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The Canal Goes, but Do US Troops?

US and Panama work together to plan for year 2000

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 23, 1996



PANAMA CITY

On the front page of this city's El Panama America daily newspaper, a box reminds Panamanians every day of how much time remains until the United States turns over the Panama Canal and the last of other US-held lands here to Panamanian control.

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Today there are 1,257 days to go.

The box symbolizes the pride and anticipation that Panama's 2.7 million people feel about their impending full sovereignty over what was virtually a piece of the US across the middle of their country.

Yet the box is also a reminder that some 7,000 US soldiers are still on Panamanian soil, that many of Panama's plans for the American bases that will be returned to Panama are just pretty drawings on paper, and that discussions over some long-term US military presence here are still pending.

In short, it is a reminder that the time is drawing near when Panama must set a course that will determine its future.

The treaty that the US and Panama signed in 1977 says the US will turn over the canal and relinquish any remaining military bases maintained here by noon on Dec. 31, 1999.

But Panama now finds itself in the middle of a national discussion over whether some US forces should remain after 2000.

Countdown to a handover: Only 1,257 days remain until the US returns the Panama Canal. But the US status in Panama after Dec. 31, 1999 remains unclear.

Conversations between the US and Panama on the issue began last September, but subsequently broke down after the US said it would not pay rent for any bases it kept. Since then, the two sides have approached each other like shy adolescents at a first dance, neither wanting to be first to show an interest.

"There is no sense of urgency," says Foreign Minister Ricardo Alberto Arias, who this month began a series of consultations with Panama's political parties on the issue of a US presence.

Yet Mr. Arias admits that what is a "very sensitive issue in Panama" must be settled "well in advance of 1999." If the US does not stay, Panamanians want to find a profitable use for the American bases. But the longer negotiations take, the less time there is to generate ideas for such uses.

Panama's interests in seeing the US remain here are focused on two areas: the economic boost given by the presence of the US troops and the sense of security that presence affords. Panamanian officials, including President Ernesto Perez Balladares, would also like to see the US keep at least part of its regional antinarcotics operation center here after the Southern Command headquarters moves from here to Miami in September 1997.

The economic impact is clear. The US presence accounts for nearly 10 percent of the country's economy, and employs more than 5,000 Panamanians, from civil servants to domestic workers on the bases. US purchase of goods and services is an important factor in the local economy.

The country is already getting a taste of what a US pullout could mean in the northern Colon region, where a US presence on the country's Atlantic side has been cut to almost nothing.

Several base and other US-property closings in line with the programmed US draw-down have dented the regional economy and played a role in mounting social strife.