Latin America in news as century ends

Latin America is in the news as the 20th century comes to an end, and my guess is that our neighbors to the south will make news more frequently during the new millennium. At the moment, however, we're dealing with political stories from Cuba and Panama and a catastrophic natural disaster in Venezuela, where I lived for seven years.

Let's start with the news from Cuba and Panama. In Havana, Communist dictator Fidel Castro is promising not to gin-up massive public celebrations if U.S. authorities return six-year-old Elian Gonzalez to his natural father. And in Panama City, that government is preparing to take over ownership and operation of the U.S.-built Panama Canal at midnight on Dec. 31.

CUBA: Although I don't believe a word that Fidel Castro says, I nevertheless think that young Elian - who survived the harrowing ordeal at sea that killed his mother - should be returned to his father. Unfortunately, an issue that should have been decided on humanitarian grounds has turned into a messy political battle between Castro and the vociferous anti-Communist Cuban community in south Florida.

I concur with USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham, who wrote that "the INS (U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service) should return Elian to his father as quickly as it placed him in the custody of distant relatives who are allowing lawyers to turn his plight into a political crusade." Or, in the words of the Reno Gazette-Journal, "No matter how much easier life might be here, he belongs with his father."

Unsurprisingly, the Clinton White House passed this political hot potato to the INS, one of the most impenetrable and inept bureaucracies in the U.S. government, right down at the bottom of the federal food chain alongside the much-maligned Bureau of Indian Affairs. The longer the INS delays a final decision in this case, the louder will be the uproar in Havana and Miami. And it's already plenty loud.

Castro has sent hundreds of thousands of Cubans into the streets of Havana to "demand" Elian's return to his father, who has been photographed in front of Che Guevara posters. Meanwhile, in Miami, anti-Castro Cubans paraded the boy around like a trophy, showered him with expensive gifts and took him on a well-publicized trip to nearby Disney World. All of which overlooks the boy's best interests. The only question that really matters is whether his natural father is a fit parent. And assuming he is, that's where the boy belongs.

But the Miami Cubans can make such a decision very difficult for gutless politicians in Florida and Washington. These are the same people who "force" President Clinton and Congress to spend more than $10 million per year on TV Marti, a surrogate television station that no one watches. If Nevadans had the same kind of political clout, the nuclear waste dump would be on the outskirts of Miami.

PANAMA: A few days ago, Panama threw a huge party to celebrate its forthcoming takeover of the Canal Zone, and hardly anyone showed up from the Clinton Administration. Former President Jimmy Carter, who signed the Panama Canal treaties in 1977, headed the U.S. delegation, which also included "junior" Cabinet members Rodney Slater from the Transportation Department and William Daly from Commerce.

Even though the Panamanian government pronounced itself "insulted" by the low-level U.S. delegation, ordinary Panamanians sang and danced in the streets as Carter exchanged diplomatic notes with President Mireya Moscoso, telling her simply, "It's yours." But it wasn't always that simple.

Basically, President Teddy Roosevelt stole the Canal territory from Colombia by means of a questionable treaty signed with a phony Panamanian diplomat, Philippe Buneau - Varilla, who made a lot of money on the deal. "I took Panama!" Roosevelt bragged. And years later, when Carter pushed his treaties through Congress over the objections of Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt and many others, our attitude seemed to be, "We stole it (the Canal Zone) fair and square. It's ours and that's that." Nevertheless, it was a swath of foreign territory running across the middle of a sovereign nation.

Author/historian David McCullough wrote that "the building of the Panama Canal was one of the most grandiose, dramatic and sweeping adventures of all time." Started by the French in 1870 and finished by Americans in 1914, the Canal is an indispensable waterway linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. About 14,000 ships pass through the Canal each year, paying some $540 million in tolls, statistics that raise questions about Panama's ability to operate the Canal and keep it open.

Questions have also been raised about Panama's contracts with a Hong Kong company to operate port facilities at both ends of the Canal, leading some ultra-conservatives to worry about a Communist Chinese takeover of Panama. But under the Carter treaties, the U.S. retains the right to intervene militarily if the security of the Canal is threatened. For my part, I wish the Panamanians well. They'll need all the help they can get.

VENEZUELA: Our hearts go out to our many friends and former colleagues in flood-ravaged Venezuela, where as many as 20,000 people may have died in one of the worst natural disasters of the 20th century. We lived for seven years in Caracas, where our daughter was born, and wish the Venezuelans and everyone else a brighter future in the next millennium. Happy New Year!

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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