NICARAGUA isn't the only Central American country where the United States wants to see a clearer move toward democracy. A bipartisan Senate staff group that visited Panama last month finds no progress there, either in protection of human rights or return to civilian rule. The Senate stipulated last fall that US economic and military aid to Panama, which was halted last summer, must not be resumed without improvement in both areas. Washington's concern and hopes are understandable. The US Southern Command has key intelligence listening posts and training sites in Panama. The Panama Canal, that vital link between two oceans, is due to shift to Panamanian hands by the end of the century. But Washington's leverage is limited; holding back aid is one of the few weapons available. What may help more is that many Panamanians are as unhappy as Washington with the Noriega regime.
A civilian government elected in 1984 is technically in charge. But Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, commander in chief of the Panamanian Defense Forces, effectively runs the show. Massive street demonstrations broke out against him last June after a former high-ranking military official accused him of being involved in political assassinations, helping rig the '84 elections, and profiting from widespread corruption.
General Noriega does not take kindly to such criticism. His accuser has been in jail since July. Press censorship has intensified, and street demonstrations, down to the specifics of horn-honking and waving of white handkerchiefs, are banned. The general's political opposition claims that the government has arbitrarily detained 1,600 Panamanians since June. Protests of the National Civic Coalition, a group of 107 community organizations, have been forced into such passive modes as boycotting payment of utility bills and taxes. Elections are scheduled for 1989, but opposition parties expect Noriega to control them as tightly as last time.
The US, albeit much too recently, has made its feelings plain, urging free elections and an end to the appearance of corruption and the political-military link. Joint military exercises with the Panamanians will not be held in January. The Pentagon is looking for an alternative site for its Southern Command.
Noriega puts US disgruntlement down to troublemakers who oppose the planned sign-over of the Panama Canal. He has firmed up friendly ties with Managua and reportedly plans to send arms to leftist Salvadorean rebels through Nicaragua. Libya has agreed to give Panama, which has lost about $7 billion in foreign bank capital since June, new financial support. Aeroflot, the Soviet airline, recently won landing rights in Panama City, and Soviet ships may now use the country's dry docks.
The picture is discouraging. Yet world criticism of the Noriega regime is on the rise. The incipient rebellion within Panama against the regime's repressive tactics should in time show up in an improved respect for human rights and democratic values. Let the pressures continue.