TAKING the Panama Canal for granted, Latin leaders used their summit meetings in Guadalajara and San Salvador as platforms to promote economic integration. But when a demilitarized Panama assumes control of the canal in 1999, who will secure this regional economic asset? Without an inter-American arrangement for safeguarding the canal, security issues will continue to override trade and development as the primary focus of hemispheric relations.In an effort to stabilize its democracy, Panama's National Assembly voted 45 to 7 last month to abolish its querulous army. This action could foment instability in Panama because Pentagon planners want to accelerate the pace of withdrawal of the 10,000 United States troops currently based at 10 installations in Panama. Under the terms of the 1977 Carter-Torrijos Treaties, the only role the US will play with the canal after 1999 will be to help maintain its neutrality. With its new willingness to consider collective security issues, the Organization of American States (OAS) could provide a forum to address the question of securing a demilitarized Panama and its canal. At its annual meeting last month in Chile, the OAS adopted unanimously the "Santiago Commitment Declaration," requiring the organization to meet in emergency session to consider collective measures if a member nation falls victim to a military coup. A second pillar of the Santiago Declaration urges a regional commitment to reassess and strengthen hemispheric security. These developments are a welcome change from the OAS's traditional reluctance to take an activist role in support of the region's democracies. Washington's desire to accelerate the closure of its remaining facilities has opened a window of opportunity for the OAS to put forward a regional proposal for defending the canal. The US proposal for accelerated withdrawal was received with alarm by the Panamanian government. Panama's foreign minister Julio Linares has requested that Washington delay troop cutbacks and base closings. His arguments have less to do with canal security than with pork barrel economics. The US military presence provides employment for more than 10,000 Panamanians; these jobs will disappear when the US shuts down its bases. The Panamanian economy will further contract from the loss of dollars spent locally by US forces and their dependents. US ambassador Deane Hinton has urged President Guillermo Endara to develop a sound policy for managing the transition of the canal. But Panama has yet to draft a master plan for the use of canal-related facilities, nor has it established an agency to manage the military installations which must be transferred to Panamanian control on Dec. 31, 1999. AFTER decades of army domination of political life, the Endara government is struggling to gain civilian control over the military. As part of the transition to democracy, Endara dissolved Noriega's old Panamanian Defense Force and created in its place the Fuerza Publica (FP), a civilian-run national police force. But the 11,000-member FP is not trained to carry out the important mission of defending the canal against various threats. A new report by the US General Accounting Office has found that the FP and other Panamanian law enforcement agencies lack the means and the will to control the nation's frontiers, maritime areas, or airspace. The inability of Panama to defend the canal, as it is required to do under terms of the Carter- Torrijos Treaties, could complicate the timely implementation of the accords. Panama's commitment to demilitarizing will be tested in a popular referendum later this year. According to the latest poll on the subject conducted for the respected Panama City daily, La Prensa, 59.3 percent of Panamanians polled want "a country without an army." By organizing an inter-American force to safeguard the canal, the OAS would be strengthening democratic institutions in a Panama plagued by chronic instability. This burden-sharing would give the armies of Latin America a much needed opportunity to play a constructive role in supporting democracy. The Panama Canal must be well managed and well defended if it is to remain an important hemispheric asset.