Bush’s Trip Ends With Discord

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Times Staff Writer

President Bush on Monday endorsed the idea of widening the Panama Canal but rejected Panama’s request that the U.S. remove thousands of unexploded munitions it left behind when it turned over control of the waterway in 1999.

The ordnance is strewn across jungle firing ranges, including a five-mile strip on either side of the canal. Separately, on the island of San Jose, the U.S. military dropped tens of thousands of chemical munitions in training and testing missions the 1940s.

In the canal treaties, the U.S. committed to clearing up such ordnance as much as was “practicable,” a term that left ample ambiguity for dispute, which has served to fuel some anti-U.S. sentiments here.


After meeting with Panamanian President Martin Torrijos on Monday, Bush said the U.S. had met its obligations on the munitions.

“We have a disagreement that we will continue to discuss,” he said.

But the Panamanian leader was not optimistic about resolving the dispute.

“There will not always be agreement, such as in the unexploded ordnance issue,” he said.

The discordant note ended Bush’s four-day Latin American trip that also saw violent demonstrations in Argentina and a setback for the president in his quest for a hemispheric free-trade zone.

Still, there were a few points of agreement between Bush and Torrijos. Bush backed Panama’s plan to widen the canal, saying that the world would benefit from its modernization. That stance is likely to be well received here, analysts said.

“It’s an important and positive statement,” said Robert A. Pastor, a professor and vice president of international affairs at American University in Washington.

At a joint news conference with Torrijos after they met Monday morning, Bush also said the U.S. and Panama were “getting close” to reaching a bilateral free-trade agreement. When a Panamanian journalist questioned Bush’s ability to persuade Congress to ratify such a treaty, the president criticized unnamed Democrats who, he said, had reversed course after supporting similar efforts in the past.

“The Democrat Party had free-trade members who are willing to make the right decisions based not on politics, but based on what’s best for the interest of the country. And that spirit has dissipated in recent votes,” Bush said. “And Panama can help reinvigorate the spirit. We can help to make sure this isn’t just such a partisan issue, that people are unwilling to make a vote based upon their principle and what’s right for our respective countries.”


Before returning to the White House, the president and first lady toured the canal’s Miraflores Locks, escorted by Torrijos and his wife, Vivian Fernandez de Torrijos.

“Interesting, isn’t it,” Bush said after touring the control room.

Before Bush left for his visit to Argentina -- where he attended the Summit of the Americas -- Brazil and Panama, some analysts thought the trip abroad might help him shake off political troubles in Washington and put him in a statesmanlike setting. But afterward, several said the trip was far from a ringing success.

“The trip hasn’t helped at all in Latin America. It reduced his stature in Latin America,” said David de Ferranti, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “To the extent that the Bush team hoped the trip would boost him at home, that hasn’t happened. He looks weak abroad, and these are not good signals.”

“My impression is that he’ll be very happy to get home,” Pastor said.