Panamanians Back US Presence

Citizens now favor keeping US bases, but government sticks by treaty to take over canal

AFTER decades of begging, battling, and finally bargaining with the United States military to leave Panama, polls show that most Panamanians have had a change of heart. With nine years to go before US bases are to close and the Panama Canal is to switch to Panamanian hands, two out of three Panamanians want US troops to stay.

``It's the popular thing to do because the polls are showing it,'' says Roberto Eisenmann, director of La Prensa, the daily newspaper that published the survey. ``But that position is completely nontraditional for our history.''

Amplifying Mr. Eisenmann's statement is the fact that nobody here is rushing to extend base rights yet. Both US Ambassador to Panama Deane Hinton and President Guillermo Endara insist they will comply with the 1977 Panama Canal Treaties and order the bases shut by the year 2000.

Mr. Endara says he has no plans to renegotiate the bases rights during his term, which ends in 1994. But several of his Cabinet, including Planning Minister Guillermo Ford and Housing Minister Guillermo Quijano, favor such talks.

Since the turn of the century, US troops have been posted in Panama's two largest cities, Colon and Panama City, at the Atlantic and Pacific mouths of the canal.

Today, the US Southern Command's Panama headquarters plans US military activity in Latin America, conducts jungle training, and is an aggressive partner in the South American drug war.

For many Panamanians, US troops symbolize stability. The bases provide 6,000 local jobs, pumping $250 million into the economy. The 10,000 troops at 10 US bases help guard the strategic canal, though the waterway has never been attacked.

``Panama should negotiate [base] rights now, before all these Panamanian [base] workers get laid off and we have rock-throwing against the US and Panama,'' says Leo Gonz'alez, a legislator who heads the congressional Canal Affairs Commission.

But to others, the troops are a galling reminder of US military might. Panama-based GIs have recently intervened twice here - during the December 1989 US invasion and following a 1990 police revolt. Though many here still support those actions, the interventions also stirred protests and condemnation from those who detest US influence.

``US military intervention has created a very strong feeling against these shameful US criminal acts,'' says Flavio Vel'asquez, a member of the Panamanian team that negotiated the canal treaties. ``Any country which accepts the US military presence increases the risk of military aggression.''

Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera in 1977 exploited nationalist sentiment to gain support for the treaties. A decade later, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega made control over the bases and canal a rallying cry.

But nearly 15 years after the treaty signing, many Panamanians say they cannot afford to send GIs packing. Panama's economy is struggling with 25 percent unemployment and many say a pullout would multiply problems.

``I'm not going to accept that [base] workers go down the drain because of false nationalist feelings from a minor group of corrupt politicians,'' says Ray Bishop, union leader for Panamanian base workers.

Though experts consider a military threat to the canal remote, sentiment is growing that Panama's stripped down police force - drawn from the ranks of Noriega's destroyed army - will be unable to defend the canal.

Many want Panama to renew base rights at a favorable price before the US begins dismantling installations. They demand a plebiscite to decide the issue. But Vice President Ricardo Arias Calder'on says it is too soon to start talks.

``We can't deal with the defense aspects of the canal until we have a clearer view of how we're going to run the canal,'' he says.

Panama's government has not yet decided how it will administer the canal and is criticized for sluggish preparations to assume canal control. Officials also worry that base talks could prompt violent street protests at home and condemnation from Latin nations.

``Everyone is avoiding the issue ... because they fear it's a very touchy situation,'' complains Mr. Gonz'alez.

The Southern Command is also vague about its plans. But two US congressmen, Philip Crane (R) of Illinois, and Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho are not. They recently introduced House and Senate versions of a resolution to renegotiate the base rights. In a letter dated April 17 to President Bush, Representative Crane and Senator Craig urged support for the measure.

A similar letter dated April 17 to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, was signed by Mr. Crane, Dan Burton (R) of Indiana, Cass Ballenger (R) of North Carolina, William Dannemeyer (R) of California, Ron Packard (R) of California, and Richard Schulze (R) of Pennsylvania.

The letter to Cheney questioned Panama's ability to protect the canal and urged the US to ``take advantage of the friendly relationship between the US and Panama to secure our national security interests.''

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