The Canal Goes, but Do US Troops?

US and Panama work together to plan for year 2000

On the front page of this city's El Panama America daily newspaper, a box reminds Panamanians every day of how much time remains until the United States turns over the Panama Canal and the last of other US-held lands here to Panamanian control.

Today there are 1,257 days to go.

The box symbolizes the pride and anticipation that Panama's 2.7 million people feel about their impending full sovereignty over what was virtually a piece of the US across the middle of their country.

Yet the box is also a reminder that some 7,000 US soldiers are still on Panamanian soil, that many of Panama's plans for the American bases that will be returned to Panama are just pretty drawings on paper, and that discussions over some long-term US military presence here are still pending.

In short, it is a reminder that the time is drawing near when Panama must set a course that will determine its future.

The treaty that the US and Panama signed in 1977 says the US will turn over the canal and relinquish any remaining military bases maintained here by noon on Dec. 31, 1999.

But Panama now finds itself in the middle of a national discussion over whether some US forces should remain after 2000.

Countdown to a handover: Only 1,257 days remain until the US returns the Panama Canal. But the US status in Panama after Dec. 31, 1999 remains unclear.

Conversations between the US and Panama on the issue began last September, but subsequently broke down after the US said it would not pay rent for any bases it kept. Since then, the two sides have approached each other like shy adolescents at a first dance, neither wanting to be first to show an interest.

"There is no sense of urgency," says Foreign Minister Ricardo Alberto Arias, who this month began a series of consultations with Panama's political parties on the issue of a US presence.

Yet Mr. Arias admits that what is a "very sensitive issue in Panama" must be settled "well in advance of 1999." If the US does not stay, Panamanians want to find a profitable use for the American bases. But the longer negotiations take, the less time there is to generate ideas for such uses.

Panama's interests in seeing the US remain here are focused on two areas: the economic boost given by the presence of the US troops and the sense of security that presence affords. Panamanian officials, including President Ernesto Perez Balladares, would also like to see the US keep at least part of its regional antinarcotics operation center here after the Southern Command headquarters moves from here to Miami in September 1997.

The economic impact is clear. The US presence accounts for nearly 10 percent of the country's economy, and employs more than 5,000 Panamanians, from civil servants to domestic workers on the bases. US purchase of goods and services is an important factor in the local economy.

The country is already getting a taste of what a US pullout could mean in the northern Colon region, where a US presence on the country's Atlantic side has been cut to almost nothing.

Several base and other US-property closings in line with the programmed US draw-down have dented the regional economy and played a role in mounting social strife.

In addition, the cost of maintaining the so-called "reverted" properties - buildings and grounds - that do not have either a private purchaser or alternative public use lined up, could be very high. Remaining US military facilities to be transferred by 1999 total more than 3,600 buildings and 71,000 acres.

As for the security that US presence offers, Panamanian officials generally say it is an issue of importance to foreigners. "Many foreigners here, especially investors, perceive that the US presence guarantees a stability, so that alone makes a decision more difficult," says Arias.

But polls show that more than two-thirds of Panamanians favor some US presence, and although the primary concern appears to be economic, security concerns are clearly a factor as well.

One reason is Panama's southern border with Colombia, a remote and sparsely policed jungle region used by Colombian guerrillas and drug traffickers. Panamanians appear convinced the US plays an active role in keeping a lid on the area, despite firm US denials of any involvement there.

On the US side, the reasons for staying are less compelling - a reality the Panamanian government is having trouble accepting. The US has said it might be interested in maintaining the bases it now has west of the Canal near Panama City - including Howard Air Force Base, where the Southern Command's regional antinarcotics operation is centered - but that the US doesn't even consider that presence crucial.

Although Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms and other congressional conservatives favor a US presence on the Canal, other officials point out that many members of Congress are likely to balk at the US keeping bases in Panama when bases are closing down in their own districts.

With the US and Panama dancing around each other, a minority of Panamanians are arguing that the US should leave as scheduled. And they are not advocating this out of any anti-Americanism, they say, but in the best interest of Panama and the US-Panama relationship.

"Right now the pro-Yankee sentiment here is strong, the atmosphere is perhaps better than ever for a strong [US-Panama] relationship, and we should do everything to preserve that," says Roberto Eisenmann, retired publisher of Panama's La Prensa newspaper and now an active democracy and human rights advocate.

"But if we start seriously talking about bases remaining, we'll have the flag-burning of yesteryear, and we'll poison it," he says.

The bases might seem a compelling security crutch, Mr. Eisenmann says, especially since Panama abolished its own military in favor of a national police after a 1989 US military invasion ended the military dictatorship of Manuel Noriega. But, he says, "being Central America's second Costa Rica," another country with no military, should be a bigger "selling factor" for the country - especially among European investors who often list the US military presence as a negative factor for Panama's image.

The lack of consensus on what is best for the country will only be accentuated as discussion of the issue becomes more public. President Prez Balladares says he respects views like Eisenmann's, but argues that countries like Germany or Spain are not any less democratic or independent for a US presence.

The trick for Panama will be to settle on a position and keep momentum toward a smooth transition going, as its dance with the US continues.

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