PANAMA CITY Standing before mammoth container ships rising and falling on their path between the seas, former President Jimmy Carter presided over a commemoration yesterday of the transfer of the Panama Canal, an act he set in motion 22 years ago.
President Clinton did not attend the event, nor did any top U.S. official. The White House had said Mr. Clinton who spent the day in Washington would be in Northern Ireland during the ceremony. The trip never materialized.
But his absence at the ceremony upset many in Panama, who said he was succumbing to pressures from U.S. conservatives. Mr. Clinton insisted his decision had nothing to do with politics.
Panamanian Foreign Minister Jose Miguel Aleman said Mr. Clinton’s absence “is an example of the lack of diplomatic attention by the United States to Latin America. The United States lost a chance to look good.”
Top government officials turned down invitations to attend after conservatives in the United States predicted that Panama will mismanage the canal when it ceases to belong to the United States on Dec. 31.
But Mr. Carter, the official head of a 29-member U.S. delegation that also included Army Secretary Louis Caldera and Ambassador Simon Ferro, criticized the doubters, describing U.S. control of the canal as a vestige of colonialism.
“In my country and in this one there were demagogues who exaggerated problems and spoke about catastrophic events,” he said. “There are still some in my country spreading false stories about security of the canal.”
Mr. Carter expressed confidence that Panama will do a good job running the canal. He was warmly applauded when he said in Spanish: “A new relationship now begins between your country and mine.”
The hand-over marks the close of a chapter in the relationship between the two nations that dates to Panama’s birth as an independent country in 1903, when it broke away from Colombia. That same year the United States and Panama agreed to build the canal, which was completed in 1914.
The deal gave the canal and a strip of land surrounding it to the United States. But under the 1977 treaties, signed by then-President Carter and Panamanian strongman Gen. Omar Torrijos, the Americans have been gradually pulling out.
The treaties transfer to Panama 360,240 acres of real estate that made up the Canal Zone, a fenced-in U.S. civilian and military enclave with schools, churches and federal laws. Its crown jewel was the canal, a 50-mile engineering marvel that raises ships from one ocean and deposits them in another through a system of water locks and a manmade lake.
About 14,000 ships pass through the canal every year, steered by Panamanian or U.S. pilots, and pay $540 million in tolls. Altogether, some 800,000 ships have crossed the canal.
Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso praised what she called “the consolidation of our sovereignty and the recovery of our 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 Washington, Mr. Clinton expressed a “continuing commitment” to the canal’s security and a determination that the strategic waterway remain open for global commerce.
“Today’s ceremony underscores our confidence in the government of Panama and the Panamanian people’s ability to manage this vital artery of commerce,” he said in a written statement.
Officially, the U.S. presence ends on Dec. 31, but the ceremonial turnover was moved forward to avoid conflict with millennium activities.
With a light rain falling, yesterday’s ceremony at the Miraflores Locks began with Mr. Carter, Mrs. Moscoso, the king of Spain and six Latin American presidents riding in atop a “mule” a machine that tows ships into the locks.
After a tour of the lock installations and the ceremonial passing of a Panamanian-built ship loaded with children in traditional Panamanian costumes, Mr. Carter and Mrs. Moscoso signed a document commemorating the occasion.
More than 20 years ago Mr. Carter was criticized in the United States for signing the treaties with Gen. Torrijos, who 10 years earlier had come to power through a military coup.
But the treaties polished the general’s image internationally and made him a national hero. Gen. Torrijos died in a plane crash in 1981.
Mr. Carter’s relationship with Panama has extended beyond the signing of the treaties. In 1989, he came here as an international observer of the presidential elections and witnessed how strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega nullified the election his candidate had lost.
Mr. Carter angrily denounced the maneuver and helped turn international opinion against the Panamanian military. The United States invaded at the end of 1989, arrested Noriega and sent him to a Miami prison.