Facing huge task with no plans, Panama balks as U.S. prepares to leave canal

December 16, 1993|By Esther Schrader | Esther Schrader,Knight-Ridder News Service

ON THE PANAMA CANAL -- Less than a month before the start of the U.S. pullout that this nation always wanted, Panama has not one plan for developing the huge chunk of territory under U.S. control, and a majority of citizens now want the Americans to stay.

There is little likelihood that nervous Panamanians will get their wish. Under the 1977 Panama Canal treaties that mandate the pullout, the United States has already transferred several hundred buildings and some control of the canal to the Panamanians.

In January, the withdrawal will begin in earnest. That's when the first of 10,000 U.S. troops stationed on 16 military properties will leave, beginning the exit of the Southern Command that was U.S. headquarters in Central America during the Cold War.

By the end of 1995, 40 percent of the U.S. troops stationed here will be gone. By Dec. 31, 1999, the canal and all of the former U.S. bases will be in Panamanian hands.

With the troops will go the estimated $300 million to $400 million a year they pump into the Panamanian economy and the more than 4,000 jobs Panama reaps by serving them. They will leave Panama with thousands of empty buildings and the cost of maintaining and improving the canal.

The pullout could send Panama's already weakened economy into a tailspin, even though it no longer will have to share canal profits with the United States.

In an August survey by the leading Panamanian newspaper, La Prensa, 70 percent of Panamanians questioned said they want the United States to stay.

"The people have something worse than fear of the future," said Roberto Eisenmann, editor of La Prensa. "They have fear of the present. After a fight for the canal that was fought for generations, it is ours. But there is no program of development, no sense that plans are progressing. We are at a loss, we are confused, we don't know what to do."

Sixteen years after the treaties were signed, the country has not signed one contract to develop the 17 percent of Panamanian territory being vacated by the United States. It doesn't even have a master plan, and only in May did it create a government body to come up with one.

"We started more than 15 years too late," said Carlos Mendoza, a prominent lawyer who is head of the agency. "And just as we begin to walk, we find ourselves in the middle of an election year and everybody's attention focused on it. I am frightened. I am not just worried, I am frightened. We have control of one of the most important waterways in the world. What if we make a mess of it?"

The inaction is a disappointment to many Panamanians, who grew up believing U.S. control of the strategic canal was the primary hindrance to their county's development.

Over the last few years, there has been no shortage of ideas on what to do with the canal and with lucrative military property estimated to be worth more than $30 billion.

There has been talk of a Panamanian Disneyland, of enticing the United Nations to move its complex here from New York, of big hotels along the man-made lakes that make up much of the canal, and of creating an animal park on the scale of the San Diego Zoo.

But with the country in the grip of military dictator Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega until 1989, and still shuddering from the devastating social and economic effects of the U.S. invasion that unseated him, the ideas have never become more than talk.

"We are not going to be able to do anything with the canal if we can't do something first with the country," said Miguel Bernal, an attorney and prominent critic of President Guillermo Endara, who has led Panama since the invasion and will step down after spring elections.

"Our politicians haven't given one second of thought to what to do. They have washed their hands of it, left it to the next government. Now we have only six years left. Our dreams may remain just dreams."

International shippers also worry that the Panamanians will not be as efficient as the U.S. military in operating the canal, which routinely handles 30 ships a day on a tight, 24-hour schedule.

Panama's management of the property turned over to it when the treaty was signed has not been encouraging.

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