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DIPLOMACY : Cheering Stops for Yanks in Panama : The rosy glow that followed the U.S. invasion has given way to charges that Washington is responsible for everything from local unemployment to diplomatic blackmail.

April 20, 1991|KENNETH FREED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PANAMA CITY — Not so long ago, in the wake of the American overthrow of dictator Manuel A. Noriega, being associated with the United States was a Panamanian political badge of honor. Today, to some, it's grounds for impeachment.

The street peddlers who once waved down motorists with fast-selling T-shirts celebrating Operation Just Cause, as the December, 1989, invasion was called, have traded pro-U.S. souvenirs for bananas, oranges and Korean toys. Americans once applauded in restaurants simply because they were Americans are now ignored.

Street demonstrations accusing the local government of pandering to the United States are on the increase. So are charges by union officials and some business people that the high unemployment rate, the slow pace of reconstruction and the low spending for social programs all result from U.S. pressure on Panama to pay off its foreign debt before handling domestic problems.

Still, serious anti-Americanism hasn't yet taken hold in Panama, and President Guillermo Endara's government continues courting favor at the bay-side U.S. Embassy. But the glow of the relationship generated by the invasion has given way to some cold political cinders.

That was evidenced during this month's crisis that splintered the Panamanian coalition government. It began when dissident deputies in the National Assembly sought to impeach Endara on grounds that he was inaugurated on a U.S. military base during the anti-Noriega invasion and had asked for U.S. military intervention to defeat a coup attempt last fall.

Although that move came from a small, weak group, the failure of a major coalition partner, the Christian Democratic Party, to quickly oppose the anti-Endara bill led the president into a course that resulted in the dismissal of the Christian Democrats from government.

The major symbol of the Panamanian disillusionment with the United States has been Washington's attempt to force Panama to sign a so-called Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, a blunt effort to pursue U.S. tax evaders and insider stock traders through access to secret Panamanian banking records--even though such activity is not illegal here.

A treaty finally was signed earlier this month giving U.S. investigators some access to Panamanian banking records tied to drug-money laundering. But it fell far short of U.S. demands, despite a U.S. delay in providing millions of dollars in badly needed economic aid. And it embittered relations.

The talks were characterized by personal acrimony between U.S. Ambassador Deane R. Hinton and Panamanian Foreign Minister Julio Linares, a bitterness reflected in the signing ceremony. Linares refused to attend; his chief deputy publicly accused the United States of using harmful pressure tactics by conditioning economic aid to Panama's acceptance of Washington's demands. In response, and with Endara looking on, Hinton praised Vice President Ricardo Arias Calderon, Endara's strongest political opponent.

"It was a silly and obviously counterproductive exercise," one foreign official said.

U.S. officials here charge Panama's negotiators with some of the blame, saying "they weren't very serious" initially and were influenced by Linares' extreme nationalism and anti-Americanism.

But foreign diplomats say the deeper problem with U.S.-Panama relations is, as one put it, "there is no American policy here."

It is a view echoed by Hinton, who said recently that "there was no adequate civilian planning for the post-liberation period."

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