More Links in News & Events

Acceptance by Jimmy Carter: Order of Manuel Amador Guerrero in the Grade of the Grand Cross

I do not think it is necessary for me to say that I am overwhelmed in many ways - with the official reception of this very high award from the government and the people of Panama, but also with the flood of memories that this event brings forward in my heart and mind. This is a glorious day for me, which I will never forget, and I am exceptionally gratified to see so many distinguished Panamanians come for this ceremony.

Your president has pointed out my early interest in Panama when I was a student at Georgia Tech and later as a governor of Georgia and saw the relationship that existed and the unfairness and the absence of basic human rights in the relationship between the United States and Panama. When I was president of the United States, I was faced with some very difficult decisions, and we were successful in our effort because of the courage and sound judgment, integrity, [and] commitment of General Omar Torrijos. He was a military man like I was - but maybe a little different. I went to Georgia Tech and Annapolis; he was more like a sergeant. But he was deprived at birth of any inclination toward dishonesty or equivocation. He said what he thought was right, and he never misled me or betrayed me in any way during those difficult times.

I have said many times that the courageous addressing of the canal sovereignty was the most difficult political challenge I ever had. It was more difficult for me than being elected president in the first place to get two-thirds of the American senators to approve the treaty, because we were constantly balancing the impact in my country on what was said in the Senate, its impact on the people of Panama, and on the proud president of Panama, Omar Torrijos. I have also said many times since then that this was the most courageous decision that the U.S. Congress has ever made, because it was highly unpopular in my country "to give away the canal," which many people - including my own political adversaries - said was built and paid for and owned by the United States. But I saw it in another way - influenced by my conversations with Omar Torrijos and also with my own analysis of what was right, just, and ethically and morally correct. There were 20 U.S. senators who ran for re-election in 1978 - 20 who voted for the [return of the] canal. Only seven of them came back, and the attrition rate two years later in 1980 was almost as bad - including one incumbent president who did not get re-elected.

Before this meeting, we had another meeting dealing with the correlation of human rights and election monitoring, emphasizing the right of individual citizens to have access to their own government's policies and actions and to participate in the democratic process. Our own country is lacking in some of these finest aspects of democracy, and as I spoke to that other group, I pointed out that one of the major examples I could imagine was Panama, because here was a trial of my country and the Panamanians in what was a basic human right.

At that time, the United States had a general policy of being in bed with dictators who subjugated their indigenous people and people of African origin and those afflicted with poverty and a lack of education and kept them from participating in the government processes of their countries. In addition to Panama, which was looking for a way to a democracy then, I was faced with a fact that almost every country in South America was a dictatorship - Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil - all of them had military dictatorships. And our country was aligned, our government was aligned, our economic system was aligned with the dictators, because it was very lucrative to have monopoly control of bauxite and iron ore and copper and bananas and pineapples and so forth, and that flood of economic benefits came to our country. In return, our government, even our presidents, would defend our dictator friends. We would send U.S. Marines and the Army into a country to defend the dictators against the legitimate human rights demands of their own people. What happened in Panama was a notable achievement of moving toward democracy and freedom, which you now cherish and use as an example to the rest of the world, and economic benefits derived to you because of that. Within 10 years, all the countries which had been dictatorships became democracies in South America, and it was because of human rights. So that is a very important thing in my life.

My personal friendships in Panama have been one of the most cherished aspects of my existence and of my wife's and every member of my family. The Lewis family has been a host for a large number of Carters. (We have been quite prolific.) Three times we have been there to impose on them for a week. This has given us an insight into the private affairs of Panamanians of all kinds. So on behalf of me and my wife and The Carter Center - and I say this to some degree on behalf of the United States-I want to express my thanks to the president, the vice president, and all others who had a role in giving me this award.

I have to admit - this is kind of a negative thing - that the transfer of the canal to Panama is still not popular in my country. In fact, when the time came for the transfer of the title to the Canal Zone and the canal at the end of 1999, our president chose not to participate. And the vice president chose not to participate, and the secretary of state chose not to participate. It was one of the rare times they asked me to represent the United States. I was glad and proud to participate. So if you look at the photographs of that event, which was a glorious event, you will not see any of our top leaders there, just a has-been president who was there proudly to turn over the canal.

When Martin Torrijos was president and the decision was made to expand the canal, the same thing happened. We had a different party in the presidency at that time, and for the only time they asked me to participate to go and join them; and so Martin and I joined together to set off the dynamite, which started this long and sometimes delayed project that I know will be soon completed. It will be a glorious gift not only to the people of Panama but to the rest of the world. So, you can see that I am overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude, and I hope that for the rest of my life I can still retain the friendship and support and benefits from the relationship with the people of Panama whom I love very much.

I will always remember Ambassador Gabriel Lewis and Omar Torrijos, the two key people who worked with me and others on this event. Again, let me express my thanks to the president and the people of Panama for this great honor.