After a century of operation, the U.S. is returning the Panama Canal to its namesake
This article was posted on Decmeber 13, 1999.
When former president Jimmy Carter shakes hands with members of the Panama Canal Authority on December 14, 1999, it will mark the ceremonial end to a transition that's been 20 years in the making.
Though the transfer of Canal power seems to most a sign of hope, some Americans have voiced second thoughts.
U.S. History & the Canal
After encouraging Panama's independence from Colombia, the U.S. signed a treaty in 1903 that gave it the rights to build and operate the canal for perpetuity. The agreement also gave the U.S. the right to govern the 10-mile wide, 40-mile long strip of land around the canal, called the Panama Canal Zone.
U.S. engineers organized thousands of workers for the 10-year project that would eventually become one of the greatest engineering achievements in history.
The United States government owned and operated the canal and the surrounding zone for 85 years, establishing it as a valuable trade route and important piece of national security for its armed forces. During World War II the U.S. population in Panama included 65,000 soldiers plus tens of thousands of civilian employees.
Source of Bad Relations
The canal gradually became a source of bad relations. Anti-U.S. riots in the 1960s sparked negotiations for a new treaty. On Sept. 1, 1977, after a one-vote victory in the Senate, President Carter signed the Panama Canal Treaties. The legislation called for the step-by-step transfer of the canal to the government of Panama beginning on Oct. 1, 1979, and officially ending on Dec. 31, 1999.
Since 1979, a U.S. government agency called the Panama Canal Commission, made up of five Americans and four Panamanians, has supervised the transition. It will give way to the new Panama Canal Authority at the end of the month.
Don't think the handover will be a case of the United States shutting off the lights and handing the keys to an ill-prepared nation.
In fact, 96 percent of the canal's 9,500-person workforce is Panamanian, and an American hasn't been in charge of the canal for almost nine years. Gilberto Guardia was installed as the first Panamanian administrator of the canal in September 1990 and he was succeeded in 1996 by fellow countryman Alberto Aleman Zubieta.
The transition is essentially already complete. The last U.S. base was closed on Dec. 1 and there are just 120 troops left in the area. The state department says these remaining troops will evacuate a few hours after the American flag is lowered for the last time on the afternoon of Dec. 31.
What Happens Next?
Some wonder if the canal transfer is a mistake. To many Americans, the Panama Canal symbolizes a key piece of the nation's economic and millitary success in this century. After all, Panama is a country slightly smaller than South Carolina and it has no military. Has the U.S. left the door wide open for foreign interests to sail in threaten the country's national security?
The state department says the hand-over of the canal is a gesture of American confidence in the Panamanians. Officials claim the land essentially belongs to Panama and all of Latin America.
Despite sometimes violent protests during most of the century, the U.S. has maintained control over this piece of Panama, which essentially splits the republic in half. Peter Romero, assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, compared it to another country taking over the Mississippi River, and five miles on either side for the next century.
Everyone is not in agreement about the benefits of this gesture. Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, R-Idaho, has introduced legislation that would alert the Panamanian government that the Panama Canal Treaties were illegal. The bill claims that the U.S. and Panama signed two contradictory versions of the treaties and therefore only the 1903 treaty of U.S. ownership is still legally binding.
The bill has gained support in light of reports that a Hong Kong-based company is plotting to take control of the canal after the U.S. withdrawal. Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. has a 25-year lease to run the loading, unloading and storing duties at ports along the canal after the hand-over. The company is under scrutiny for its owner's suspected relations with communist officials in China. The scenario is being downplayed by both Hutchison owner Li Ka-shing and President Clinton.
"We are not even the largest operator in Panama, compared with some of the Americans and Taiwan operators," Li told Hong Kong reporters earlier this month. "We are running a container port business which has nothing to do with the operation of the Panama Canal."
In addition, Clinton aids have pointed out that the Neutrality Act, which was part of the Panama Canal Treaties, allows the U.S. government to intervene in canal issues when national interests are at stake. White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said recently, "that was true when it was signed and it will be very true as we move into the next century."
A U.S. Military Presence
The U.S. military presence in Panama has also played a role in the country's battle against illegal drug trafficking. After Dec. 31, Panama's special police force will be the only armed forces left in the country. Opponents of the handover think the transfer could set back U.S. initiatives. The state department has said in response that they have been making "alternative arrangements" for some time with other countries in the area to prevent that from happening.
Finally, Panama must find a way to replace the thousands of service jobs that have disappeared since the U.S. military began its withdrawal. It must also find a productive use for the 70,000 acres and 5,000 buildings they are about to inherit.
It's clear that both nations are still struggling with their decisions. Panamanians are torn by their disdain for the swath of land that has represented American colonialism for almost a century and their economic dependence on this arrangement. America, too, is struggling, a reluctant mother sending her offspring out in the world.