Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How to Defend the Panama Canal

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How to Defend the Panama Canal

Article excerpt

TAKING the Panama Canal for granted, Latin leaders used their summit meetings in Guadalajara and San Salvador as platforms to promote economic integration. But when a demilitarized Panama assumes control of the canal in 1999, who will secure this regional economic asset? Without an inter-American arrangement for safeguarding the canal, security issues will continue to override trade and development as the primary focus of hemispheric relations.

In an effort to stabilize its democracy, Panama's National Assembly voted 45 to 7 last month to abolish its querulous army. This action could foment instability in Panama because Pentagon planners want to accelerate the pace of withdrawal of the 10,000 United States troops currently based at 10 installations in Panama. Under the terms of the 1977 Carter-Torrijos Treaties, the only role the US will play with the canal after 1999 will be to help maintain its neutrality.

With its new willingness to consider collective security issues, the Organization of American States (OAS) could provide a forum to address the question of securing a demilitarized Panama and its canal. At its annual meeting last month in Chile, the OAS adopted unanimously the "Santiago Commitment Declaration," requiring the organization to meet in emergency session to consider collective measures if a member nation falls victim to a military coup.

A second pillar of the Santiago Declaration urges a regional commitment to reassess and strengthen hemispheric security. These developments are a welcome change from the OAS's traditional reluctance to take an activist role in support of the region's democracies. Washington's desire to accelerate the closure of its remaining facilities has opened a window of opportunity for the OAS to put forward a regional proposal for defending the canal.

The US proposal for accelerated withdrawal was received with alarm by the Panamanian government. Panama's foreign minister Julio Linares has requested that Washington delay troop cutbacks and base closings.

His arguments have less to do with canal security than with pork barrel economics. The US military presence provides employment for more than 10,000 Panamanians; these jobs will disappear when the US shuts down its bases. …

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