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An Eye on Panama

A "sleeper" news story in this year of big stories is the transfer of the Panama Canal to Panamanian sovereignty by Dec. 31.

Yes, that's a few months off yet, but the recent election in that Central American republic refocused attention on a diplomatic transaction that roiled American politics in the late 1970s. That was when President Jimmy Carter signed the treaties to turn over to Panama the canal and billions of dollars in US-owned real estate. At home, Mr. Carter was pelted by criticism that "We built it, it's ours."

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But the goodwill the treaties created in the region, and the built-in safeguards for the canal's continued smooth running, made the agreement worthwhile, then and now.

Panama's May 2 election, which resulted in the country's first female president, Mireya Moscoso, was reassuring. It was the third orderly vote in recent years, and was apparently free of corruption. This after a long history of military coups and electoral fraud.

Today, every politician, including President-elect Moscoso, is most concerned about boosting the country's economy and easing heavy unemployment. They hope full ownership of the canal will help, although the facility's daily operation is already in Panamanian hands, and most profits go back into maintenance. The other assets, land and buildings, will need careful management.

Also needed is continuing partnership with the the United States. Recent resistance to plans for an antidrug center in the former Canal Zone is troubling. Both Panama and the US would benefit from such an operation. The US needs the base for narcotics-surveillance flights, and Panama must protect itself from again becoming a cog in the traffickers' machine, as it was under Gen. Manuel Noriega.

The Panama Canal Treaty itself was an admirable act of hemispheric partnership. That same spirit should govern its final implementation.

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