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Panama's Canal Crunch

When the '77 treaties expire, will Panama be ready for control?

FIFTEEN years ago, on Sept. 7, 1977, the Panama Canal Treaties were signed by former President Jimmy Carter and the late Gen. Omar Torrijos. Two treaties were signed: one dealing with the operation and defense of the canal, and the other guaranteeing its permanent neutrality. The milestone event marked an abolition of prior treaties and an introduction to a new state of affairs.

The treaty governing operation and defense states that the "Republic of Panama shall participate increasingly in the management and protection and defense of the Canal ...." Currently, however, there is no Panamanian Army to comply with this provision. The Panamanian Defense Forces were eliminated during the United States invasion of Dec. 20, 1989. (In a plebiscite scheduled for Nov. 15 the people of Panama will accept or refuse a Panamanian Army.)

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A new Panamanian Police Force was created shortly after the invasion to impose law and order in the country, but this weak Police Force has been criticized for its financial and organizational problems. Panama City is experiencing the worst crime rate in history. During a recent visit by President George Bush to Panama, the police were ordered to fire tear gas into a crowd of demonstrators protesting the US invasion. Mr. Bush had to be escorted out of the ceremony with tears in his eyes by the US Secret Service.

The operations treaty also states that there is to be growing participation of Panamanian nationals at high management levels within the Panama Canal Commission. The commission is a US government agency created to comply with the responsibilities established in the canal treaties. The authority of the US president with regard to the commission is conducted through the secretary of defense and the secretary of the Army. The commission is supervised by a board composed of nine members, five Americans and f our Panamanians.

However, Panamanians are not occupying key positions dealing with full responsibility for the management, operation and maintenance of the canal. The administrator of the commission is a Panamanian citizen, but there are many crucial positions where Panamanians are left out. This is mainly due to lack of political will on the part of the US government and lack of political determination on the part of the Panamanian government.

The neutrality treaty provides that after the its expiration, only the Republic of Panama shall operate the canal and maintain military forces, defense sites, and military installations within its national territory. The US is required by law to turn over the Panama Canal and 10 adjacent military bases to the Republic of Panama when the treaty expires Dec. 31, 1999.

Unfortunately, the government of Panama still does not have a plan or a coherent policy to comply with this treaty provision. In the meantime the US will continue to manage, operate and defend the canal, while the policies of the Panamanian government remain dormant. Panamanian officials contend that it is up to the next Panamanian administration in 1994 to deal with the canal issues.

There have been suggestions in Panama to create a consortium to manage the canal. Some of the nations mentioned to participate in this partnership are Germany, Japan, the US, and Panama. This is not a bad idea considering how indispensable the canal is to international maritime traffic. But the lead must be taken by the government of Panama, before the year 2000, to guarantee a peaceful and successful transfer.

There is no room for neocolonialism in the 21st century. The former colonies and protectorates around the world want to be sovereign and independent in order to pursue economic growth and development. As General Torrijos used to say, "There is no colonialism that will last 100 years, nor people who will accept it."

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The world will be watching the United Kingdom and Portugal when Hong Kong reverts to Chinese sovereignty June 30, 1997 and Macau Dec. 20, 1999. It will also be watching Uncle Sam when he turns over the Panama Canal to the Republic of Panama at noon, Dec. 31, 1999.

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