S. armed
                  forces from Panama after a 96-year presence, and the reversion of the canal
                  to Panamanian control.

                  Of the more than 2000 pilots and ground support personnel once based at
                  Howard with the USAF 24th Wing, just 125 remained last week.

                  Runways closed on May 1 as inter-agency drug-busters based at Howard
                  relocated to Key West in Florida, taking F-16 fighters and AWACS
                  surveillance aircraft with them.

                  Since then U.S. narcotic interceptions have fallen by more than 50 percent,
                  Barry McCaffrey, policy director of the U.S. Office of National Drug
                  Control, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in October.

                  Bilateral talks aimed at maintaining a Multilateral Counter-narcotics Center
                  (MCC) in Panama after U.S. withdrawal, failed in September 1998.

                  "Today's ceremony opens a new page ... not just for our history books, but
                  in our relations with the United States," President Mireya Moscoso said in
                  her remarks, adding that future relations would be defined by "cooperation,
                  respect and friendship."

                  For many airmen, the 800 buildings grouped around a runaway -- including
                  a hospital, a bowling alley, riding stables and a baseball field -- were more
                  than just a military base.

                  "It used to be such a community, filled with children and laughter. Now all
                  that's left is silence and memories," said Air Force Chaplain Sam Rorer,
                  recalling the 600 members of his once lively congregation.

                  "It's been stressful watching your friends leave and the base die," said Senior
                  Airman Michael Cavalli, who managed gate security at Howard.

                  For Panama, the site -- valued at $635 million -- is the most valuable of the
                  former Canal Zone military bases that have reverted to national control.

                  The Inter-oceanic Regional Authority, responsible for developing the 5,200
                  acre site plans to put it up for tender for private commercial, residential and
                  light industrial use.

                  As a presidential honor guard raised the Panamanian flag over Howard, a
                  group of jubilant patriots shouted out the rallying call of "one territory, one

                  Still, not everyone in Panama is celebrating the U.S. withdrawal. Since Canal
                  Zone military operations started to wind down in 1996, more than 3,000
                  Panamanian civilian workers have faced dwindling employment prospects.

                  "For the government it means something, because they're going to get the
                  canal. But for me, it's bad," said Alfonso Brown, who worked at Howard's
                  commissary for 12 years.

                  Brown earned $500 a month bagging groceries, but has been looking for
                  work in the low-wage Panamanian economy -- marked by 12 percent
                  unemployment -- since he was laid off in September.

                  With Howard's closure, just one of 12 U.S. bases remains in the former
                  canal zone. Fort Clayton will be handed back to Panama on Nov. 30.

                     Copyright 1999 Reuters.