THE HANDOVER of the Panama Canal to Panama at midday Friday will be a symbolic non-event along a smooth transition that has been taking place for two decades.
Whether this is a good idea was hotly debated before the treaty was ratified by one vote in the Senate in 1978. Now, it is a done deal.
The canal was started in 1881 by a French company that failed. The United States conspired to tear Panama from Colombia in 1903, in return for getting a 10-mile zone wherein the United States was effectively sovereign and would build the canal.
The 50-mile ditch with three sets of locks was completed in 1914. It fostered shipping between coasts and made this country a great power. During World War II, the U.S. Army occupied the zone to protect the canal.
Under the Carter administration's treaty with Panama, the Canal Zone ceased to exist. Panamanian sovereignty was proclaimed; a Panamanian became chief administrator; almost all of the work force is Panamanian; and the U.S. Army, sufficient to take over Panama and arrest its president in 1989, was withdrawn by early December.
The "handover" means that a Panama Canal Authority, appointed by the president and legislature of Panama, replaces the joint U.S.-Panamanian Canal Commission. That's all.
Where the United States formerly ran the canal as a break-even service to world shipping, Panama is privatizing operations for a profit Investment for industrial, commercial and tourist exploitation of the former Canal Zone is picking up.
The canal railway is being rebuilt. RailWorks Corp. of Baltimore, a consortium of companies in the railroad services business, has a major contract.
The canal is being enlarged. Even so, container ships coming into service are too big to use it. So while the canal handles 4 percent of world seaborne trade, much of it to Baltimore, and usage is increasing as capacity allows, its share of world trade will decrease.
The biggest danger of the new arrangement lies in the vicissitudes of Panamanian politics. The next menace is Colombian narco-terrorists. The United States retains the right to defend the canal from attack.
Critics of the handover point to Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., operating ports at either end, as a possible harborer of Chinese intelligence agents. The company, however, was already a worldwide port operator when Hong Kong was British. Things are not always what they seem in Panama. The isthmus runs east-west and the canal north-south. The Atlantic end is west of the Pacific end.
A case can be made that instead of giving the canal back to Panama, the United States could rescind past imperialism by giving Panama back to Colombia. Apparently, Colombia never asked.