Troubled Waters? Critics question a 20-year-old treaty that transfers the United States' "sovereign" power of the Panama Canal to Panama.
For 40 years, it was home to Charles W. Hummer Jr. He grew up in the small strip of land known as the Panama Canal Zone, 10 miles wide and 50 miles long, a lush tropical landscape awash with fruit trees and an easygoing lifestyle that was as much a part of the United States as is Kansas.
That changed 20 years ago when then-President Jimmy Carter, backed by Congress, approved a treaty authorizing the transfer of the canal and canal zone back to the Panamanian government on Dec. 31 of this year. The move had the effect of severing an 85-year marriage that began with the first canal passage in 1914. That decision is still making waves on Capitol Hill, but the ink on the treaty wasn't even dry when Hummer left his homeland in 1979.
"I just had an uneasy feeling as to how it was going to go from then on, and I just didn't want to see it happen," said Hummer, whose grandfather, Charles D. Hummer, was one of more than 4,700 American workers who received a Roosevelt Medal for working on construction of the canal. His uncle, Louis Hummer, died when his crane was buried under tons of earth displaced by dynamite in a canal construction accident.
Hummer, who was the assistant chief of the canal zone's dredging division when he left 20 years ago, returned to the zone three months ago to find that the paradise he once knew is now only in his memories.
"It struck me that Panama has done everything to completely obliterate that (American) presence," Hummer said recently from his Haines City, Fla., home. "I find that pretty painful. ... It's hard to describe what it had been like. You lived in this womb that was extremely comfortable; you were exposed to things you couldn't even dream about in Kansas."
The conservative John Birch Society began sounding the alarms of a Communist conspiracy before the Carter-Torrijos Treaty (named after the American president and Panama's Gen. Omar Torrijos) went into effect Oct. 1, 1979, and recent society publications have called the transfer a "suicidal course" and a "criminal conspiracy of megalomaniacs bent on obtaining absolute power."
"It figures into the New World Order that's reducing the power of the United States," said John Birch Society President John F. McManus, of Appleton, Wis.
"Americans built, and Americans paid for, the Panama Canal, which in its day was the equivalent of putting a man on the moon. It was that much of a technological marvel," said McManus, who publishes the society's "The New American."
"The Panama Canal was as much of a part of the United States as Kansas."
The most troubling aspect of the transfer, the society says, is the interest of Chinese businesses in the area. A recent society article written by 88-year-old retired Admiral Thomas H. Moorer claims China will become the "de facto" new owners of the canal. McManus and Moorer were present Friday at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing when the security of the canal came into question, mainly by conservatives who repeatedly questioned canal administrators about a possible Chinese influence.
McManus, who did not testify, scoffed at assertions by both U.S. and Panamanian officials that a Hong Kong-based shipping company's use of key ports near the canal won't affect U.S. shipping in the future.
"A businessman in China does the will of the Communist regime. If we ever get to the point where we want to move ships into the western Pacific to defend Taiwan against China, it's my guess we'll be denied," McManus said. "This has a military significance; this has an economic significance."
Charley Stansifer, professor of Latin American history at Kansas University, said it was obvious the canal's defenses are limited with the lack of a Panamanian army and the former Howard Air Force Base and Rodman Naval Station up for grabs to bidders.
But, Stansifer said, any conspiracy theories concerning China's power over the canal route are not true.
"I think it's pretty far-fetched to imagine the Panamanian and United States governments have conspired to give the Communist Chinese a stronghold in Panama," said Stansifer, who has been a lecturer aboard cruise ships passing through the canal.
The transfer ultimately will be beneficial to Panama -- the United States pays more than $100 million in charges and tonnage fees to the Panamanians each year, but they will collect all tolls and fees after the transfer. But Stansifer said the Panamanian government is not immune to corruption.
"The risk is a possibility that a weak government of Panama will use the canal as a means of enriching itself rather than the country," he said.
U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., echoes worries shared by Stansifer and Hummer about the fragile environment surrounding the canal. Roberts, chairman of the Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee, questioned canal administrators Friday about Panama's ability to maintain the ecosystem. Hummer said he's already seen the destruction of wetlands in the canal zone.
"Money is the driving thing, and to hell with the environment," said Roberts, who said he was saddened to see the addition of roads through prime shrimping areas when he visited Panama this year.
Hummer says he's not opposed to a Panama-United States partnership on the canal, and some people, including Stansifer, argue the most significant step came 10 years ago, when Panama gained a 5-4 representation on the Panama Canal Commission.
"I have no quibbles with the fact that Panama should be involved," Hummer said. "But I think (Congress) threw out the baby with the bathwater by saying 'You can have the whole thing.'"
Some of the American luxury in the zone came at the expense of Panamanians, who generally had lower-level jobs with less pay, said Hummer. Remaining to be seen are how the area will change culturally and financially, and what other countries will move in to replace the American presence.
The Panamanians celebrate their independence from Colombia on Nov. 3 and their independence from Spain on Nov. 28.
Dec. 31, Hummer said, will probably gain significance as another day of independence.
"It's too late to worry about it now; it's a done deal," Hummer said. "All we can do now is sit back and ask, 'Did Jimmy Carter do the right thing and did the Senate do the right thing?' I hope they did."
-- Chris Koger's phone message number is 832-7126. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
PANAMA CANAL HISTORY
A French-led effort to construct a canal through the Isthmus of Panama began in 1880, but failed after 20 years because of disease and financial problems.
In 1903, Panama and the United States signed a treaty giving the United States authority to build the canal. The project was completed in 10 years at a cost of about $387 million. Since 1903 the United States has invested about $3 billion in the Canal enterprise, approximately two-thirds of which has been recovered.
The 1903 treaty granted the United States, in perpetuity, the use, "full sovereign rights" and control of a canal zone, according to the Panama Canal Commission.