Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright met briefly today with President Mireya Moscoso, a month after President Clinton and Albright miffed Panamanian officials by declining invitations to a ceremony to mark the U.S. handover of the Panama Canal.
U.S. officials said that during Albright's five-hour visit she and Moscoso were expected to talk about a number of canal issues, including the future security of the waterway. The United States transferred the canal, along with the rest of the 360,240-acre Canal Zone, to Panamanian jurisdiction on Dec. 31 in accordance with 1977 treaties.
Panama's army was disbanded following a U.S. invasion in 1989. In the United States, some opponents of the handover have voiced concerns that with the near century-long U.S. military presence over, the canal is now vulnerable to powerful Marxist rebels in neighboring Colombia. Some say China may seek to control it through Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., which operates cargo terminals at both ends of the canal.
Another topic that Moscoso was expected to raise with Albright was the unexploded munitions from U.S. weapons testing and training that litter thousands of acres on three former practice ranges.
While the U.S. military insists that it cleared as much undetonated ordnance as was "practicable," the Moscoso government says the cleanup was inadequate and is trying to get the Clinton administration to complete the job.
Albright's visit to Panama is part of a three-day trip that took her to Colombia on Friday and early today. She held discussions there with President Andres Pastrana on a two-year, $1.3 billion anti-drug aid package proposed by the Clinton administration. She flew to Mexico tonight.
[In some of the worst fighting in six months, clashes between leftist rebels and Colombian security forces near Bogota killed 50 people yesterday, as Albright visited northern Colombia. It was not clear if the rebel attack was meant as a show of force to coincide with Albright's visit.]
Albright was greeted on her arrival in Panama by Foreign Minister Jose Miguel Aleman and given the same tour of the canal's Miraflores Locks that visiting dignitaries received during the Dec. 14 canal handover ceremony, which was held before Dec. 31 to avoid millennium scheduling conflicts.
Before a state dinner tonight, Albright told the gathering that the relationship between the United States and Panama has entered a new era of "great promise." She said, "Last month's canal transfer reflects a process of growth in both our countries through which discredited patterns of paternalism and resentment have been supplanted by partnership and resolve."
U.S. officials said Albright's trip was not intended to make amends for her absence and Clinton's at the Dec. 14 ceremonies. Although the U.S. delegation was headed by former president Jimmy Carter, who negotiated the canal agreements, Panamanian officials felt slighted. Albright has said she stayed in Washington for Middle East peace talks.
Some here accused the Clinton administration of trying to distance itself from the canal transfer, which faced pockets of opposition, at a time when Vice President Gore has been waging a presidential bid. "Since she did not come for political reasons, she is coming now to repair the damage," former foreign minister Jorge Ritter said.
"I think this is an attempt to smooth ruffled feathers. Albright will try to show that the U.S. still loves them, but Panama will have to get used to the fact that it occupies a lower level of priority than before because our exposure is now minimal in Panama," said Mark Falcoff, a Latin America specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.
CAPTION: U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright joins in the dancing during a stop in Colombia.