Panama Canal's helmswoman, Moscoso: Widow of populist leader will take national control of canal under 1977 treaty.

September 02, 1999

MIREYA Moscoso, the new president of Panama, is not the only foreign leader educated in the United States, but she is the first with a degree in interior decorating from Miami-Dade Community College.

Ms. Moscoso, elected in May, heads a party that is weaker in the legislature than its opposition. In recent days, she hammered out agreements with minor parties to give her a bare working majority, vulnerable to defections.

Her government will take over the Panama Canal on Dec. 31, under the treaty signed by President Jimmy Carter and the Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos in 1977. Panama will acquire the bases vacated by the U.S. army. Disposing of them will be a major source of national wealth for public benefit or private gain.

Ms. Moscoso heads the Arnulfista Party, named for her late husband. Arnulfo Arias, the most popular politician in Panama's history, was elected president four times. He was ousted by the military three times and denied victory a fourth. Ms. Moscoso, his secretary, followed him to exile in Florida in 1968, married him the next year when she was 23 and he 67, and lived there a decade.

Her politics are leftist and intentions honest but abilities may be in question. The U.S. exodus could trigger a feeding frenzy by political, business and military leaders that would be hard to control.

Some U.S. politicians are alarmed about the Chinese company operating ports connected to the canal, which is owned by a Hong Kong billionaire.

But other foreign firms also hold concessions from the outgoing regime of Ernesto Perez Balladares, whose privatization policies President Moscoso is pledged to halt or reverse. About one-third of the 35 ships passing through the canal each day are Chinese. The greatest danger to the canal comes from within Panamanian society, however, not from foreign threat.

The U.S. reserves the right under the treaty to intervene to save the canal if needed. But the 1989 war, launched by President George Bush from bases in Panama to arrest the dictator Manuel Noriega and jump-start democracy, is unlikely to be repeated without such bases.

Both countries have had 23 years to prepare for the handover. President Moscoso is committed to it. There is no going back.

Pub Date: 9/02/99

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