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PANAMA: SECURITY ISSUES & ABSENCE OF PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON MARK CANAL-TRANSFER CEREMONY.

Panama held a ceremony Dec. 14 celebrating the end of US control of the canal. Clinton's absence received much attention, but a more substantive issue was the controversy over canal security and whether Panama can efficiently operate and maintain the canal.

The actual transfer will not take place until Dec. 31, but Panama decided to hold the ceremony early to avoid having the significance of the event lost amid millennium celebrations.

Leaders in Panama, Mexico, and other Latin America states regard the transfer as the official end of nineteenth century colonialism and Panama's emergence from the tutorial relationship it has had with the US since its independence from Colombia in 1903. Commentators also suggested the withdrawal of the US military from Panama and the canal transfer might boost Central American integration.

Yet, in the US, the event was seen differently. After some hesitation, President Bill Clinton announced he would not attend and would send former president Jimmy Carter and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright instead. Clinton said a trip to Panama would conflict with other travel plans in December but did not say what those plans were. White House officials said Clinton might go to Northern Ireland.

Then Albright canceled as well, saying she was busy in Washington. In the end, Carter headed the delegation. Carter signed the 1977 treaties with Panamanian president Gen. Omar Torrijos that mandated the transfer.

The 29-member US delegation included US Ambassador to Panama Simon Ferro, Army Secretary Louis Caldera, Rodney Slater, secretary of transportation, William Daley, secretary of commerce, Peter Romero, acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT), and Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY).

Clinton's absence irked Panamanian officials who saw it as a slight. Foreign Minister Jose Miguel Aleman said it showed "a lack of diplomatic attention to Latin America by the United States. The United States lost a chance to look good."

But others saw Clinton?s absence as a capitulation to conservatives in Congress who object to the transfer. Vice President Al Gore, a presidential candidate, was all but invisible in the search for a replacement for Clinton, giving rise to speculation that he feared a backlash at the polls if he associated himself with the transfer.

During the ceremony, Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso said the transfer would consolidate Panamanian sovereignty as well as the recovery of its national territory. "Our final objective is to guarantee safe, efficient, and uninterrupted operation of the waterway to satisfy our customers and to benefit our country," she said.

In his remarks, Carter called the canal a vestige of colonialism. Opponents of Panamanian control are "demagogues who exaggerated problems and spoke about catastrophic events," said Carter. "There are still some in my country spreading false stories about security of the canal."

Carter was clearly referring to conservatives such as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-LA), Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), and Retired Adm. Thomas Moorer who have raised the issue of canal security. They say China plans to take over the canal with help from a subsidiary of the Hong Kong-based Hutchinson-Whampoa company, which has concessions to manage two Panamanian ports (see EcoCentral, 1996-09-05, NotiCen, 1999-08-12).

"Not only are we turning over control of the canal, but we are providing a launching point for missiles against the United States," Moorer said in recent congressional hearings.

Rohrabacher has said that Chinese Triad gangs with ties to Chinese intelligence agencies are at work in Panama as are Cuban intelligence agencies, the Russian mafia, and South American drug cartels.

At a Nov. 30 press conference, Clinton dismissed those warnings and said he was confident that Panamanians could run the canal and maintain good relations with the US. Clinton and State Department officials have repeatedly said there was no danger of Chinese interference with the canal.

"I think the Chinese will in fact be bending over backwards to make sure that they run it in a competent and able and fair manner," said Clinton. He based this assumption in part on Chinese interest in joining the World Trade Organization (WTO). "They'll want to demonstrate to a distant part of the world that they can be a responsible partner."

Nevertheless, bills are before Congress aimed at sidetracking the Dec. 31 transfer, and a conservative group--Judicial Watch--has filed suit in federal court asking for a restraining order against the transfer.

Panama moves to implement its own security plan Panama is busy trying to line up partners in a worldwide accord to back its new canal-security plan (Plan Estrategico de Seguridad Nacional). The chief of Panama's National Council of Defense and Security, Pablo Quintero Luna, announced that the government's Servicio de Proteccion Institucional (SPI) had taken over the US$70 million former US communications facility at Corozal, where it will be responsible for providing intelligence on canal defense and coordinating security efforts with other countries. He said the move "demonstrates once again that we are on the right road and that, as soon as the Americans leave, we are taking over."

The security plan was worked out with US assistance, and Minister of Government Winston Spadafora said that Panama was working closely with the US on security matters. He reminded Panamanians during a television interview that the US was a partner in canal security even without an accord. As the US interprets the 1977 Treaty of Neutrality, it has the right to intervene militarily to protect the canal, he said.

Close cooperation with the US and any hint of a continued US military presence are sensitive issues in Panama. The political opposition has accused the Moscoso administration of making a secret deal with the US that would permit a US military presence after the canal transfer.

Responding to criticism after the government acknowledged that it had depended heavily on a US draft proposal in developing the security plan, Spadafora said agreements or letters of intent would be signed not just with the US but with Mexico, Italy, Taiwan, and several other countries. He took care to portray cooperation with the US as a practical reality, given its technical superiority in intelligence gathering.

Opposition Partido Revolucionario Democratico (PRD)

Deputy Miguel Bush recently released a memorandum that he said outlined a US plan for a series of military bases throughout the country to be run by a joint force called Unit 501. The administration has denied its security plan includes military bases.

Just as some conservatives in the US claim knowledge of Chinese and other threats to the canal, Bush said he believed the US had staged armed conflicts near the Colombian border designed to give the impression that Panama could not defend the canal without US military bases (see NotiCen, 1999-09-02).

[Sources: Inter Press Service, 11/17/99; Notimex, 11/30/99, 12/10/99; Associated Press, 11/30/99, 12/13/99, 12/14/99; El Panama America, 11/30/99, 12/01/99, 12/10/99, 12,15,99; The New York Times, 12/06/99 12/12/14, 12/14/99, 12/15/99]
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Comment:PANAMA: SECURITY ISSUES & ABSENCE OF PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON MARK CANAL-TRANSFER CEREMONY.
Publication:NotiCen: Central American & Caribbean Affairs
Geographic Code:2PANA
Date:Dec 16, 1999
Words:1168
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