Panama treaty success story

Diplomatic success deserves mention no less than diplomatic crises, so the news from the Panama Canal these days prompts a short word. The American people can be gratified that, a little over a year after Panama and the United States signed the canal treaties and became partners, business is booming and the dire forecasts of critics of the treaties have proven unfounded.

In the first full year of joint operation the canal broke all sorts of records. Tonnage rose from 168 million in 1979 to 182 million in 1980 and revenue from $210 million to $294 million. So brisk was business that a record in backlog of ships waiting to transit also was set.

And remember the concern voiced about what would happen when Panama took control of the Canal Zone and Panamanians were responsible for policing the area and performing other services? Contrary to worsening Panama's relations with Washington, the new arrangements have improved ties. One evidence of this is the fact that for two years running now the so-called Martyrs Day, Jan. 9 -- a day which marks the anti-US riots of 1964 and on which Panamanians had always pressed their grievances -- has passed without incident. In the words of a high Panamanian official, it has been commemorated "only in a spirit of cooperation and mutual understanding."

Difficulties and disagreements remain, to be sure. These include such issues as separate wage scales and contraband from US military commissaries being sold in Panama City. Panamanians complain of the US legislation passed to carry out the accords and plan to press for a further reduction of US control over operation of the waterway. Also, President Reagan's hiring freeze is complicating the gradual turnover of jobs and responsibility to Panamanians. But these and other matters are under constant discussion, and there is no reason to think they cannot be amicably worked out.

The essential point is that the United States acted wisely and foresightedly in finally disposing of a thorny issue. Not only do the treaties benefit the Panamanians. Today the US faces severe diplomatic challenges in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and other Central American and Caribbean countries. That it is not also dealing with a potentially explosive nationalism in Panama is cause for relief and satisfaction.

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