PANAMA is mending ties with Latin American nations to try to end its 14-month diplomatic isolation, which has been heightened by strained relations with the United States. Panama's Foreign Ministry has in recent weeks softened its tone on the greatest source of friction between Panama and its Latin neighbors - Panama's refusal to grant safe passage to associates of deposed dictator Manuel Noriega, who remains under diplomatic protection.
After US forces toppled General Noriega in 1989, several embassies, including those of Mexico, Cuba, and Peru, opened their doors to Noriega aides. Some left the country, but others, accused of serious crimes, were denied safe passage.
Panama insists the men are not political exiles, but common criminals who must face justice. But Latin nations say Panama is violating the right of asylum, considered sacred in Latin America.
Last month Panama abruptly let former Justice Minister Rodolfo Chiari flee his year-long hideout in the Ecuadorian Embassy. President Guillermo Endara admitted it was wrong to classify Mr. Chiari's crimes against the press as criminal.
Conciliatory signs include renewed Panamanian efforts to attend regional meetings, the arrival of Peruvian and Bolivian ambassadors, and the naming of a consul-general to Cuba.
"Panama is trying to break the isolation circle," says former Foreign Minister Carlos Lopez. "It feels it has been isolated not just from Latin nations, but also European countries as a backlash of its ill-designed policy of resisting asylum."
Panama's Foreign Minister Julio Linares is also hinting he wants to solve the problem of remaining exiles, despite pressure to refuse passage. In a speech this month, Mr. Linares said the exile issue has created a "crisis" with Latin American groups.
"He's trying to create in Panama's political forces the idea they can't ... force the world to act as Panama wants," says Salomon Jimenez, the Honduran ambassador to Panama. "It's probably a way of telling people we'll have to change."
Panama's diplomatic chill has its roots in the days after the US invaded Panama and installed the Endara government. Many nations attacked the government's legitimacy and demanded a plebiscite to test Mr. Endara's popular strength. Endara refused, saying he had won earlier elections by an overwhelming margin.
THE isolation is due to the fact that Panama is perceived abroad as a US tool," Mr. Lopez says.
Some nations protested by reducing embassy staffs and condemning Panama. The Latin American Group of Rio, composed of 11 Central and South American countries, snubbed Panama, refusing to admit it as a member.
Panama's estrangement has been heightened by feuds with the US. Panama is unhappy that the US has not compensated it for invasion damages and has sent only a fraction of $461 million in promised US economic recovery aid.
The biggest row, however, concerns approval of a legal aid treaty to help prosecute tax evaders and drug traffickers. Leaders here say it would violate internal laws and harm Panama's financial sector. They express anger over what they see as US arm-twisting tactics to push them to sign.
"If this treaty isn't signed, Panama will be pressured at diverse levels," says Panamanian Treaty Affairs Director Julio Barrios. "We have to solve our problems with Latin nations ... because we're going to be isolated diplomatically."
Rancor deepened this month when Mr. Barrios accused the US of blocking a similar, but less controversial British-Panamanian drug control treaty as a tactic to pressure Panama to sign the US treaty. US officials have refused comment.
Although Panama's troubles with the US are seen as distinct from fence mending with Latin nations, some say the two overlap.
"When they have a problem with the US, they call us to tell us," says a Latin ambassador. "When they have good relations with Washington, they practically don't ask us for anything."