- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 14, 1999

Panama Canal bluesPresident Clinton had long hoped foreign travel to anywhere, except Panama, would be scheduled for today, Dec. 14. It would have provided a handy excuse for missing a long-planned ceremony in Panama honoring the U.S. handover of the Panama Canal.

Early this month, Mr. Clinton said: “I may have to take another foreign trip [to Belfast] at about the same time, which is why I have not committed to make the [Panama] trip.” That Belfast trip never materialized, however, leaving Mr. Clinton bereft of political cover. That was unfortunate for Mr. Clinton, since Panama’s President Mireya Moscoso made a personal appeal to the president to attend, traveling to Washington in October to invite him.

Mr. Clinton’s only event scheduled for today is signing a foster care bill at the Old Executive Office building. The president is reportedly fighting “flu-like symptoms.” Vice President Al Gore was similarly too busy to attend the ceremony and, anyway, Mr. Clinton never asked him to go, a spokesman for the vice president told The Washington Times. Similarly, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was going to represent Mr. Clinton, decided on Friday that she would not be attending either. The highest ranking member of the U.S. delegation, therefore, will be former U.S. president Jimmy Carter. Commerce Secretary William Daley and Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater will be on the White House delegation.

Mr. Clinton and much of the rest of his White House team are shunning the ceremony to prevent from being associated with the canal handover, should it go wrong. Indeed, the White House policy towards the Panama Canal has been to stay as far away from the issue as possible. This is unfortunate, since U.S. leadership is badly needed in Panama.

At a hearing before a Banking and Financial Services Committee panel held last week, some witnesses expressed concern over the handover. Thomas A. Cabal, a professor at the National University of Panama, said he was wary about the rising activity of Chinese criminal gangs in Panama and Central America. Clinton administration officials refused to testify at the hearings and no committee Democrats attended probably due to flu-like symptoms.

The White House has similarly done little to decry the murky bidding process in which Hong-Kong based Hutchison Whampoa was awarded contracts to run the two major ports on the canal’s Atlantic and Pacific entrances. U.S. ambassador to Panama William Hughes said the process was less than transparent, but the administration has otherwise made little comment. Asked Tuesday if he was worried about the Chinese presence in the canal, Mr. Clinton made a notable slip of the tongue. “I would be very surprised if any adverse consequences flowed from the Chinese running the canal.” The The White House has long downplayed that the Hong-Kong firm has links to China.

Furthermore, Mr. Clinton has failed to make a concerted effort to negotiate a continuation of a U.S. military presence in Panama. The 1977 handover treaty signed under President Carter gave Panama the right to decide whether or not it would permit U.S. servicemen to remain in the Latin American country. This is a critical concern, since Colombian guerrillas have increasingly penetrated Panamanian territory and the country has had no standing army since 1989.

At the same time, the United States stood to benefit from attending the ceremony in Panama, in all its pomp and circumstance, had it made efforts in the past to safeguard Panama’s security. If anything, handing over the canal will improve the United States’ image in Latin America by recognizing Panama’s sovereignty over the waterway that cuts through its country. The treaty having been signed, the United States had to live up to its word, but it should have included a great many safeguards now missing. At the very least, the United States deserved a good photo-op for giving up the canal.

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