Under New Ownership: It's Panama's Canal

By Mendel, William W. | Military Review, July/August 2000 | Go to article overview

Under New Ownership: It's Panama's Canal


Mendel, William W., Military Review


The canal must always be regarded as a potential target for both conventional and unconventional forces, given its importance to global commerce and far military transits.1

On 31 DECEMBER 1999, after 85 years of US military presence and influence, the Republic of Panama took full ownership and responsibility for the Panama Canal. Full control of the country's sovereign territory offers Panamanians increased esteem and energizes the spirit of economic opportunity. Even in this time of electronic commerce and jet transport, the canal is important to global trade and the economic growth in Latin America. However, as the largest user of the canal, the United States has an economic stake in its future-about 66 percent of the canal's traffic starts or ends at US ports, accounting for 12 percent of US seaborne trade.2

Former US President Jimmy Carter and Head of Government for the Republic of Panama, Omar Torrijos Herrera, signed the Panama Canal Treaties at the Organization of American States building in Washington, D.C. on 7 September 1977, announcing the return of the canal to Panama at the end of the 20th century. Today, Panama has assumed total sovereignty of the 553 square-mile Panama Canal Zone and takes on the duty of defending the canal and the nation. Panama's new National Security Strategy will guide this effort.

In promoting Panama's National Security Strategy to various political groups, Winston Spadafora, Panama's Minister of Government and Justice, advises that this is the first time that Panama will assume security responsibilities without US support.3 Faced with threats to its security and sovereignty, Panama needs to activate a coherent, resourced plan for enhancing national security. This article focuses on the mayor security threats facing the Republic of Panama and discusses the plan underway to strengthen Panama against these threats.

A Range of Emerging Threats

As it takes control over its security policy and operations, Panama will have to face up to a wide range of threats that could erode the country's well being. These threats include government ineptness and corruption, crime, drug trafficking, foreign influence, arms trafficking, disrupted canal operations and the loss of sovereignty in border areas due to guerrilla activity, paramilitary forces and criminal groups.

The US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) considers Panama's internal problems as the most likely threats to canal operations. Labor disputes and civil unrest sparked by low wages, unemployment and poverty could disrupt work at the canal and elsewhere in the country.4 During recent Congressional testimony, SOUTHCOM commander-in-chief, General Charles E. Wilhelm, expressed concern over the potential for ungoverned development in the former canal zone. Former President Jimmy Carter expressed this same concern during the 14 December 1999 canal transfer ceremony. Without tight control by the Panamanian government, the vital watershed that supplies the 52 million gallons of fresh water needed for each ship to pass through the canal's locks would be at risk.

In the years since the Panama Canal Treaties were signed, Panama's governments have been unwilling and unable to control peasant infiltration into the pristine forest lands formerly controlled by the canal authorities. Slash-and-burn agriculture and subsequent cattle grazing have already significantly degraded the Chagres River Basin which supplies most of the canal water. Water reserves for Panama City, Panama, are also at risk. Inadequate controls and outright corruption could allow continued destruction of the country's central forest reserves and cause increased silting in the rivers and uneven water supplies. Government corruption is a national danger that Panama acknowledges.5

A national anticorruption effort. Government corruption was a recurrent issue during the transfer of governments from the Ernesto Perez Balladares Administration to that of President Mireya Moscoso. …

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