- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 10, 2004

Four and a half years after the United States gave the Panama Canal to the people of Panama, the canal is functioning as well, if not better, than it did under U.S. administration and control.

“So far, so good. To my great amazement, the canal has not been invaded and polluted by politics. So far, everything is on track,” said Mark Falcoff, Latin America observer at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Panama’s Canal: What Happens When the United States Gives a Small Country What It Wants.”

Today, Panamanians proudly own and operate the Panama Canal.

The average crossing took 33 hours in 1999. Today, it takes less than 23.

In 2001 and 2002, the canal averaged about 13,000 transits. There were 28 accidents in 1999, but just 12 accidents in 2003, the best record in canal history.

It has done this with reduced labor, from about 10,000 workers to fewer than 9,000 since the takeover.

The canal has been upgraded with computerized tracking, and it has doubled revenues, making a $109 million payment to the Panamanian government in 1999 and a $293.6 million contribution in 2002.

In 1976, with a campaign cry of “We built it, we paid for it, it’s ours and we are going to keep it,” Ronald Reagan used the Panama Canal to steam his way to the top tier of the Republican Party.

He lost the nomination to President Ford, but the issue galvanized the party faithful, and four years later Mr. Reagan won the nomination and the presidency.

Ironically, he defeated President Carter, who signed the 1977 treaty to return the canal to the Panamanians at the end of 1999.

Mr. Reagan rarely mentioned the canal in his 1980 campaign and did nothing to abrogate the treaty once he was in office. But until the day the canal was turned over on Dec. 31, 1999, conservative analysts opined that losing the canal was a disaster for U.S. national security.

Before the turnover, there was considerable hand-wringing in the U.S. press and on Capitol Hill about a deal that sold a Chinese company, Hutchinson Whampoa Ltd., port facilities near both entrances to the canal.

In addition to charges of corrupt bidding practices that denied the facilities to a U.S. manager, there was considerable worry that the Chinese company, whose owners have ties to the Beijing military, could use their position to sabotage the canal or build missile bases close enough to paralyze U.S. national security.

Al Santoli, director of the Asia-Pacific Initiative at the American Foreign Policy Council, said the concerns remain.

“The argument that the Chinese were going to build missile bases was ridiculous. They never do anything that obvious … but the Chinese are moving heavily economically into the region,” Mr. Santoli said.

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