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Rumsfeld Tours Strategic Panama Canal

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

PANAMA CITY, Panama, Nov. 14, 2004 – Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld got a bird's-eye view of the Panama Canal today during an overflight in an Army Black Hawk helicopter, after which he praised the Panamanians for their commitment to ensuring the security of the strategically important waterway.

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Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld lays a wreath at the Corozal American Cemetery in Panama on Nov. 14. With him is Bruce Phelps, the cemetery's superintendent, and members of the American Legion that support funeral details at the ceremony. Photo by Donna Miles

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"My impression is that these are very serious people," Rumsfeld told reporters after the flight, one day after his meeting with Panama's new President Martin Torrijos and his senior staff.

"They have a good team in this new administration here," Rumsfeld said. "They are very serious about their responsibilities and the importance of their responsibilities, and they are tackling the problems and challenges of the 21st century in an orderly and disciplined way."

Rumsfeld called the canal an asset, not only for the Panamanian people, "but also for the hemisphere and the world."

He said it was enlightening to sit beside canal administrator Alberto Aleman during the helicopter flight, calling it "terrific" to hear him discuss "how it operates, how they handle security issues, how they are working to improve things, the investments they are making and the plans they have to expand the size of the canal -- all the while continuing the keep the current canal functioning."

The secretary said the Panamanians have "important plans," which he said "can't help but be good for Panama and good for the Americas and the inter-American system, and indeed, world commerce, which is so essential to prosperity in our world."

Rumsfeld also visited the Miraflores Locks, where he personally opened and closed some of the valves used to flood the lock channels for a ship in transit.

Earlier in the day, the secretary visited the Corozal American Cemetery, where he and U.S. Ambassador to Panama Linda Watt laid a wreath to honor Americans both military and civilian-- involved in building, operating and securing the canal. Some 5,000 U.S. citizens, including 1,800 servicemembers, are buried at the cemetery.

Today's activities wrapped up Rumsfeld's visit to Panama before his flight to Quito, Ecuador, to participate in the Defense Ministerial of the Americas conference.

While in Panama, Rumsfeld met with Torrijos and his senior staff Nov. 13 to discuss bilateral and regional security issues, including the need for close cooperation to assure the security of the canal.

Torrijos assured Rumsfeld during his visit that Panama is stepping up to the plate to protect the waterway that provides a critical link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Rumsfeld told reporters during a Nov. 13 joint press conference at the presidential palace with Panamanian Minister of Justice Hector Aleman.

Aleman said Panama has introduced a variety of security measures and welcomes international cooperation to counter what he acknowledged is a global threat. International crime "knows no borders," he said. "We are currently involved in a cooperative process with many countries around the world, among them the United States, in order to prevent any kind of incident."

The canal, which has been called "the eighth wonder of the world," took 10 years, 75,000 workers and almost $400 million to complete. Its builders faced huge obstacles, from tropical diseases to landslides. The waterway opened in August 1914.

The United States had jurisdiction over the canal until Dec. 31, 1999, when it was turned over to Panama under conditions laid out in the Torrijos-Carter Treaty. Torrijos' father, former Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos, entered into that agreement in 1977.

Defense leaders are optimistic about U.S.-Panamanian relationships under Torrijos' leadership, a senior defense official told reporters traveling with the secretary.

Torrijos is a member of the party of Manuel Noriega, who was ousted from power in 1989 during Operation Just Cause and is currently serving a 40-year sentence for drug trafficking.

Panama's military was disbanded following the invasion. Today, 14,000 members Panamanian National Police make up the lion's share of the county's security forces. Panama also has a small National Air Service, with 450 members, and a 600-member National Maritime Service.

Rumsfeld's visit to Panama was the third leg of his trip through Latin America before heading to Quito. He also made stops in El Salvador and Nicaragua to thank their leaders for contributions to the global war on terror and to discuss security issues in the region.

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Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDefense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, left, speaks with Bruce Phelps, superintendent of the Corozal American Cemetery, right, before a wreath-laying ceremony at the cemetery Nov. 14. Phelps is an Army retiree who served with the 7th Special Forces Group during 1989's Operation Just Cause in Panama, during which former dictator Manuel Noriega was ousted. Photo by Donna Miles  
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