PANAMA CITY, Panama – President Bush voiced his support on Monday for expanding the Panama Canal to allow bigger ships and more cargo to pass through the shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Bush said Panama must acknowledge that the 50-mile waterway "is to be used by everybody, that the canal is international, that there ought to be ... equal access."
Panama is studying plans for widening and deepening the canal that could cost nearly $10 billion. The project must be approved in a national referendum, amid concerns about the environmental impact and the heavy debt involved.
White House officials were careful before Bush's visit to remain neutral, saying the canal's future should be decided by Panamanian voters.
But, the president said here: "It's in our nation's interest that this canal be modernized."
It was Bush's last stop on a Latin American trip that also took him to Argentina and Brazil, and he was pausing in Richmond on the way home to campaign for Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore.
He returns to Washington to a troubled political landscape. White House aide Karl Rove is under a legal cloud in the CIA leak case and the president is at a low point in approval polls.
Bush briefly took charge of one of the canal's locks and pronounced it a "marvel." The United States opened the canal in 1914 and turned it over to Panama in 1999.
"Those who are responsible for the Panama Canal have done an excellent job, and this is beneficial to the world," Bush said after meeting with Panama President Martin Torrijos.
Michael Shifter, a Latin American expert at the Inter-American Dialogue research group in Washington, said Bush's stop in Panama was in part an attempt to show America's willingness to erase its image as a heavy-handed neighbor in the hemisphere.
"I think he's saying that the U.S. doesn't have to control everything — that the U.S. is able to sort of yield, and when it does, things can go well," Shifter said.
Bush, speaking in a government guest house near a presidential palace that overlooks Panama Bay, also said Panama and the U.S. were close to signing a free trade pact. But he acknowledged that the deal would likely run into resistance in Congress.
"The Democratic 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," Bush said. "That spirit has dissipated in recent votes and Panama can help reinvigorate the spirit.'
He glossed over an ongoing dispute about having a free-trade zone spanning the Western Hemisphere. At a summit in Argentina over the weekend, 34 nations failed to agree to restart talks on the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas. Bush stressed that 29 nations said "loud and clear" that it's important to advance a trade agenda.
Torrijos brought up one tricky subject — Panama's contention that the U.S. government, which built military bases in the Canal Zone to serve regional strategic military purposes, left behind unexploded ordnance.
"There will not always be agreement, such as in the unexploded ordnance issue," Torrijos said. "But there will always be a frankness, sincerity between us so that we can discuss as friends on the various viewpoints of our countries."
Bush's visit to Panama was in stark contrast to his father's visit here in 1992.
Former President George H.W. Bush was forced to flee to safety from tear gas fired at protesters at a rally in downtown Panama City where he was preparing to deliver a speech praising the revival of democracy in Panama. When a dark cloud of tear gas blew in, Secret Service agents led him away.
The incident followed a night of anti-American protests over the death and destruction that occurred during the December 1989 U.S. invasion to oust military strongman Manuel Noriega.
Besides touring the canal, Bush tossed a baseball with Panamanian baseball players and visited the Corozal American Cemetery to honor nearly 5,200 canal workers and U.S. service members buried there. He also he set up a fishing date with Torrijos.
At the canal, the president rolled up his sleeves to operate the Miraflores Locks. He turned a lever, sending an electronic signal to a motor that opens a value to let water flow into the lock.
It took about eight minutes for the chamber to fill and allow a ship from Malta to ascend to the next level of the canal. The ship, which paid $40,000 to pass through, was carrying 13,700 tons of wood and wood products from Chile to Mexico.