From Thu Jan 6 10:39:22 2000
Date: Sat, 1 Jan 2000 00:45:14 -0600 (CST)
From: IGC News Desk <>
Subject: POLITICS-PANAMA: With a Canal, A Nation Recovers its Destiny
Article: 85857
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

With a Canal, A Nation Recovers its Destiny

By David Carrasco, IPS, 30 December 1999

PANAMA CITY, Dec 30 (IPS)—Panama's authority over the canal traversing its territory will finally be complete at noon Friday, when its national flag will be raised over the inter-ocean route and church-bells will ring to announce the event to the world.

The minister of Canal Affairs, Ricardo Martinelli, told IPS that it will be a reaffirmation of national sovereignty, making the Panamanian people feel they are part of a new country, that they control their destiny and are capable of managing the canal better than the United States.

But the celebration does not involve one national ceremony, revealing that there are underlying factors dividing society still to be overcome, said attorney and researcher Miguel Gonzalez.

Martinelli emphasised that on Friday people from across the social spectrum will reaffirm the Dec 14 symbolic handover of the canal, carried out by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter in official ceremonies attended by six Latin American presidents and the Panamanian people.

He pointed out that the public celebration this Friday is also a major Latin American event that will be witnessed around the world through television images broadcast via satellite.

Festivities will begin after the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) council finalises 22 regulations on the inter-ocean canal's operations, which are to take effect Jan 1, 2000.

We need to make the canal productive and beneficial for all Panamanians, which will allow us to resolve the country's serious problems, such as high unemployment and widespread poverty, explained Martinelli, Tuesday, following a meeting with trade union, business and student leaders.

Augusto Castillo, secretary general of the Trade Union Convergence, told IPS that workers will participate with their own slogans in the canal handover events, which they see as one of the most important stages in the history of national identity and self-determination.

We continue the struggle of nearly a century, to live in a sovereign country, free of military bases and their dangerous weapons, emphasised the union leader.

Castillo indicated that trade unionists will fill the streets Friday to celebrate, but will renew protests in January against rising electricity, transportation and telephone rates.

Canal minister Martinelli predicted that, despite discrepancies in the political arena, nothing will cloud the Panamanian celebration of recovering the inter-ocean route.

Meanwhile, the secretary general of the Union of Construction Workers and Affiliates, Genaro L¢pez, announced that workers will take part in the finalisation of the canal's handover carrying placards with slogans calling for the canal area to be used in benefit of all Panamanians, not just an elite group.

Lopez affirmed that union participation in the official events will be peaceful and in solidarity with the entire nation.

But he said this does not mean workers renounce their demands for economic and social justice, or that they abandon their claims that the United States must clean up the munitions ranges used for several years to test military equipment.

As part of his public invitation to Friday's events, foreign minister José Alem n reported that a delegation led by Panama's ambassador to the United States, Guillermo Ford, will begin negotiations next week with Washington officials about decontamination plans for the ranges.

In the days leading up to the final transfer of the canal, Panama's president Mireya Moscoso has called on various sectors of society to set aside their differences and show the world that the Panamanian people are able to stand united behind national objectives.

Moscoso and her ministers will begin their activities Friday with a mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral, after which they will lead a parade to the former Canal Zone, where further government-led events will be held.

But attempts to achieve broad, united participation in government festivities were bogged down by its conflict with the political opposition in designating two new members to the Supreme Court.

The controversy began when the government proposed before the National Legislative Assembly (parliament) that former president Guillermo Endara (1989-1994) and jurist César Pereira—both close associates of Moscoso—should occupy the vacancies in the nation's highest court.

The opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) called for a demonstration Friday at the historic Cinco de Mayo plaza in the capital to pay homage to the late general Omar Torrijos, who led the fight to recover the canal in the 1970s and finalised his efforts by signing the 1977 Canal Treaties with then-U.S. president Carter.

Mart¡n Torrijos, PRD secretary general, and former president Aristides Royo (1978-1981) were chosen to speak at the demonstration, which will end with a march to the canal administration building, which is no longer adorned with the U.S. national flag.

Among other commemorative acts will be a victory march, organised by students and alumni of the National Institute, in which they will raise the flag that was not allowed to fly on Jan 9, 1964 at the Balboa School in the former Canal Zone, occupied at the time by the United States.

March organisers explain that 21 Panamanians died and hundreds were wounded that day when U.S. troops prevented students from displaying Panama's flag at public buildings in the 1,432 square- km canal area.

The land surrounding the canal will turn into a festive scene Friday with a concert organised by the Panama City municipal government, headlined by Rubén Blades, a renowned singer, actor and politician.

Blades's concert will be broadcast live by British television's BBC world service and several local media, which will also record the arrival of the new century, to be celebrated with a sound and light show over Panama bay.

The National Legislative Assembly reported it will hold a ceremonial session at the Miraflores locks Friday afternoon to prove to the world that the Panama Canal is public property and a secure and neutral route for world navigation.