Clinton decides not to attend transfer of Panama Canal

White House is wary, fearing political fallout could land on Gore

November 30, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton will rebuff a personal appeal from the president of Panama and skip next month's politically freighted ceremony at which the United States will hand over control of the Panama Canal, administration officials said yesterday.

The White House had been deeply divided between policy experts who implored Clinton to go and political advisers who feared that the image of the president turning over control of the canal would damage Clinton's would-be successor, Vice President Al Gore. The political aides worried that the administration would be perceived as responsible for forfeiting U.S. dominance in the region.

Now, just two weeks before the handover ceremony, Clinton has decided against personally presiding over an event that will mark the end of 90 years of control over the 51-mile waterway linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The White House said the president simply could not fit the trip into his schedule.

"This was always a close call that we had to make a decision on," a senior White House official said, insisting that the handover ceremony was "not a must."

"The president can't get around to everything he wants to do," the official said, declining to elaborate until the White House could notify the Panamanian government.

For Latin American experts, the formal handover of the 550-square-mile canal zone will mark an acknowledgment that the United States' relationship with the rest of the hemisphere is moving from overt dominance to a more equal partnership.

The planned festivities were designed to mark the passing of an era with great fanfare -- with a breakfast honoring the heads of state in attendance, two wreath-laying ceremonies memorializing those who died in the canal zone and a solemn signing ceremony at which the government of Panama is to assume control.

President Mireya Moscoso of Panama had flown to Washington in October to personally ask Clinton to attend. But since the Panama Canal treaty was negotiated in 1977, the handover has been a politically sensitive issue, especially among conservatives who see it as a retreat from U.S. regional dominance.

Some Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, have recently raised questions about a port management contract that the Panamanians awarded to a Hong Kong-based shipping company, Hutchison-Whampoa Ltd.

Conservative critics argue that this contract will, in effect, give the Chinese military control of the canal -- an assertion that White House aides and most regional experts have dismissed as ridiculous.

Nonetheless, the administration has treated the formal hand-over like a trip to the dentist. Gore aides let it be known that the vice president would not be attending the ceremony in Clinton's absence.

Instead, it will fall to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright to lead the U.S. delegation. Albright will touch down in Panama for just five hours, sign the necessary documents, then jet to Brussels for a NATO meeting.

"This could be viewed as a very personal snub," said Cynthia Riddle, a spokeswoman for the Panama Canal Commission, the governing body that will officially relinquish control of the strategic waterway on Dec. 31. "I don't know why he wouldn't do it. It's something that's been in the works for 20 years."

Allegations of Chinese interference in the canal provided new fodder for conservatives who had harbored a long-simmering contempt for the Panama Canal treaty. In 1997, Hutchison-Whampoa, one of the largest shipping companies in the world, beat out the American firm Bechtel for the contract to run container ports on both ends of the canal. Some critics have linked the company to the Chinese military. The companyowns and operates ports around the world, including the largest container port in the United Kingdom.

Lott called the company's activities a "critical national security issue." Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican who testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee, fumed, "If we do nothing, I can guarantee you that within a decade, a communist Chinese regime that hates democracy and sees America as its primary enemy will dominate the tiny country of Panama and the Panama Canal."

Joe Lockhart, the White House spokesman, dismissed such concerns as "silly stuff," and some experts agree. Thomas E. McNamara, who served as ambassador to Colombia in the Bush administration and is now president of the Council of the Americas, noted that Panama awarded one of the largest port management contracts to a Taiwanese company and another to a U.S.-Saudi Arabian consortium led by Mobil Oil.

The railroad running the length of the canal will be managed by an American company, Kansas City Southern. An entire residential subdivision at the former Albrook Air Force Base was bought by retired American canal workers.

Indeed, McNamara said, the Panamanian government recognized Taiwan as the legitimate government of China, hardly the diplomatic behavior of a nation in the pocket of the communist Chinese.

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