Panama Canal: a symposium

For one evening, Panama was the center of attention in this corner of Massachusetts as Williams hosted the symposium “Transferring the Panama Canal: Passage to a New Millennium” last Thursday. All of the panelists agreed that the decision by the United States to relinquish control over the Canal Zone was made with the best of national interests.

Jose Miguel Aleman, the foreign minister of the Republic of Panama, was joined by former Vice President Walter Mondale, former senator from Tennessee Howard Baker, former ambassador to Panama Jack Vaugn, co-negotiator of the 1977 Panama Canal Treaties Sol Linowitz and author David McCullough, who wrote “Path Between the Seas.” All of these men played key roles in negotiating the Torrijos-Carter treaty which calls for a transfer of authority over the canal to Panama on December 31.

McCullough, who is well known as the host of the PBS series “The American Experience,” spoke first about the creation of the canal. McCullough called the canal “one of the greatest achievements of any civilization ever,” and explained that the canal is not merely a ditch, but a series of locks through which ships pass.

Vaughn followed McCullough, speaking on the political and economic events leading to the Torrijos-Carter treaty in the late ’70s. Vaughn began his speech with a story about ex-president Manuel Noriega, who took control of Panama in 1984.

Vaughn, a former head boxing coach at the University of Michigan, drew laughter from the audience by saying, “the only malice I have left over from my involvement of U.S.-Panama relations is toward Noriega. He always said I was a lousy boxer, but I was pretty good in my day.”

Linowitz spoke third, addressing the making of the Carter-Torrijos treaty. He explained how the invitation from President Carter to lead the negotiations made him feel like the football player who never played, but was finally put in the game when the team had run out of timeouts. Linowitz imagined Carter saying to him, “get in and get hurt,” and he went about negotiating the treaties from there.

Linowitz explained, “by entering into the treaties, we showed the rest of the world how a large and small country can come together, settle their differences and set an example of positive foreign policy negotiations.” Linowitz said he truly felt that the treaty was negotiated out of mutual trust and respect that protected U.S. interests, while accepting the national aspirations of Panama.

Following Linowitz, Mondale spoke on the evolution of the treaties within the Carter administration. Mondale explained how Carter picked up the Panama Canal issue as one which would set a precedent about appropriate international relations policies for the United States.

Mondale gave the sage advice, “those of you who like sausages and laws should not watch either of them being made.”

Baker, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1967 to 1985, gave the fifth speech, about the ratification process in the Senate. The vote, which required a two-thirds majority, just passed with the 67 needed votes and taught Baker “how much our nation needs sensible people in both parties when we need to do fundamental things.”

Speaking last was Aleman, who agreed with all the panelists that the 1977 treaty, although controversial at the time, showed great foresight. “I have no doubt that the historically correct thing to do was to go through with the Panama Canal Treaties,” he said.

Aleman explained that when the Panama Canal was built in 1903 the United States had proclaimed a country within a country that could never survive. As a matter of fact, he said, “for the last ten years the canal has been managed by Panama,” and Aleman predicted that there will be no major changes with the impending transfer of authority.

Aleman expressed his country’s desire that the treaty will not only lead to a new relationship with the United States, but also a stronger relationship.

After the speakers’ formal remarks, the symposium turned to questions from the audience and the members returned to the theme of cooperation brought up by Mondale. In particular Mondale drew parallels between the debate over the Panama Canal treaties and the recent debate in the Senate over the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaties.

“It reminds me of how much our country needs good people with strong judgement to get things done and to get them done right,” Mondale said.

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