Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter symbolically placed the Panama Canal into Panamanian hands last Tuesday with the simple words, "it's yours," granting the tiny Central American nation sovereignty over all its territory for the first time since its birth in 1903.
"Today we are gathered in the spirit of mutual respect, acknowledging without question the full sovereignty of Panama," Carter told hundreds of Panamanian and foreign dignitaries gathered under a light rain at the Miraflores Locks at the Canal's Pacific entrance. In what Carter and Panama President Mireya Moscoso called a pivotal moment in the history of the hemisphere, the two leaders signed a symbolic accord marking the Canal's passage to Panama.
Under the 1977 Panama Canal Treaties brokered by Carter, the U.S. officially relinquishes control of the famous waterway at noon on Dec. 31.
"At last we have reached victory, the canal is ours," Moscoso said, framed in the backdrop of the canal boat Atlas, decked in festive maritime bunting. "Your presence here is not just a reflection of your belief in the justice of our nationalistic aspirations, but also proof of your confidence in Panama in the face of the grave challenge placed before us by the new millennium," she told visiting delegations from around the world.
Future U.S. Presence In Panama Rejected
Moscoso singled out Carter as a statesman "committed to the truth and to justice, who understood despite internal opposition that the United States had a moral obligation to recognize Panama's demands."
Outside the locks, demonstrators burned an American flag, rejecting any future U.S. presence in Panama and protesting a plan to flood indigenous and peasant communities to increase the canal watershed. Police reported no injuries or arrests.
"We reject any plan for a North American presence beyond 2000," the group of students, poor farmers and workers said in a written statement. "We reject the intent to flood the lands where we were born, where we live and work."
Inside the gates, Carter and Moscoso looked back on a century of U.S.-Panama relations marred by turmoil over America's domineering presence here, and forward to a new century of brotherhood based on democratic principles and mutual interests.
Carter recalled the "political courage" of U.S. Republican and Democratic members of Congress who voted to ratify the 1977 treaties amid Cold-War fears of communist encroachment. Many sacrificing their political careers to do so.
And he dismissed "demagogues" who continue to promote "false stirrings" of concern over the future of the waterway.
Congressional Republicans still criticize the handover, raising concerns that Panama has no standing army and the canal's security could be threatened by Colombian guerrillas.
They also allege China is seeking to control the waterway through the Hong Kong-based multinational Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., which runs cargo terminals at both ends of the canal, a charge the White House
and Pentagon have dismissed.
Panama representatives of Hutchison Whampoa roundly denied the possibility that the Chinese could gain control. "We don't actually operate the ports, we operate the loading and discharging of containers," John Meredith, president of the local subsidiary Panama Ports Co., told a news conference. The ports are managed independently by Panama's National Maritime Authority, he said.
The ceremonies began on a mournful note as Carter laid a wreath at an American military cemetery on the banks of the Canal, honoring 5,000 Americans who gave their lives building and defending the 50-mile (82 km) waterway.
As a bugle sounded the dying notes of Taps (the U.S. version of the Last Post) and the U.S. role in Panama slipped into history, many in Panama lamented the absence of President Bill Clinton at this pivotal moment in history.
Carter's arrival on last Monday, as head of the U.S. delegation, was greeted with none of the fanfare reserved for heads of state like Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, Colombian President Andres Pastrana.
"We regret that President Clinton has not come to this event, which is unique and historic for Panama and the United States," Moscoso told reporters after receiving Spain's King Juan Carlos at Panama City's international airport on Monday. -(Tim Gaynor, Reuters)