April 19, 2004

U.S. ambassador to Panama makes Emory visit          

By Michael Terrazas

Linda Watt, U.S. ambassador to Panama, visited Emory last week to paint a picture of life in the Central American country and discuss the future of its relationship with the United States.

Watt, appointed by President George W. Bush and sworn in as ambassador to Panama in December 2002, appeared April 14 in 205 White Hall during a visit sponsored by Latin American and Caribbean studies, the Institute for Comparative and International Studies, and the Halle Institute for Global Learning. One point she made clearly is that Panama, while it still has its problems, is one of the Western hemisphere's better success stories.

In 1977, when then-President Jimmy Carter and former Panamanian President Omar Torijos signed a treaty agreeing to turn over control of the Panama Canal to its host country by 2000, the pact was not greeted warmly in the United States; it won approval in the Senate by a single vote, and some have speculated it contributed to Carter's defeat in the 1980 election. Many Americans feared the canal, so vital to commerce in this hemisphere, would fall into disrepair, that tolls would be raised, that stronger nations might seize control of it, etc.

But none of that has occurred, she explained, since the handover was completed in December 1999.

In fact, Watt said today the canal is run more efficiently than when it was under U.S. control; revenues are up 22 percent since 1999, she said, and the number of accidents within the canal have been cut in half. The time necessary for ships to travel through the canal also has decreased. And, in terms of diplomatic and cultural relations, the Panamanians are genuinely and greatly appreciative of the United States' willingness to relinquish control.

"When I began my appointment, I thought Panamanians would resent the United States," Watt said. "I've found exactly the opposite. From the government levels down to the taxi drivers, everyone is quite friendly to the U.S. and appreciative of the relationship we now have."

But Panama is not paradise, Watt said, despite the fact that more and more Americans are choosing the country as a retirement destination. It suffers from the same malady as many of its Central and South American neighbors: corruption, in politics and in business. In fact, Watt said, corruption is the chief ill she and the rest of the U.S. State Department are trying to address as negotiations begin for a free-trade agreement between the two countries.

To illustrate her point, Watt told a story about how a U.S. official spoke to a group of Panamanians at the U.S. embassy in Panama about how the United States would begin denying visas to anyone guilty of corruption, anyone guilty of facilitating such corruption, and to the families of both.

"One man stood up," Watt recalled, "and asked, 'Will this be retroactive?'"