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Friday, 31 December, 1999, 17:55 GMT
Eyewitness: Panama celebrates new era

Fireworks and salsa hide apprehension about the Canal's future


By Rachel Ellison in Panama

Century Highway No 1 glides through the Pedro Miguel Locks flanked by three stout tugboats at its rear and locomotive engines on either side, which drag the ship's massive grey steel bulk through the narrow strait of the Panama Canal.

The ship is carrying tens of thousands of Japanese cars to Europe.

The Panama Canal is strategically important both politically and geographically, cutting through the narrowest point in the Americas.


US flag was lowered for the last time at noon

It is a gateway between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Since its completion in August 1914, 700,000 ships have sailed through the canal, hauling their container cargoes of crude oil, car parts, grain and woodpulp.

At noon on 31December 1999, the American flag was lowered and the red, white and blue chequered colours of Panama raised in its place.

Holiday

Panama's new President Mireya Moscoso has declared a special public holiday to mark her country's historic take-over of the running of the Canal and the event is being celebrated with fireworks and salsa music.

Whilst the nation's VIPs enjoy a special outdoor hand-over ceremony, everybody else crowds round their television sets and will take to the streets and beaches, to party into the night.


Tugs guide the ships through the Pedro Miguel Locks

Billboards on every major roadside proclaim "The Canal is for our Future Generations" and "Panama Canal FOR Panama".

Children munch chocolate money with pictures of the world famous canal on the one side, and a smiling president, on the other.

But up and down the country, ordinary people are quietly concerned.

Will the canal retain its efficiency under Panamanian, rather than American control? What about maintenance, safety and public access?

And most of all, there is suspicion that in Panamanian hands, this 80km (50 mile) long granite channel will succumb to mismanagement and corruption.

Many are concerned that Panamanian control is not ultimately in their country's best interests. As one restaurant owner puts it: "Corruption, politics, the manana [tomorrow] culture....you can change the management, but you can't change a people.''

First night nerves

Equally dispirited was a retired American engineer I spoke to who has worked on the Panama Canal for 34 years.

"The US taxpayers' money built this canal....look at it - it's beautifully maintained, it's in pristine condition...I don't feel America is returning the canal to Panama - it never belonged to Panama in the first place."


An emotional end for Americans who grew up in the Panama Canal Zone

"It'll be open one day and closed another. That's not how it's been up till now. For 85 years ships have been passing through here day and night, every day of the year. Except for one day in 1916, the canal never closed."

Whilst a patriotic mood swells in Panama City's Central Avenue in the shopping district - flags flying high and people loading up their supermarket trolleys with extra food for the celebrations, officials at the canal remain nervous and guarded.

The viewing platform at the famous Miraflores locks were closed to tourists today, for the first time since anyone can remember.

Security has been tight. Access to the canal - one of the features under American administration - is severely restricted. Outsiders, myself included, are regarded with suspicion.

Panama wants so much to revel in its new-found international importance and independence from the US.

But as the container ship chugs through the canal this evening, some Panamanians fear their new-found ownership of such an important global asset could spell economic instability, rather than the security and prosperity they desire

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See also:
31 Dec 99 |  Americas
US relinquishes Panama Canal
14 Dec 99 |  Americas
End of an era at Panama Canal
08 Dec 99 |  Americas
Panama Canal : America's strategic artery
01 Nov 99 |  Americas
Panama takes control of US bases

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