THE United States has put the Organization of American States on notice: It had better follow through on its ``obligations'' to try to resolve the political crisis in Panama. US officials say they are afraid the consultations between a three-man commission of Latin foreign ministers and key Panamanians will drag on ad infinitum, strengthening the dictatorial Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega. So they have been exhorting the OAS to keep up the momentum, and continue to make public demands that General Noriega leave.
If the commission fails to negotiate Noriega's departure, ``the OAS will have to think sanctions,'' a State Department official says. ``If the OAS wants to be taken seriously, they can't back away from their obligations.'' At a May 17 meeting, most OAS member countries agreed to promote a democratic transfer of power in Panama after the May 7 elections that were widely considered to have been stolen by Noriega. Sanctions to promote such a transfer could be economic or diplomatic, such as a withdrawal of ambassadors, the official suggests.
The Latin response to the US is: ``Let us do it our way.'' This essentially means slowly and discreetly, so as not to violate the Latin tradition of nonintervention. It is too soon to talk sanctions, an OAS diplomat says.
The US and the Latin nations involved in the effort privately acknowledge each others' sensibilities and from that has emerged compromise. Thus, the foreign ministers' commission that consulted with Noriega and other players during the crisis will return to Panama for more talks and report to the OAS by July 19. The Latins would have preferred no fixed date, a Latin OAS diplomat says. But the June 6 declaration extending the commission's mandate did not mention Noriega by name, a concession to the Latins.
Still, all the to-and-froing by the US and the Latins threatens to obscure the real issue: Can the OAS help put Panama on the road to democracy? Some US officials are concerned that compromise and consensus are producing a least-common-denominator approach that will not work.
``Several formulas for solving the problem have been discussed,'' a State Department expert on Panamanian affairs says. ``There are various ideas for setting up a provisional junta, to be followed by new elections. But none of them require Noriega to give up power....
``The [Panamanian] opposition has two clear demands: That the results of the election are recognized, and that Noriega goes. Meanwhile, Noriega's people are making all these proposals. So, in the commission's view, the opposition appears intransigent while Noriega's people appear flexible,'' the official says.
But the OAS effort remains, in the realm of overt activity, the only realistic option for now, this official and others say. Panamanian oppositionists are also pessimistic about the OAS. But Viron Vaky, a former assistant secretary of state for Latin affairs, is more sanguine. ``We've made this such a test case, which makes [OAS commission leader Diego] Cordovez's job very difficult,'' he says.
``The more you say that Noriega personally is the cad ... the more he digs in,'' Mr. Vaky says. ``If you could depersonalize it and say what we're really looking at is a formula to restore democratic rule, it may be worked out.''
So far, the US does not look ready to depersonalize the issue. ``Noriega is the problem,'' declared Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleberger at the June 6 OAS session. This statement contradicts specialists on Panama who see Noriega as the tip of the iceberg in a thoroughly corrupt system.