WASHINGTON — The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 19-0 on Thursday to cut off all U.S. aid to Panama's military government unless sweeping reforms are instituted and civilian rule is restored.
"This should be a clear signal to the venal, corrupt Panamanian defense forces against the abuse of the Panamanian people," said Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), the Senate's deputy majority leader.
Cranston, who supported the treaties turning control of the Panama Canal over to Panama in the year 2000, said the vote will do nothing to hinder or obstruct that process.
He noted that Panama's military leader, Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, has told his countrymen that the aid cutoff is intended to cause a disruption in U.S.-Panamanian relations, which Washington could then exploit as an excuse to reclaim the waterway.
"I want to assure the Panamanian people and the American people that this is not a correct statement," Cranston said.
The aid cutoff legislation now goes to the Senate floor, where early action is expected.
The legislation would bar U.S. aid to Panama unless President Reagan certifies there has been a substantial effort to assure civilian control of the armed forces, and that Noriega and his commanders have been removed from non-military posts.
Other conditions include the initiation of an investigation of alleged abuses by members of the military, a non-military transitional government and restoration of press and constitutional freedoms.
The legislation was amended immediately before the vote, apparently to assure the CIA continued freedom of action in Panama.
The change, proposed by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), one of the principal authors of the bill, bans CIA assistance to the Panamanian government, but not to other elements of Panama's society.
Spurred by riots outside the U.S. Embassy in Panama City last June, the Reagan Administration suspended $26 million in U.S. aid and instructed U.S. diplomats to shun Noriega whenever possible.
The new legislation would make that suspension permanent unless the President certified that the bill's conditions had been met.