President Carter called on Congress and the American people yesterday to accept new treaties governing the Panama canal and predicted that, if ratified, they would form "the foundation for a new era in our relations with all of Latin America."
In his first public comments on the subject since American and Panamanian negotiators reached basic agreement on new treaties Wednesday, the President stressed that the agreements would "fully preserve" America interests and national security requirements in the canal area.
At the same time, he said, they would satisfy Panama's aspirations for ultimate control of the canal. "I believe these treaties will help to usher in a new day in hemispheric relations," he said.
But while Carter and the chief American negotiators, Ambassadors Ellsworth Bunker and Sol Linowitz, were praising the treaties and predicting increased tension should ratification attempt fail, the White House provided little new information on the substance of the documents.
The treaties, certain to be subject to intensive scrutiny and debate in the Senate and a difficult passage toward ratification, are still being drafted and will not be ready for signature for a week or two, Linowitz said. What the negotiators settled on this week in Panama City was an agreement in principle that will form the basis for the treaties.
As outlined at the White House yesterday, the agreement calls for:
A Panama Canal treaty that would turn over control of the canal, in stages, to Panama, with Panama assuming complete control by the year 2000. Util 2000, the United States would maintain responsibility for defense of the canal and the right to maintain military bases there for that purpose. But on the effective date of the treaty, Panama would assume general jurisdiction over the Canal Zone, the 533-sqaure-mile territory on both sides of the canal.
A neutrality treaty giving the United States the right to defend the canal indefinitely and granting to U.S. and Panamanian warships a permanent guarantee of "expeditions passage" through the canal. This treaty would include a protocol that other nations would be asked to sign.
Payment's to Panama from canal tolls expected to be $40 million to $50 million a year initially and more later, another $10 million a year if toll revenues permit. In additional $10 million a year if toll revenues permit. In addition, the United States pledged to seek to arrange up $200 million in Export-Import Bank credits for Panama up to $75 million in Agency for International Development housing guarantees and a $20 million loan guarantee from the Overseas Private Investment Corp.
Enabling legislation, which will require House passage as well as Senate approval, that would establish a new government agency, the Panama Canal Commission to take over operation of the canal from the existing Panama Canal Co.
The President, Bunker and Linowitz stressed the national security aspects of the agreements, which are certain to be one of the focal points of criticism from Senate conservatives seeking to black ratification.
Linowitz said that after the year 2000 the United States would have the right to determine when the neutrality of the canal was in jeopardy and when to act in defense of it. Asked if this also included the right to send American troops to Panama to defend the canal, he replied, "No limits are prescribed in this document."
Linowitz said that in several respects the treaties "not only preserve but enhance the national security interest of the United States." They would do this, he said, by replacing the existing "uncertain and unstable situation" around the canal with one that "satisfies the aspirations of the Panamanians.
"It's a good investment," he said.
Failure to ratify the agreements, Linowitz added, "would not bode well for future relations between the United States and Panama and the United States and Latin America. The danger of an explosive situation developing if they are not ratified is there."
In his statement, which he read to reporters in the White House press briefing room, the President singled out the Joint Chiefs of Staff as believing with his other advisers that the treaties "are important to our long-term national interests."
He said he was certain the Senate would give "the most careful consideration" to the treaties and to "the positive impact their approval will have in our own country and for our position in the world as a strong and generous nation."
Bunker and Linowitz said they would welcome ratification of the treaties this year. But with the Senate hoping to adjourn by the end of October, White House officials continued to express uncertainty on whether an immediate push for ratification would be made.
It was also not clear when or where Carter will sign the treaties. There has been some speculation that he might travel to Panama or some other Latin American country for the ceremony. But such a symbolic gesture might also fuel charges, already mounting from right-wing critics, that the treaties amount to the "surrender" of American territory to Panama.
The inclusion of the enabling legislation will also mean the administration will have to deal with the House, as well as the Senate which has the exclusive right to ratify treaties, in seeking approval of the entire package.
One House critic, Merchant Marine and Fisheries chaiirman John M. Murphy (D-N.Y.), has already called hearings on the subject for Wednesday with Bunker, Linowitz and Carter's national security affairs adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski as witnesses. As of yesterday, none of the three had accepted.
In a clear attempt to lay a bipartisan political foundation for the coming ratification fight, Linowitz said he talked earlier about the negotiations with former President Ford, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and former California Gov. Ronald Reagan about the negotiations.
He said he doubted that he had changed Reagan's opposition to such a treaty, a fact that was certified when Reagan criticized the agreements shortly after they were announced.
Kissinger has remained silent since the treaties were announced. An aide to Ford, who is vacationing in Vail, Colo., said yesterday the former President had no statement on the treaties.
Last night, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz), who last year sided with Ford against Reagan in support of the Panama Canal negotiations, warned that "attempts to stampede the American people and the Congress on this vital issue" would be a "a grave mistake."
Goldwater said he is willing to take two years to consider the treaties if necessary.