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U.S. Has Played Its Cards; Panama Must Reform Itself

February 14, 1988|RICHARD N. HAASS | Richard N. Haass, lecturer in public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, just returned from Panama.

There are some important parallels between the situations in Panama, 1988, and the Philippines of 1986: Both countries share a long relationship with the United States; important U.S. national security interests--key air and naval bases in the Philippines, the canal in Panama--are at stake, and there is a fundamental clash between an authoritarian regime--long supported by Washington--and a popular demand for democracy.

The distinctions may be more important, however. The military in the Philippines for the most part believed in constitutional rule; in Panama the military's refusal to permit civilian control is the core of the problem. In Panama there is no Corazon Aquino uniting the opposition, no Cardinal Jaime Sin heading an active and influential church. Instead, Panama's "civilian crusade" often appears weak and divided in the face of a military all too willing to use force to prevail.

In the end, it may be best to see Panama for what it is. The civilian government is little more than a facade. The military wields the real power, much like Spain under Franco. Most important, the degree of corruption is profound. Much of the top echelon of Panama's military, headed since 1983 by Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, is widely believed to be guilty of lining its pockets from a variety of illegal activities and using violence to silence its domestic enemies.

Nevertheless, for more than 20 years now, the United States has largely looked the other way while Noriega and his predecessors subverted democracy. American policy-makers were tolerant so long as the canal stayed open and the U.S. military--Panama is the headquarters of our Southern Command--was allowed to remain. Panama also became an important source of intelligence on developments in Central America. More recent disclosures indicate that Gen. Noriega was on the CIA payroll, and that the National Security Council's Oliver North sought to enlist him in a scheme intended to embarrass the neighboring Sandinista regime by fabricating evidence of arms shipments from Nicaragua to the rebels in El Salvador.

Starting this past June, however, Washington decided that it had had enough. Coming against a backdrop of growing political repression in Panama, the triggering event was the government-orchestrated stoning of the U.S. Embassy in Panama City. Congress voted to cut off all economic and military aid, calling for civilian control. Even previous supporters of Noriega joined in, outraged over evidence of his complicity in large-scale cocaine shipments to the United States, shipment of high technology to Cuba and the Eastern Bloc countries, and gun-running. So that the Panamanians would understand that all agencies of the Reagan Administration wanted reform, Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage was dispatched to deliver the message that Noriega should step aside.

U.S. criticism came to a head with grand jury indictments of Noriega and some of his top associates for their role in facilitating the export of drugs to the United States and racketeering. Yet there are probably limits to what the United States can accomplish. Given canal revenues, a free-trade zone and Swiss-style banking laws, Panama's elite is partially immune to Western pressures. Many top military figures are further insulated, given their access to funds derived from drug trade, prostitution and gun-running. The indictments might simply lead Noriega and his top associates to circle the wagons against this threat to their privilege.

In fact the United States has already played most of its cards with the aid cut, political criticism and the indictments.

What, then, should Washington do? U.S. officials should continue to call for civilian rule and free and fair elections (scheduled for May, 1989). We should also continue to honor our commitments under the Panama Canal treaties--slated to return to Panama's control in 11 years--thereby undermining the charge by Noriega that the current wave of criticism is motivated by a desire to revise the treaties and keep control of the waterway. Enlisting the militaries of Latin governments to pressure Panama's soldiers to reform might help. So, too, would expanded economic sanctions designed to weaken Panama's largely service economy.

As a general rule of thumb, Washington would be wise not to assume too high a profile. Positive change can come only from within Panama itself. Noriega can only profit from the perception that he is standing up to "Yankee imperialism." But convincing Panama's soldiers to return to their barracks promises to be difficult. Getting rid of Noriega might not be enough; "Noriegaism," with its tradition of corruption and political interference, runs deep. The age when Uncle Sam could snap his fingers and Latin leaders would jump is long since over.

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