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A Surprising Voice Calls From Our Backyard

Monday, 25 November 2002 12:00 AM

Recently, I returned from a visit to Panama, one of the most strategically important nations in the Western Hemisphere.

My friend Wilson C. Lucom lives in Panama City – and has been warning Americans of the threat now posed by the increasing communist influence in Central America.

We don't hear about it on the nightly news, but revolution and radicalism have been sweeping Latin America.

Venezuela's pro-Castro president, Hugo Chavez, has shown complete disregard for his country's constitutional government. He is on the march to create a dictatorship in a country that is the second-largest provider of oil to the U.S.

Next is Brazil, where the recent presidential elections saw the election of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, better known as simply "Lula" – a far-left radical who, like Chavez, deeply admires Castro.

Lula said his agenda is simple: to break Brazil out of the U.S. orbit and to help his country develop a nuclear weapon.

We know Colombia is in disarray, with communist FARC guerrillas having de facto control of large parts of that nation.

Across Latin America, including Argentina and Chile, we are witnessing political and economic destabilization.

Back to Panama. This country is one of the most vital, in terms of U.S. interests, for the entire region.

Panama is also critically important because of the Panama Canal, which was built by America as the key to our commercial and military reach.

On my recent trip to Panama, Chuck Lucom and I had an interesting conversation with a man whose name may be familiar to Americans: Omar Torrijos.

Torrijos is the son and namesake of the late Panamanian president, who was known for his anti-American views and who succeeded in having Jimmy Carter turn the Panama Canal over to Panamanian control.

President Torrijos died in a plane crash in 1981 and his family has not been in power since. However, his son Omar, a 40-year-old lawyer, remains an active member of the Partido Revolucionario Democratico (PRD), Panama's version of a Christian Democratic party, which his father once controlled.

Interestingly, the American-educated Torrijos acknowledges himself as a devout Christian who believes it is critically important that America's presence, including its military, be re-established in Panama.

"We are surrounded by fire," Torrijos said, pointing to places like Colombia and Venezuela and the economic problems now infecting the region.

Already these problems are nesting in Panama.

In its southern province of Darien, he says, you will find "no law, no army, no air force, no coast guard, nothing."

"There is no rule of law, just guerrillas and Colombians," he says of the FARC guerrillas who have found sanctuary in Panama.

He warns about the dangers posed by these communist guerrillas. "Two persons with a bazooka could come to the Panama Canal and shoot a tanker going through," he said. Nothing would stop them – Panama has no army – and he noted that this would cause more problems for the world economy than the terrorist acts of 9/11.

Americans and Panamanians, he believes, are "living a dream" divorced from the reality of the dangers now facing us.

In the late 1970s, as his father strenuously sought control of the Canal, he was opposed by the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Thomas Moorer.

Moorer argued then --and continues to argue – that control of the strategic waterway should never be relinquished by America.

Today, Torrijos' son has nothing but praise for Moorer.

"I really appreciate Admiral Moorer; he is a military man and he understands the problems we are facing," Torrijos said.

The economic problems that are sweeping Latin America are also affecting Panama. The official unemployment rate is 20 percent, but Torrijos says that 30 percent unemployment – consistent with that of a major depression – is probably more like it.

Into the mix throw the influence of the Chinese.

Torrijos said his father would have been furious had he known that the Panamanian government would concede control of the Canal to a Chinese company. Torrijos, of course, was referring to Hutchison Whampoa, an international shipping company owned by Chinese interests.

The influence of China is not limited simply to the Canal and the two ports that the Chinese control, one on the Atlantic and one on the Pacific.

Torrijos says that the increasing number of illegal Chinese now in this small country pose a serious problem. He estimates as many as 150,000 illegal Chinese in his country of 2 million – which includes an estimated legal Chinese population of 40,000.

He says that the Chinese influence can be seen throughout the country. A drive through the countryside finds almost all gas stations and supermarkets owned by Chinese.

"One may think this has been scientifically planned," Torrijos said of the growing Chinese influence. "It almost seems as if it has been planned, like a planned invasion of our country."

Torrijos' vision is that Panama can become a partner with the United States for interests of democracy and freedom in Central America.

He also believes it is critically important that the United States have a military presence in his country, noting that the Canal is "the gate of the Pacific" and "those who control it control the Pacific."

Unfortunately, he claims that his country's leaders have been selling out to the highest bidder, including the Chinese.

Torrijos sees important work cut out for him and believes it's important to establish Panama's economic and moral foundations as a nation. America must awaken to the problems that Panama now faces.

"The U.S. should be worried about Panama. It will be just simply negligent if Panama is lost," he said.

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Recently, I returned from a visit to Panama, one of the most strategically important nations in the Western Hemisphere. My friend Wilson C. Lucom lives in Panama City - and has been warning Americans of the threat now posed by the increasing communist influence in Central...
Monday, 25 November 2002 12:00 AM
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