A historic transfer of power

Sovereignty: Questions arise as the United States prepares to relinquish control of the Canal Zone to Panama.

November 14, 1999|By Joseph R. L. Sterne

AT HIGH noon on Dec. 31, the last day of the 1900s, the Republic of Panama will at last achieve what it has always proclaimed as its destiny: full sovereignty over of the inter-ocean canal that the gringos built in the heyday of U.S. imperialism.

At that moment, the United States will cede control over the Panama Canal Zone to a government that has yet to prove its competence to maintain and operate one of the planet's great maritime choke points.

The construction of the Panama Canal from 1903 to 1914 was an engineering marvel that heralded America's emergence as a world power. It made a two-ocean Navy a reality, and was the logical extension of an expansionist policy that brought Hawaii, Puerto Rico, part of Cuba and the Philippines under the Stars and Stripes.

When President Jimmy Carter dared to sign a treaty in 1977 bequeathing the canal to Panama at the end of this century, California's Gov. Ronald Reagan thundered: "We built it, we paid for it, it's ours, and we're going to keep it." The issue tore the Senate apart before ratification passed by a one-vote margin. In the political fallout that came after, only seven of the 20 pro-treaty senators up for re-election in 1978 returned to Capitol Hill. Two years later, 11 more senators met a similar fate and Reagan defeated Carter for the presidency.

It is ironic that an issue that mesmerized the American people a generation ago hardly flickers across the radar screen of public awareness today. When the Panamanians elected a new president who will oversee the canal transition, the news was relegated to the inside pages. Diplomats in both countries hope the situation will remain low key. But it is touch-and-go, especially with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms on the warpath.

Real nationhood

Midway in the 20-year period between passage of the Carter treaty and the fast-approaching Panamanian takeover of the canal, U.S. forces intervened in Panama to overthrow and arrest the dictator-thug, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega. Many Latin Americans were convinced this was proof positive that the Yanquis would never give up the canal. Nevertheless, the die was cast. Even the breakdown in 1998 of negotiations to permit a drug-fighting contingent of U.S. troops to remain in Panama failed to disrupt the transition.

While Americans will be preoccupied on New Year's Eve with the Y2K threat of a worldwide computer failure, it's predictable that Panama's 2.8 million people will be anxiously celebrating their metamorphosis into real nationhood. Theirs has been a country of doubtful legitimacy ever since it was carved out of Colombia by foreign statesmen and speculators intent on connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific. Panama's sense of self was largely defined by its relationship to the North American colossus that created it. For decades, Panamanian politicians loudly demanded ownership of the canal, a sure-fire pitch for popular support, even while their business community eagerly feasted on the advantages of American paternalism.

Now that they are about to get what they have wished for, Panama's leaders face what Mark Falcoff, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, calls an "identity crisis." Asserting he is "not sure they believe in themselves," especially after relying so long on a U.S. "daddy," Falcoff points to a multitude of problems.

The new president of Panama, Mireya Moscoso, is, in Falcoff's opinion, "the least prepared Latin American leader since Eva Peron." The widow of Panama's three-time president, Arnulfo Arias, she emulates Peron with demagogic promises to rescue one-third of her people from dire poverty. While this is standard political palaver down Panama way, it is woefully ill-timed. Outside investors, already wary, are bound to worry that canal revenues needed for upkeep and improvement of the waterway will be diverted to bottomless-pit welfare.

Endemic problems

Even if Moscoso upholds her pledge of "efficient and responsible" administration of the canal, her ability to wield "efficient and responsible" power is in question. The political opposition controls the legislature and most municipal councils. Corruption, nepotism, money laundering, drug trafficking -- all these remain endemic.

Although U.S. authorities have made it their business to turn over $4 billion in zonal properties in good condition, both the waterway and many buildings within its borders are showing their age. It will be a close thing, according to Falcoff, whether the Panamanian government can sell or lease these properties profitably before a tropical climate, looters and corruption take their toll.

More upbeat assessments come from Ambler Moss, a former U.S. ambassador to Panama, who is now director of the North-South Center at the University of Miami, and C. Richard Nelson, manager of the Atlantic Council's work on Panama.

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