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Date: Wed, 29 Dec 1999 20:49:14 -0600 (CST)
From: The Panama News <pmanews@panama.c-com.net>
Subject: Panama: China and the New Monroe Doctrine
Organization: ?
Article: 85713
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.17321.19991230092105@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

China and the New Monroe Doctrine

By John Linday-Poland, Panama News, 29 December 1999

The transfer of the Panama Canal from the United States to Panama, celebrated in a ceremony on December 14 and formally on December 31, was never really in doubt. The waterway is an old utility, and operating it is a responsibility that yields diminishing returns to the United States.

What was in doubt, however, was whether the United States would let go of the 14 military bases that lined the canal's banks. Ever since the Carter-Torrijos Canal Treaties came into effect in 1979, the Senate has been passing resolutions urging the president to negotiate an agreement to keep U.S. troops and bases in Panama after the 1999 treaty deadline.

From 1995 to 1998, the two countries negotiated to maintain American soldiers, first in bases, then under the deceptive guise of a "multinational counternarcotics center." The discussions foundered on Washington's reluctance to pay rent for the bases and its insistence on allowing other military missions besides the drug war to be conducted from Panamanian soil. To Panamanians, whose constitution would have required approval of the deal in a popular referendum, it sounded like a blank check for Washington's habit of imposing its will on Latin America.

What does all this have to do with China? With the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the United States must return to competing economically in Panama and the Caribbean region without the "positive moral influence" of the military's immediate presence, as diplomats used to say. In 1996, when Panama privatized the ports at each end of the canal, U.S. firms did not have a monopoly on successful bids. Port developers from Taiwan and the United States each received concessions for ports on the Atlantic. Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., a Hong Kong-based conglomerate whose Latin American operations are managed from England, won concessions for one port on each side of the canal. Another U.S. company won the rights to redevelop the Panama Railroad. Bechtel Corporation lost out on the concession, with what one shipping industry representative described as a "lowball bid."

The U.S. Ambassador at the time, William Hughes, was appalled. His embassy, he said, "has become the first line of defense to serve the interests of American companies overseas."

China's economy is emerging as a major, if not the major competitor with U.S. production and export. In a world of accelerating globalization, the United States views any hedging of its privileged position in Latin America as a problem. Ergo, the U.S. right wing launched a propaganda offensive declaring that Panama's port concessions to a competing player in the capitalist game are a threat to U.S. security. Never mind that Hutchison Whampoa does not employ one Chinese national in Panama. Or that the companies operating the ports have no authority to pilot ships through the canal, or determine the place of warships in the queue, as Senator Trent Lott mistakenly claimed.

What we have here is a new version of the Monroe Doctrine. Returning to the status quo ante of Panama without military bases, the representatives of U.S. capital feel obliged to wield threats to protect their interests. This time, it is not Europe they're worried about. So President Clinton declines to attend the canal transfer ceremony, capitulating to the Right's version of What's Important.

By invoking the threat of Chinese competition, the Right effectively hijacked the story of the canal transfer. All mass media featured the alarmist claims, even if only to debunk them, instead of centering the event on the act of decolonization by a great power. Not mentioned at all were the tens of thousands of munitions and other environmental dangers left behind on the canal's banks.

It is eerie for anyone familiar with the history of the Panama Canal's construction. In search of laborers to replace West Indians whom the white overseers considered to be congenitally lazy, U.S. officials considered importing Chinese "coolies" to do the labor. But the same exclusion laws that prohibited immigration of Chinese nationals into the United States made the proposal politically impossible.

It is hard to believe that racism does not exert its insidious role here. After all, another property once managed by the United States in Panama is also being privatized -- the School of the Americas. The buildings where U.S. Army officers, in the name of anti-communism, trained thousands of Latin Americans in combat and counterinsurgency are being renovated and turned into a four-star hotel by Spanish developers. Republican Senators have voiced no worries about the Spaniards' role. I suppose we should be glad of that.