Washington — Against a backdrop of deepening political turmoil in Panama, the United States remains an enthusiastic, if still somewhat detached, cheerleader for democratic change there. The Reagan administration has grown increasingly impatient with Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, head of the 22,000-man Panama Defense Force (PDF), which controls Panama's civilian government. The latest of seemingly endless corruption accusations against General Noriega, leveled last month by a former top PDF officer, has ignited the most serious antigovernment demonstrations yet in Panama.
Even so, administration officials continue to insist that it is not the role of the US to interfere directly to force democratic change in Panama.
[The Panamanian government late Tuesday night banned public protests indefinitely after a week of growing antigovernment street demonstrations. The government said in a decree read over government television it was banning all public protests to avert what it termed ``serious disturbances of public order.'' Panamanian opposition leaders are threatening to defy the ban. Story, Page 9.]
On Capitol Hill lawmakers across the political spectrum are weighing the possibility of pegging future US economic and military aid to Panama to human rights reforms or to the conclusion of impartial investigations into charges of election tampering and political assassination directed at Noriega.
In the administration's sternest message so far, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams said in a speech last week that, while the US is impartial on the subject of who should govern in Panama, it is ``not neutral on democracy.''
Mr. Abrams also urged Panamanian officials to probe charges that Noriega altered the outcome of 1984 national elections and ordered the 1985 murder of a prominent Noriega critic, former vice-minister of health Hugo Spadafora.
US officials also reacted hotly when progovernment demonstrators protested in front of the US Embassy, stoning cars and embassy buildings and painting slogans on embassy walls. The demonstrations were a manifestation of Noriega's strategy, which has provoked annoyance in Washington, to arouse nationalist sentiment against US ``meddling'' in Panama's internal affairs.
But Reagan officials have so far declined to call explicitly for Noriega's resignation, as the US Senate did recently in a resolution that also demanded the restoration of democracy and human rights in Panama.
Nor has the administration been willing to send a more distinct message to Noriega by, for example, recalling US Ambassador Arthur Davis for consultations or sending a special emissary to Panama to convey directly US concern over alleged human rights violations by the Noriega government.
``There may be times to do such things,'' an administration official says, but he adds that such ``symbolic'' moves could ``be counterproductive and look too punitive. I don't think we've reached the point where it's necessary to do that,'' he says.
A State Department official says the US was aware that Panama's 1984 national elections were ``flawed'' but adds that they were ``definitely [a step] in the right direction.''
But Noreiga's ouster of Panamanian President Nicholas Barletta months later, after Barletta announced plans to investigate the Spadafora killing, was a ``watershed,'' this official says. That event ``convinced us that we needed to be more direct in demonstrating our displeasure'' with Noriega and the political role played by the PDF in Pamama.
The new charges against Noriega have ``given us an opportunity to express our position in terms of real events,'' this official says.
Diplomatic observers attribute US reluctance to take a tougher line toward Noriega to the fact that the PDF is key to the maintenance of military bases used by the US Southern Command, which is responsible for all US military activities in Latin America.
One Panamanian source speculates that the US also wants to do whatever is necessary to keep Panama on the back burner while the Reagan administration backs the contra war against the Nicaraguan government.
But the State Department official insists more is involved.
``It's really not up to the US to take the lead when it comes to Panama's internal affairs,'' he says. ``I think it's important that there be greater democracy, but how that's done and who comes out on top is really up to them.''
An emissary from General Noriega, former Panamanian ambassador Aquilino Boyd, traveled to Washington this week to help repair damaged relations with the US. But after a meeting between Mr. Boyd and Assistant Secretary Abrams on Monday, the State Department issued another demand for free elections in Panama.
Antigovernment leaders in Panama now say there are no grounds for compromise. They are calling for Noriega's ouster, followed by a transition government and free elections, with a view to ending the grip the PDF has had on Panamanian politics since 1968.
``The only solution for Panama is for Noriega to step down,'' says former Panamanian ambassador to Washington Gabriel Lewis, now a leading critic-in-exile of Noriega.