Two of America's feats in this century are the technological marvel of constructing giant locks to lift and lower ships across the continental divide in Panama and the Canal Treaties of 1978, which ensured the canal's security and continued U.S. leadership by modernizing the U.S. relationship with Panama.
It is natural that there should be some uneasiness about the transfer, but Panama has the talent and will to operate the canal, perhaps better than the United States. The United States used a model of state socialism to run the canal; Panama is inviting private enterprise to improve the canal and use both sides for ports, hotels, sports facilities, assembly plants, industrial parks, eco-tourism, ship repair and private housing.
The United States has an important stake in helping Panama succeed. But not only are we not helping, we are making it more difficult. Nervous voices urge the administration to negotiate an extension of U.S. military bases for counter-narcotics. This was a good idea several years ago, but both governments handled the delicate political issue ineptly. Further discussion at this time only destabilizes Panama when our overriding interest is to lend confidence to the transfer.
What should the United States do?
Congress should pass a resolution reaffirming U.S. adherence to the Canal Treaties and to helping Panama develop. Many in America, and even some administration officials, don't know or can't remember why we "gave away" the canal. The president should use his meeting with Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso on Oct. 19 to explain that the treaties were not only the best defense against angry nationalists; they also transformed a resentful Panama into a cooperative partner on the canal while advancing U.S. interests in Latin America.
The president should also instruct the State and Defense Departments to reach agreements with Panama on how we would support its defense of the canal. Incredibly, we have not yet done this. Some in the Pentagon have talked of plans to intervene. They should be told that the purpose of the treaty was to build a partnership with Panama, which has the primary responsibility after 2000 for defending the canal. We retain the right to defend it unilaterally under extreme circumstances, but the spirit of the treaties demands that we assist, not displace, Panama.
We should put aside for at least a couple of years the idea of using former U.S. military bases for counter-narcotics or other purposes. This is a controversial issue in Panama, and the two countries need first to get used to a more balanced relationship.
The United States should negotiate a 10-year agreement with Panama to clean up military bases and firing ranges at least as well as we do when we close them in the United States. Our behavior has been disgraceful and inconsistent with the treaties. Instead of doing as little as we can get away with, we should build a partnership by doing as much as we can to clean up the bases.
A package of investment incentives is needed to encourage U.S. companies to help Panama turn the former canal zone into the hemisphere's Singapore. Congress should also pass the legislation giving Panama and other Caribbean Basin countries access to the U.S. market comparable to Mexico's access, with the condition that these countries also take concerted steps toward reducing their trade barriers.
Finally, as a dramatic sign of our determination to work together in the next century, President Clinton should visit Panama before the turnover and send Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford to oversee the transfer on the century's last day.
Taking these six steps between now and Dec. 31 will show the world that we will continue to find new moral paths to global leadership in the future. The United States should be as proud in transferring the canal as it was in building it.
The writer, a professor of political science at Emory University, directed Latin American Affairs on the National Security Council from 1977 to 1981.