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At noon on December 31, 1999, the United States of America handed full control of the Panama Canal over to Panama. With the transfer of responsibility and power came many concerns.

Panamanian Control
Although the Panama Canal Treaty of 1977 was signed more than 20 years ago, many people in the United States and Panama think the treaty was a mistake. Some argue it was a mistake because they do not believe Panama was ready to manage the Canal. Panama has been a democracy for only a decade, and some people fear that the military could take over control of the government and the Canal.

The United States and Panamanian politicians have expressed concerns about political corruption. Since operation of the Canal brings in millions of dollars, the potential for corruption is high, especially in the Panamanian government.

Recent polls found that approximately 70% of Panamanians would have liked to seen the United States continue to be involved, at least in part, in the Canal operation. This feeling was also expressed by Panamanian politicians, including the president of Panama.

Security Concerns 
Another concern about the transfer of the Canal to the Panamanians centered around Canal security. Panama's neighbor, Colombia, has an active revolutionary group that has been crossing over into Panama. The rebels say they do not intend to cause any problems in Panama. However, some U.S. officials are not sure the rebels can be trusted. One fear is that the rebels might try to gain publicity for their cause by targeting the Canal. A terrorist act against the Canal could cause major disruptions in international trade. Without the U.S. military stationed in the canal area (a 5-mile section of land on each side of the Canal), the Canal would not be as well defended against terrorist attacks.

Landmines and Hazardous Materials Another concern is what the United States left behind in the U.S. canal area of Panama. This section along the Canal was used by the United States as a military training base to test explosives, as well as other things. Unexploded landmines still exist in the rainforests that were part of the U.S. area along the Canal.

Hazardous materials, such as chemical weapons were among the materials left behind. Although most areas containing hazardous materials were cleaned up, some areas were fenced off to keep people out. The U.S. military maintains that these areas were too thickly forested for all of the materials to be removed. Cutting the trees down to allow access would have destroyed the rainforest. Therefore, the U.S. military argued that fencing them off was the best option. The military also pointed out that only a fraction (about 2%) of the U.S. territory would be left contaminated.

One pressing issue that faced Panama as it took on the responsibility of managing the Canal was making the regular improvements necessary to keep the Canal operational. Modernizing the Canal involves, among other things, widening the Canal in some areas and updating the tugboats that pull the ships through the Canal's locks.

These improvements will help to keep traffic flowing through the Canal in a timely manner. Smooth traffic flows will keep the Canal an economic way to ship goods. If Canal traffic gets too slow, more countries could begin to ship their goods across the United States by railroads. Unfortunately, improving the Canal can be very expensive--one tugboat can cost tens of millions of dollars. Yet, since countries have other ways to ship their goods, Panama must continually improve the Canal.



The Panama Canal
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