Panama, U.S.

Canal Controversies

A diplomatic snub from Washington and speculation abroad over security and daunting investment requirements failed to dampen Panama’s December celebration of the Panama Canal handover from the United States to local control.

Reporting on the formal ceremonies marking the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the transfer of canal administration to Panamanian control, Manuel Vega Loo of Panama City’s independent La Prensa observes (Dec. 16), “So begins a new stage and a great opportunity for Panamanians to demonstrate to the world that they are capable of managing the Panama Canal in an efficient and secure manner.”

The absence of President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright from the official U.S. delegation was noted by La Prensa’s Washington correspondent Betty Brannan Jaen. She  writes on Dec. 12 that “ultra-right” U.S. opponents of the handover under the 1977 treaty signed by the late General Omar Torrijos and former President Jimmy Carter “succeeded in converting the handover of the canal into a political potato so hot that all Democrats fled from it.”

The independent Universal de Panama of Panama City (Dec. 15) raises the specter of renewed U.S. intervention under “Canal Neutrality Treaty” provisions intended to safeguard international access to the interoceanic waterway. “We should handle the duties of canal administration with the highest responsibility and efficiency, effective performance, and permanent security of the waterway so as to avoid the possibility of the United States invoking such provisions,” the editorial asserts.

Questions of the maintenance and future development of the canal in the 21st century rouse debate both within Panama and throughout the region, particularly in the export-oriented Pacific Rim countries of South America that depend heavily on shipments through the canal to critical U.S. and European markets. “Latin American countries feel satisfied that the dream of the Panamanian people is coming true, but at the same time they reiterate the responsibility of the government and its institutions to guarantee the efficiency of this interoceanic passage for all its users,” observes the conservative El Comercio of Quito (Dec. 14).

On the other hand, commentator Ezequiel Dawson, writing in Panama City’s La Prensa, argues that commercial and maritime users lobbying for modernization and expansion of the canal—viewed as essential to handle a new generation of larger cargo ships and expedite passage through the waterway—“do not put Panama’s best interests  first....Are we Panamanians prepared to continue laying down our territory and natural resources on the altar of international maritime transportation?”