PANAMA CITY – Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, one of the promoters of the Panama Canal Treaties that were signed 30 years ago, said that former Panamanian leader, the late Gen. Omar Torrijos, was “a dictator,” but “honest, direct and brave.”
In an interview published Sept. 7 in the Panamanian daily La Prensa to mark the 30th anniversary of the treaties, Carter said that “he (Omar Torrijos) never deceived me.”
Carter and Torrijos, father of current Panamanian President Martin Torrijos, on Sept. 7, 1977 signed the two new canal treaties that returned the international waterway to Panamanian control on Dec. 31, 1999, after 85 years of U.S. administration.
According to the former U.S. President, “when we exchanged the documents of the Panama treaties, three weeks after having signed the pact, he (Omar Torrijos) promised me he would do everything possible to bring true democracy to Panama.”
In describing the strongman who led Panama between 1968 and 1981, Carter said: “There’s no doubt that among all those who got to know Torrijos – and there were several dozen (U.S.) senators that were there to meet with him when the subject was discussed – the general consensus was that we could depend on this man.”
Gen. Torrijos died in an airplane crash on July 31, 1981.
Carter said that his decision to return the canal to the Panamanians to a certain extent urged him to make his unsuccessful run for a second term as President of the United States, but it was not the main factor.
“It was a factor, but I would say that it was of less importance compared with the American hostages in Iran and other things.
We have to remember that the Panama Canal Treaties were highly unpopular in the United States and they still are,” he said.
He said that despite the unpopularity of the treaties, signing them was the right thing to do, and that those familiar with international affairs are convinced that this is true.
Carter was one of the principal guests at the ceremony inaugurating work on the third set of locks in the canal presided over by President Martin Torrijos, who set off an explosive charge Sept. 3 on a hill near the banks of the canal to mark the beginning of the $5.25 billion project that will double the waterway’s capacity.
Also attending the inauguration ceremony were Presidents Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Tony Saca of El Salvador, Alvaro Uribe of Colombia and Mel Zelaya of Honduras.
Thousands of people, encouraged to attend the event by the Panamanian government, participated in a “great popular gathering” near the Pedro Miguel locks in the canal’s Pacific sector.
The expansion of the waterway includes the construction of another set of locks, larger than the current ones, which will double the cargo transport capacity of the canal to some 600 million tons annually.
Torrijos decreed the day a holiday for public employees and schools to ensure the maximum attendance at the ceremonies, which he called the beginning of the future for the coming generations.
Carter said that day the canal has been better operated since it was returned to the Panamanians.
“I’m proud and very satisfied by the efficiency with which Panamanians are managing the canal,” Carter said, adding that the expansion would not have been possible under U.S. administration of the waterway.
“That was the most important and most difficult decision of my presidency, but the most gratifying,” he said.