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
"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
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 ...
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
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
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
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
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