With the transfer of the canal into the hands of the Panamanians rapidly approaching, speculation abounds about its future stability
The "path between the seas," as historian David McCullough called the Panama Canal, passes into American history on Dec. 31, 1999, when it comes under full Panamanian ownership and control.
Today, only 8 percent of the Panama Canal Commission's (the Panama Canal Company prior to 1990) permanent work force is American la number of whom are VFW members). They tend to hold key managerial and highly skilled positions. For instance, 35 percent of canal pilots are still Americans.
Some of the 600 Americans may stay two to six years beyond 2000. Concerns have been raised over work force quality (personally, I met several highly skilled Panamanians*, labor problems, toll increases and diversion of funds from maintenance.
What's most important now, says Commission Deputy Administrator Joseph W. Cornelison and 173rd Airborne Brigade vet of Vietnam, is keeping our word. "The nation's reputation is at stake in Latin America. The critical issue today is honoring a pledge. Nothing can ever lessen the pride Americans legitimately feel in this engineering feat."
McCullough describes it as "one of the supreme human achievements of all time" requiring great sacrifice. Between 1904-14, 5,609 lives were lost to disease and accidents. Of those, 350 were Americans, the remaining 80 percent were mostly black laborers from the British West Indies. Include the French era and the death tally reaches 25,000, including many Frenchmen.
By the fall of 1997, Southcom HQ will be in Miami, Fla. And unless a deal is negotiated, the U.S. Army, South, will probably be relocated to Puerto Rico by 2000.
"To date, some 30 percent of the military's properties have beer turned over to Panama," says Air Force Col. …