MEXICO CITY — The life of the Organization of American States' mission to Panama has been prolonged for six weeks, which opens three possibilities in the ongoing regional crisis.
First scenario: The four OAS diplomats fail to persuade Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega to relinquish power and leave his country, and the Bush Administration decides that the entire affair is not worth the effort, and simply forgets about Panama. This course may be the wisest; it is certainly not the most likely.
Another possibility: The four-man team--the foreign ministers of Ecuador, Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago, and the secretary general of the OAS--having won an extension of its mandate, drags things out indefinitely. The logic of this course is clear: More negotiations may not force Noriega to leave, nor persuade his opposition or the United States to cut a deal with him, but delay postpones doing anything about it. Most important, it postpones the OAS ministers' consideration of the Panama matter until July 19, perhaps for good. This solution has the advantage of offering everybody a way out; it also has the serious drawback of maintaining the status quo, which is precisely what the Bush Administration has plainly said is not acceptable.
The third possible scenario: The U.S. delegation to the OAS will cash in its chips at next month's meeting. The Bush Administraton would ask the Latin American governments that so ardently espoused the OAS' attempt to achieve what the United States had not been able to obtain--Noriega's departure--to acknowledge their failure and draw the appropriate conclusions. That is, the Americans would simply ask those OAS members who voted to denounce Noriega and dispatch the four envoys to support other means to attain the same end: Noriega's ouster.
This would place most Latin American nations in a worse predicament than the one posed by the OAS meeting on Panama after the May 7 election. Many of these governments have taken heavy flak because of their pro-U.S. stance on what many observers regard as a settling of scores between the Reagan and Bush Administrations and Noriega.
Argentina's president-elect, Carlos Saul Menem, virtually disowned Foreign Minister Dante Caputo's vote at the OAS. Menem, a Peronist, has close ties to Gen. Mohamed Ali Seineldin and other rebellious Argentine military leaders who have had close links to the Panamanian Defense Forces for some time.
Although Brazil voted with the United States on the Noriega resolutions, its foreign minister did not attend the May OAS meeting; he even asked several of his peers, unsuccessfully, to do likewise.
In Mexico, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has had to face withering criticism of his government's pro-U.S. stance at the OAS last month. At last week's OAS meeting, Mexico refrained from even naming Noriega. In contrast to its previous stance, Mexico stressed the importance of nonintervention in Panama's affairs and of not linking the canal treaties to the domestic situation. For this, Mexico received the praise of Panama's foreign minister.
While it might seem sensible to align with the United States on what is, after all, a secondary issue for Mexico, in order to achieve a better deal on the foreign debt, this approach runs directly against the myths and icons of Mexican nationalism. More important, perhaps, it puts the Salinas government in a no-win situation: Its critics--nationalistic, left-of-center--are vociferous in their outrage, while its supporters--business-oriented, pro-American--attach scarce importance to foreign policy.
In a nutshell, the Latin American effort to help the United States get rid of Noriega was unwise. What never appeared clearly during the first OAS convocation on Panama was what interest the major states of Latin America had in Noriega's departure. They agreed to try their hand at getting Noriega to leave office and power, yet none explained how its national interests had a stake in who rules Panama.
Now, many Latin capitals are changing course. This was evident in Tuesday's resolutions; none specifically condemned Noriega, and U.S. attempts to shorten the four emissaries' mandate and specify tougher action did not prosper.
Washington will keep insisting on that approach, but it is not likely to work, no matter what the Latin American delegations agreed to when news from Panama was at its emotional peak. Regardless of the United States' theoretical right to ask for support for firmer action once other avenues have failed, few nations of the hemisphere will support direct action or similar measures. American desires to depose a former ally will continue to be seen as an American problem, not a hemispheric one.
The problem, though, endures. Should the major nations of Latin America have so easily acquiesced to American wishes that they condemned Noriega, unwilling or unable as they were to condemn electoral fraud in Panama? Will their mid-course correction last week hold fast? What was the true problem--Noriega or abuse of the electoral process? As a corrupt, murderous dictator, is Noriega truly the worst that Latin America has seen in recent years? Does he really deserve treatment different from Pinochet, Stroessner, Galtieri or Videla, Geisel or Garrastazu Medici, Garcia Meza or Romero or Lucas Garcia and Rios Montt? Or does the double standard come from the fact that this is a dictator the United States wants to get rid of, as opposed to those it is indifferent about?