Transfer of Canal ends US colonialism in Panama

In less than 90 days, at noon on December 31, 1999, the Panama Canal Treaties of 1977, also known as the Carter-Torrijos Treaties, will terminate. The Republic of Panama will assume full jurisdiction and administration of the Panama Canal and the US military presence in the country will end. For Panama, this represents the culmination of almost a century of just aspirations of several generations of Panamanians to be sovereign in its territory.

With the proximity of the date, however, some people in the States have raised the question as to why the US ever agreed to leave the canal in the hands of Panama. The answer is fairly simple; the treaty of 1903 had become, by the 1970s, historically anachronistic. The US military no longer needed the Panamanian territory for the defense of US interests and the US has to abide by its international commitments. There is no return to the conditions that existed early in the century, or for that matter, in 1977.

The Treaty of 1903, signed fifteen days after Panama declared its independence from Colombia, gave the United States full powers to construct and defend a canal in Panama. The treaty was, by its own terms,”in perpetuity,” and Panama ceded to the US a portion of its territory to construct a navigable passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The US could act in this territory, comprised of five miles on each side of the canal to be constructed, with all powers and authority “as if it were sovereign.”

The US not only guaranteed quick and inexpensive access for commerce between the East and West coasts and the rest of the world, but it also established a considerable military presence in the middle of the continent. In practice, this US- controlled Canal Zone became a colonial enclave in the Americas. The US ruled with its own laws, courts, police, hospitals, schools and cemeteries. For about the first 50 years, there were even customs posts, which Panamanians had to pass to reach either side of their country.

The maximum authority in the Zone was a governor, who was usually a general. While the vast majority of the canal workers were Panamanians, all top administrative positions were barred to Panamanians until the 1970s and were occupied by American “Zonians.” They provided for an efficient administration of the canal, as well as company-paid groomed yards and pools for their children. All costs of maintaining this US enclave came from canal tolls so that, after the initial construction, the US taxpayer bore no financial burden. By the 1970s, it was evident this colonial enclave had come to an end.

The early century was characterized by US military expansionism and Manifest Destiny, and the Panama Canal Zone represented an important outpost for the defense of the United States. During the Second World War, thousands of troops sailed off into the Pacific from Panama. For most of this century, the Canal has provided an inexpensive commercial route for the United States. But today commerce can flow just as cheaply utilizing alternate land and aerial bridges.

Today, the vast majority of ships are too large for the canal and it now has to struggle just to stay competitive. Moreover, by the time the 1977 Treaties were signed, the US military was beginning to realize that its 10,000 men in 14 military bases in Panama were no effective guarantee of the security of the waterway, as the canal indiscriminately accepts ships from every country and winds across 50 miles of the Isthmus. And, by the 1990s, as Desert Storm demonstrated, defense systems had become so technologically advanced that the US could mount a military offensive anywhere in the world from its own territory. The forward military position in Panama is no longer necessary or even militarily desirable.

Finally, the US negotiated with Panama the existing international treaties over many years with considerable deliberation. Over 20 years later, they are still a classic example of how binational conflicts can be resolved via negotiations through perseverance, patience and goodwill. The US has a legal and moral obligation to abide by its international agreements. As the world watches, the existing US presence in Panama will come to an end the last day of this year, as the two countries agreed to and signed in 1977.