03 September 1998
(Post-1999 Panama discussed at forum) (1380) By Eric Green USIA Staff Writer WASHINGTON -- Panama will continue to have great importance to U.S. strategic interests even after 1999 when the Panama Canal is transferred from U.S. control to the Panamanians, says the State Department's new desk officer for Panama, James Benson. At a September 2 forum on the Panama Canal transition, sponsored by a non-profit public policy group called the Atlantic Council of the United States, Benson outlined why the U.S. relationship with Panama will remain important even after Panama assumes control of the Canal starting at noon on December 31, 1999. Benson said Panama will be like any other country the United States maintains diplomatic relations with, but it will be a "country with a difference" and that is because of the Canal and U.S. treaty obligations to protect its neutrality after 2000. But Panama would be important to the United States, even if there was no Canal, he said. What makes Panama so important to the United States, Benson said, is the country's geographic location between North and South America, along the principal narcotics trafficking routes. Panama will play now and in the future "an important role" in the global counter-narcotics effort, and "we will have to work closely with the government of Panama after 1999 in order to maintain the level of programs that we have had in place throughout the region to try to put a stop to narcotics trafficking." In that same vein, Benson said Panama's location also makes it vulnerable as a major route for the trafficking of illegal immigrants, money laundering and other illegal activities. "These things tend to pass through the Isthmus on their way either north or south and that will continue to happen at about the same level in the future as it has in the past," he said. Asked about the status of talks to keep U.S. troops in Panama after the 1999 transfer in order to run an international anti-narcotics center, Benson indicated that they remain at an "impasse," with "no real action" on resuming them at this time. Benson said the United States, with about 18 months to go before transferring control of the Canal, is "about where we would expect to be" in withdrawing its assets from Panama. "We're more or less on track in terms of the goals that have been set" for withdrawing from the region under the Panama Canal treaties of 1977, he said. "At this point I don't see anything standing in our way of accomplishing" that goal. Still, "there is quite a bit that needs to be done," he said, mentioning that some U.S. military bases have to be closed and their personnel moved out. Benson said some of the final details before the U.S. leaves include deciding "final administrative arrangements for our personnel and the materiel left over" after the transition is completed. "In other words," he said, "we will continue to operate the canal up until the last minute" when the authority is transferred to Panama. The United States, will still have materiel and personnel in Panama after the transfer and "all of that will have to be removed in an orderly and legal fashion. So at the moment we're looking at the formation of an office that will manage that transition and handle the logistics of getting the last people and the last materiel out of Panama." Some U.S. institutions and organizations that are related to the Canal will remain in Panama after 1999, he said, but how they will be managed remains unclear. For example, he said, it is anticipated that the Smithsonian Institution's Tropical Research Institute, a U.S. government entity, is expected to continue its work in Panama, "but under a different framework." Also, there is the question of managing a cemetery in Panama where many U.S. citizens are buried under the authority of the American Battle Monuments Commission. "That is the sort of thing that will make our relationship with Panama post-1999 different than it would be for the average country," he said. Another area of interest is the question of the environment, particularly in the Canal area. Over the years, the U.S. government has taken great interest in maintaining the environment of the Canal watershed, which is important for operating the Canal, Benson said. "Considering that we will continue to have an interest in the operation of the Canal, I believe that it will be of importance to the United States to continue to work very closely with Panama and with other interested countries as well, such as Japan, who are Canal users, to try to protect the Canal watershed in the post-1999 period," Benson said. He added that "I think where we find ourselves is rapidly closing down our presence" in Panama "to make sure we satisfy our treaty requirements before the transfer date and then moving into a period of normal bilateral relations with a foreign country -- only with a foreign country that has some very specific interests for the United States and which will require somewhat more delicate negotiations in the future." Another speaker, Dave Hunt, director of the U.S. Southern Command (Southcom) Treaty Implementation Center, detailed what is involved in the U.S. withdrawal from Panama. When the Panama Canal treaties were signed, transferring control of the Canal to Panama after 1999, he said, the United States was administering about 38,000 hectares of land, and about 5000 buildings in the former Canal Zone. Since then, he said, "we've turned over about 12,000 hectares and about 2200 buildings," with an estimated value of about $1,500 million. "We've done quite a bit up to this point," Hunt said, "but it only represents about 32 percent of the land, and only 45 percent of the buildings," and the remainder valued at close to $2,000 million "won't transfer until next year." In fully complying with the 1977 Canal treaties, he said, U.S. forces face three specific challenges in its drawdown from Panama. The first, he said, "is logistical in nature -- how do you get everybody out in time, the second is making sure the U.S. Southern Command continues its job throughout this transition, and the third is the environmental challenge," which he called "probably the most difficult of the group in preparing all of the properties for transfer to Panama." "Moving out in itself is a large task," he said. The United States still has 4,500 military personnel in Panama, along with their families and all of their equipment, and most of the families won't leave until after the school year ends on May 20, 1999, Hunt said. "So during the summer of 1999 we've got to figure out a way to get everybody out on time. For the families themselves this is probably not as difficult as we had originally envisioned, it merely requires an increase in contract air flights. It's the transportation problem for their physical belongings that becomes difficult." As an example of the imposing task that lies ahead, Hunt noted that shipping from Panama of automobiles owned by U.S. citizens will increase from 300 per month to 720 per month. Though the audience laughed when he said it, Hunt noted that 3,000 pets belonging to U.S. citizens also need to be shipped out. Hunt said Southcom's will continue to carry out its responsibilities in Panama until the end of 1999, including counter-drug operations, and providing education and training, security assistance, and humanitarian and civic actions. "All of this has to continue as we move out, but during the past three years, units moving out have been held in abeyance as the two governments discussed the possibility of a multi-national counter-drug center," Hunt said. He added that with no firm agreement on such a center at this point, "time is running out" before the Canal is transferred. The uncertain status of those negotiations, he said, "runs the risk" of jeopardizing implementation of the Canal treaties, as well as Southcom's mission in Panama.