Rid of Noriega, Bush Now Ignores Suffering Panama

THE crisis precipitated by the United States invasion of Panama in December 1989 has deepened, with the Bush administration hardly taking notice. In spite of Washington's rhetoric at the time, the action was never meant to instantly generate Panamanian democracy; rather, it was unleashed because a lengthy relationship with Gen. Manuel Noriega had become a taunting embarrassment for the White House. With Panama again returning to the news now that the dictator's long-delayed trial has started in Miami, itseems Washington is as indifferent to that event as it is to the government that it installed in Panama. At the time of the invasion, the mood was entirely different. The argument was that Noriega's demise would eliminate Washington's drug problem as well as bring democracy to Panama. But narcotics trafficking and money laundering are now exceeding pre-invasion levels, and democracy is as feeble there as it was when the strongman ruled. Actually, without his deft touch in routing narcotics shipments, Panama's drug problems have worsened as local usage soars and the crime rate doubles. While the intervention ostensibly achieved its goal by ousting Noriega, the cost of the fighting was $1 billion worth of damage to the economy, added to the 22-month US embargo priced at $3 billion. It will take at least a decade for Panama to recover from its miseries. Although Congress passed a $461 million aid package 15 months ago, at this late date only one-third of it actually has been dispersed, hardly honoring Washington's pledge to "jump-start" Panama's economy. Illustrative of the administration's meager response: When a working-class neighborhood was leveled during the invasion, some of the estimated 15,000 left homeless who received US-provided replacement housing found that it was so skimpy that they had to put their beds outside during the day to maneuver inside. Although the State Department insists that the Panamanian economy has begun to recover, most Panamanians have experienced little improvement. Unemployment and underemployment stand at nearly 50 percent, with almost 40 percent of the population living below the poverty level. What economic improvement has occurred is due largely to the lifting of sanctions and the resumption of drug trafficking and money laundering. Otherwise, only the handful engaged in the financial and commercial sectors has prospered, with half of such enterprises being US owned. The Panamanian vice president winkingly remarked, "Almost all the benefits of indemnifying losses from the invasion went to the upper and middle classes. We are not in the business of doling out welfare." Guillermo Endara, who in some respects is less presidential evan than Noriega, obviously doesn't have on his mind the current tribulations of his people. The government, which is composed mainly of wealthy lawyers, some previously affiliated with banks suspected of money laundering, decided last May to direct its efforts almost exclusively to free-market reforms and servicing the foreign debt. But it failed to outline a single desperately-needed initiative dealing with hunger, housing, or education. In F ebruary, a fact-finding delegation visiting Panama found that not one public project had been begun since the invasion. The perception, correct or not, that the authorities principally serve the needs of local financiers and their United States handlers has caused many Panamanians to become disillusioned with Washington's version of democracy. They question the legitimacy of a government composed almost entirely of wealthy white people, while almost 95 percent of the population is poor people of color. The dependence of local authorities on Washington became even more obvious last December when Endara, facing a police uprising and doubtful of his own troops' loyalty, called on US military personnel to defend him before notifying his forces. Citing the recent Panamanian-US friendship week staged by residents of affluent Panama City neighborhoods, US Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aronson insisted that Panamanians are happy with US policies. Around the same time, a pro-government radio station was bombed by dissidents, perhaps members of a recently formed guerrilla movement. Security around Endara recently has been intensified; many observers insist that his government would have toppled long ago without Washington's support. As President Bush's eye is caught by the tumultuous events in the Soviet Union and other glamorous global hot spots, he would do well to revive the interest he briefly had in Panama, even though Noriega is safely in jail - as the situation which Mr. Aronson and other Bush appointees helped create continues to deteriorate rapidly.

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