December 14, 1999
Panama: 'The canal is ours'
Ceremony precedes official handover on December 31

                  PANAMA CITY (CNN) -- After building the Panama Canal and
                  controlling it for nearly a century, the United States on Tuesday ceremonially
                  handed over the vital waterway to Panama. The official transfer is 17 days
                  from now.

                  "We are very happy because, at last ... we have reached victory. The canal
                  is ours," said Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso after she and former
                  U.S. President Jimmy Carter signed a document symbolically relinquishing
                  the canal and the land surrounding it to Panama.

                  The ceremony was held at Miraflores Locks on Panama's Pacific coast,
                  not far from the capital, Panama City.

                  Carter, who agreed to the handover 22 years ago, rose into the Miraflores
                  Locks atop a "mule" -- a machine that tows ships into the locks -- alongside
                  Moscoso, King Juan Carlos of Spain and six Latin American presidents.

                  The United States also was represented at the ceremony by a delegation that
                  included Clinton administration Cabinet officials -- but not the president

                  'Biggest day in Panamanian history'

                  Officially, the U.S. presence at the canal ends on December 31 -- the day
                  noted in the document signed by Carter and Moscoso -- but the ceremonial
                  turnover was moved forward to avoid a conflict with millennium activities.

                  "It's the biggest day in Panamanian history," said Latin America analyst
                  Mark Falcoff of the American Enterprise Institute. "Since the nation became
                  independent from Colombia (in 1903), the great dream of Panamanian patriots
                  has been to control the totality of their national territory."

                  Under President Theodore Roosevelt, the United States instigated a treaty
                  with Panama that gave the United States the right to build the canal and
                  created a 10-mile wide Canal Zone of what amounted to sovereign American
                  territory surrounding the waterway.

                  Regaining that "10-mile slice right down the middle of the country ... is the
                  consummation of a process that many generations of Panamanian patriots
                  have worked for," Falcoff said.

                  Apology to Panama

                  While Carter praised Roosevelt's vision in seeing the need for a canal and his
                  determination to get it built, he also offered Panamanians an apology on
                  behalf of the United States, which has dominated the Central American
                  country for almost 100 years.

                  "We didn't understand clearly enough the feeling of many Panamanians that
                  the arrangement implied an element of colonialism and subjugation and not
                  an equal representation of leaders from two sovereign countries," Carter said
                  in a speech after the signing. "This created a need for later presidents to
                  address the controversy."

                  He also denounced "false stories" from handover critics who "predicted
                  catastrophes" about the security of the canal under Panama's control.

                  Moscoso praised what she called "the consolidation of our sovereignty and
                  the recovery of our national territory." She said the canal will operate
                  efficiently and securely under Panamanian stewardship.

                  Even though the agreement with Panama allows the United States to
                  intervene if the waterway's neutrality or U.S. interests are in danger, the
                  battle for Senate approval -- by only one vote in 1978 -- was politically
                  costly for the Democrats and helped Ronald Reagan win the White House in

                  "This was not a popular treaty," Carter acknowledged.

                  Clinton, Gore, Albright don't attend

                  World leaders and dignitaries who witnessed the signing included Spain's
                  King Juan Carlos, the presidents of Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador,
                  Honduras, and Mexico -- but not Cuban President Fidel Castro, who was
                  not invited.

                  U.S. President Bill Clinton declined an opportunity to attend. His absence
                  has upset many in Panama, who said he was succumbing to pressures from
                  U.S. conservatives upset that the canal won't remain in American hands.

                  "We are very sorry that President Clinton was unable to come for this
                  historic event," Moscoso said Monday.

                  Vice President Al Gore opted to pursue his presidential campaign, and
                  Secretary of State Madeleine Albright canceled her trip to Panama at the
                  last minute to prepare for peace talks in Washington this week between
                  Israel and Syria.

                  "The United States lost a chance to look good," Panamanian Foreign
                  Minister Jose Miguel Aleman said Monday. "The feeling I have gotten from
                  ... other countries is that they are disappointed and perplexed."

                  He said Clinton's absence "is an example of the lack of diplomatic attention
                  by the United States to Latin America."

                  Commerce Secretary William Daley and Transportation Secretary Rodney
                  Slater were the senior U.S. administration officials at the ceremony.

                  In Washington, Clinton issued a statement expressing his "continuing
                  commitment" to the canal's security and a determination that the strategic
                  waterway remain open for global commerce.

                  What Panama gets

                  The treaties transfer to Panama 360,240 acres of real estate that made up
                  the Canal Zone, a fenced-in U.S. civilian and military enclave with schools,
                  churches and federal laws.

                  Its crown jewel is the canal, a 50-mile engineering marvel that raises ships
                  from one ocean and deposits them in another through a system of water
                  locks and a man-made lake.

                  About 14,000 ships pass through the canal every year, steered by
                  Panamanian or U.S. pilots, and pay $540 million in tolls.

                  Carter signed the treaties in 1977 with Panamanian strongman Gen. Omar
                  Torrijos, who 10 years earlier had come to power through a military coup.

                  While Carter was criticized in the United States, the treaties polished
                  Torrijos' image internationally and made him a national hero. Torrijos died in
                  a plane crash in 1981.

                  Carter's relationship with Panama has extended beyond the signing of the
                  treaties. In 1989, he went there as an international observer of the
                  presidential elections and witnessed how military strongman Gen. Manuel
                  Antonio Noriega nullified the election his candidate had lost.

                  Carter angrily denounced the maneuver and helped turn international opinion
                  against the Panamanian military. The United States invaded at the end of
                  1989, arrested Noriega and sent him to a Miami prison.

                    Correspondent Martin Savidge and The Associated Press contributed to this report.