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THE TORONTO STAR
Time For U.S. To Change Its Ways
by Abraham F. Lowenthal
December 29, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE TORONTO STAR. All Rights Reserved.
Three recent events, entirely separate yet of a piece, vividly
illustrate both how difficult and how necessary it is for the
United States to overcome 19th-century habits as the 20th century
draws to a close.
The symbolic transfer of the Panama Canal to the government
of Panama, the Pentagon's agreement to phase out the use of the
Puerto Rican island of Vieques as a firing range and the Department
of Justice's decision to follow established procedures in the
case of Elian Gonzalez - the 6-year-old Cuban boy rescued from
the waters off Florida after his mother and others drowned trying
to reach the United States from Cuba - are all events that reflect
the tension between bold patterns and new realities.
In transferring the Panama Canal Zone, Washington faithfully
implemented the Carter-Torrijos treaty of 1977. By doing so, the
U.S., despite fierce public opposition in some quarters, recognized
Panama's sovereignty over its national territory, including the
51-mile-long Panama Canal Zone where the United States had been
acting as if it were sovereign since 1903.
Although some in the United States still believe that the canal
and the Canal Zone should be run forever by Americans, the U.S.
government, by transferring all its installations and authority
to Panama, has eliminated a colonial vestige that had for years
soured inter-American relations.
In Vieques, off Puerto Rico's east coast, it took the accidental
death of civilian security guard David Sanes Rodriguez to mobilize
strong Puerto Rican opposition to the U.S. Navy's continuing use
of the inhabited island as a live-ammunition firing range. Increasingly
vocal Puerto Rican sentiment on the matter finally got Washington's
attention, forcing the Pentagon to look for alternative ways of
training U.S. forces.
In the case of Elian Gonzalez, the U.S. government has resisted
the political and emotional instinct to grant the boy immediate
asylum in Florida and thereby placate the exile community there,
instead relying on established procedures and precedents to determine
the boy's fate. No solution of this heart-rending case seems satisfactory,
but at least the United States is not asserting a right to override
national and international laws and agreements to score points
against Fidel Castro or because of assumptions that Americans
would best know what is in Elian's interests.
All these episodes have been difficult for the American body
politic, however. In Panama, President Clinton not only declined
to attend the transfer ceremony, but he also allowed Secretary
of State Madeleine Albright to beg off, snubbing Panama and minimizing
an important international event in order to avoid potential domestic
In Vieques, it took presidential intervention to push the U.S.
Navy into recognizing the strength and breadth of Puerto Rican
opposition to the daily shelling of their territory. The whole
incident, moreover, highlights the continuing anomaly of Puerto
Rico's "commonwealth status," which requires taxation
and many other obligations without representation in the U.S.
In the Elian Gonzalez case, the first instinct of U.S. officials
was to assert the right of the U.S. to separate the boy from his
father in violation of family law and of relevant U.S.-Cuba migration
It has taken political and bureaucratic courage to apply the
law, and the case is still subject to extraordinary pressures.
What unites the three cases is the need for U.S. policymakers
to overcome attitudes fashioned a century ago, when the United
States first became a major player on the world stage precisely
by projecting its growing power in the Caribbean Basin and Central
America. It has been more than 100 years since the Spanish-American
War, but the pattern of U.S. relations with the small countries
south of its border has been hard to break. Countless times the
United States has intervened using armed force, covert manipulation,
financial leverage or political guidance.
The U.S. Marines landed most often in these lands during the
1920s, but even in the past 50 years there has been repeated U.S.
interventionism in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador,
Grenada, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama.
Many American officials and many in the American public still
think of the Caribbean Basin as falling under the U.S. sphere
of influence, where Washington alone should set the rules, determine
the course it thinks best, and act accordingly.
The decisions to transfer control of the Panama Canal, to end
the shelling of Vieques and to apply the law to the case of Elian
Gonzalez are small, but perhaps significant, signs that the United
States might be ready to deal with other countries on the basis
of mutual respect and cooperation, not by imposition, fiat or
force. If so, the United States should be better able to face
the complex challenges of the 21st century.
A high level of international co-operation will be needed to
deal with such issues as trade, the environment, terrorism, narcotics,
infectious diseases, weapons proliferation, the protection of
cyberspace and the preservation of natural resources.
By overcoming outmoded habits, the United States will be much
more likely to succeed.
Abraham Lowenthal, professor of international
relations at the University of Southern California, is founding
president of the Pacific Council on International Policy.