Panama glad to have the canal back, but U.S. experts question whether it will be run wisely
At the emotional transitional ceremony broadcast through the crowded streets of Panama on giant screen TVs, Mireye Moscoso, the president of Panama, proudly declared that Panama could finally claim "one land, one flag."
The canal that symbolized nearly a century of outside control by the United States was officially passed into Panamanian hands.
"It's a symbol of freedom from American influence," said Adriane Ugarte, a Utah State University student from Chiriqui, Panama, a province that shares a border with Costa Rica. Ugarte grew up in Panama, and came to Utah for college three years ago.
"Panamanians always wanted to show the world that they didn't have that influence," she said.
Ugarte said that as she watched the ceremony -- on TV in the United States because she didn"t buy her plane ticket in time for the transition, on the last day of 1999 -- she cried out of happiness.
In the '70s Panamanian General Omar Torrijos staunchly pushed for negotiations between the two countries. "If it isn't ours, it ain't gonna be anybody's," he would say, threatening to bring in troops and blow the canal up. In 1977, the Torrijos-Carter Treaty was passed, and as a result, 23 years later Panama finally regained control of the canal.
"I'm glad. Im really happy -- I think it was about time for Panamanians to take charge of the canal. They have the capacity to take care of it," Ugarte said.
Few people dispute that Panama has the ability to keep the canal running though. The question has veered in a different direction in the last five months-- will they?
One man, a dual citizen of Panama and the United States, who was born in Panama and lives there now, is a member of the U.S. Army. He echoes the sentiments of many other American bred individuals living in Panama.
"I could have cut Jimmy Carter's throat the day he signed that thing over," he said, sitting on an air conditioned bus from Panama en route to Honduras, where he would catch a plane to North Carolina and drive up to New Jersey to visit his family.
"The Panamanian government is too corrupt," he said. "Everything will become privatized, and they will just pocket the money."
Several experts agree, according to Panama specialist and Utah State University Professor Bill Furlong. Furlong has studied the country for 30 years, written a book on the treaties leading to the change of control, and taught at the University of Panama.
The question is not whether they can maintain the canal, but whether they will, he said.
"Although they have the engineering capability of running the canal, of maintaining the canal and keeping it in tip top shape, do they have the political and cultural will to do it?" Furlong said.
The problem, according to Furlong and several other experts, is that Latin Americans tend to be present-oriented. The tendency in Latin American policy has been to do things that provide immediate benefits. To maximize the potential of the canal, Furlong said Panama should pour all the money gained from it back into maintenance and upkeep. But many experts are worried that given the past, the Panamanian government will allocate some of the money to other projects and government services, and possibly, as the man on the bus suggested, to their own pockets.
"Most specialists believe that the bureaucrats and politicians will not be able to withstand the temptation, and so money will be diverted from maintenance and upkeep to other things," Furlong said.
But Ugarte's family and friends in Panama have more confidence than that.
"They were all really excited," she said. "I think it"s what everybody wanted for a long while." Ugarte recalls several visits to the canal, including one where she saw the Love Boat pass through a section of the 50-mile canal.
Why the contrasting responses?
"You'll find generally two kinds of people in Panama -- those who think Gringos ought to stick around and do things because they don"t trust their own government to do it right, and those that want their sovereignty back and want to be in charge of their own people," Furlong explained.
But more commonly, most Panamanians fall somewhere in between. The idea for the Panama Canal was originally spurred by Spain's King Charles I in 1534, but action didn't begin until the French Canal Company began working on the project in 1880. After 10 years stricken with disease and financial problems, the French pulled out.
In 1903 the United States purchased the property and rights from the French Canal Company for $40 million. Ten years later and $387 million poorer, the U.S. finished the canal. Since then it has invested $3 billion in canal enterprise, but about two-thirds of that money has been regained.
The early history of the canal was anything but smooth. Panama was a colony of Colombia, and the United States negotiated with Colombia to build the canal. When Colombia refused, the United States offered to help Panama gain independence -- something Panamanians desperately wanted.
The treaty developed gave the United States plenty of rights and privileges, but the Panamanians reluctantly signed it because Americans threatened to leave their bases otherwise. This would have opened the door for invasion by Colombia.
"They never really did like the 1903-1904 treaty. To them it was crammed down their throats illegally and undimplomatically," Furlong said. "But then we went into the country and cleaned up the mosquito problem, yellow fever and malaria. We cleaned up the water supply, so then people started saying, 'Gringos are pretty good people.'"
The canal was completed ahead of time and under budget as well, so people who were benefiting from a thriving economy and improving health began to see "Gringos" as helpful people.
Yet the United States, for all the benefits it provided, demanded to keep the 14 to 25 bases it had in the Canal Zone, free of charge.
Public opinion polls reflect the idea that while they recognize the benefits of some form of U.S. presence, Panamanians do not want the United States to continue taking advantage of them.
But when the Panamanians demanded change, the United States refused to compromise, and left the country altogether.
Even Ugarte agreed that some aspects of the U.S. presence were positive. For instance Panamanians use U.S. currency, which Ugarte said has helped stabilize their economy. Other Latin American countries that have their own currency have struggled, she said.
"They love us and they hate us," Furlong said.
Furlong said that when he taught at the University of Panama he was treated worse by a group of professors than he has been in any other Latin American country.
Dana Grace, a New York University student who visited Panama last summer said she noticed the same sort of "love-hate relationship."
"People on the streets would offer to take us places. One time we got lost and took the wrong bus, and the driver flagged another bus down, didn't charge us, and had the ticket boy get off the bus to explain the situation to the other driver. He didn"t charge us either," she said. "Yet the minute I walked into a hotel and handed them my American pass port the glares would start -- and the rates would skyrocket."
Grace said she heard people talk of the corrupt Panamanian government, but most of those people had some sort of tie to America, whether through marriage, military, dual citizenship or other reasons.
Still, even with lingering questions regarding the canal's future, as well as future interactions between Panama and the United States, one thing remains.
As Moscoso said at the end of his speech, "El canal es nuestro" -- the canal is ours.