Taking Drug War Too Far?

A proposed antidrug center would keep US troops in Panama after 1999 canal handover.

On a tropical patio in a middle-class neighborhood, a group of Panamanian intellectuals sit around a table littered with position papers, sodas, and bowls of limp cheese puffs. They are trying to figure out how to stop what they see as the next United States invasion of Panama.

"We've been an occupied country for 100 years," says Diogenes Arosemena, an international law expert. "So it's all the more painful that just when we thought we were about to become truly sovereign, we realize the American soldiers are coming again."

Talk of a US invasion in this Central American home to the Panama Canal may sound cold-war-ish and anachronistic, and probably comes as a surprise to the Pentagon. Under a US-Panama treaty ratified in 1978, the US is to relinquish control of the canal and all remaining military bases by Dec. 31, 1999.

But Mr. Arosemena and his friends say a proposed international drug-fighting center that would operate on one of the US military bases here, with the support of at least 2,500 US soldiers, means occupation all over again.

"Just as Britain turned over Hong Kong to China, the United States is to turn over its remaining military bases by the end of next year. But this [drug center] is a sure sign that both sides are getting cold feet," says Miguel Antonio Bernal, a prominent political analyst here.

"But what the Panamanian government thinks makes good economic sense, and what the US thinks serves its geopolitical interests, does not fit our vision of an independent Panama," he adds.

The proposed multilateral antidrug center, or CMA as it is known by its Spanish acronym, may be literally unheard of in the US.

The idea is to provide a civilian-run facility where antidrug officials throughout the continent (and eventually perhaps Europe) could receive training and access to drug-trafficking intelligence.

"We've learned from experience that if you don't have countries working together on [drug trafficking], you just push the activity from one place to another," says US Ambassador to Panama William Hughes.

Yet because the center would include a sizable US military presence for logistical support - and perhaps because the Panamanian government has failed to explain openly what the CMA would and wouldn't do - the proposal is causing considerable hand-wringing in Panama.

And with the sense of uncertainty rising, it may well touch off an ugly demonstration or two before the issue is settled.

In the government's favor are opinion polls showing that a majority of Panamanians support some kind of US military presence.

That feeling dates from the canal's construction, but was heightened in 1989 after the US invaded to restore democracy and topple military strongman Manuel Noriega.

But Mr. Bernal and his "national consensus" group say such numbers reflect a fear of the unknown - the US has been a presence in Panama since President Theodore Roosevelt caused the new country to be carved out of Colombia in 1903.

That public uncertainty about a Panama without Uncle Sam can be reversed, they say, with education and national pride.

The CMA proposal actually came out of the office of President Ernesto Prez Balladares in late 1995 as a response to those "US stay here!" opinion polls.

Many Panamanians were worrying about the effect of a full US withdrawal and an estimated $200 million in lost economic activity. Some shippers and other business leaders were also jittery about the prospect of a canal without a US presence.

The government said it would only advocate creating such a center if it were multilateral and civilian-run.

The idea was also supported by the US, which carries out regional antinarcotics surveillance from the canal area's Howard Air Force Base, and which already hosts military liaison officers here from a half-dozen South American countries.

Howard's antinarcotics surveillance activities have already had a regional impact, US officials say, by curtailing the infamous "air bridge" that Colombian drug lords developed to ferry huge amounts of cocaine and other drugs north to the US.

A regional center would augment that, they insist, by offering more extensive training and reaching more participants.

US officials also strongly counter arguments that the CMA is nothing more than a US military base in disguise.

"We don't need a military base in Panama, and we certainly don't need it to project power or collect information today," says one US official in Panama. The center, unlike a military base, would not be fenced off from Panamanian society, the official says.

An agreement creating the CMA was set for signing late last year. But Panama surprised the US by presenting a new list of suggested amendments, most of which reflected concerns of other Latin countries, especially Mexico and Brazil.

The concerns included wording that speaks vaguely of other uses for the center beyond antinarcotics work that would leave the door open to US military intervention in the region. The US and Panama say the wording refers to benign activities like disaster relief.

Mexico especially appears to be concerned that the center would be another step toward what it considers a worrisome militarization and creeping interventionism of regional antidrug activities.

Those arguments and more are fueling Panamanian opposition to the center. Critics like Bernal say the "secrecy" in which the Panamanian government has cloaked the proposal only raises doubts.

Some US officials agree with that point, saying the government could have taken the proposal to the people "in town hall format" without revealing sensitive specifics.

Other opponents, like Panama City architect Ricardo Bermudez, say the center would disrupt the chance this booming city was finally getting to integrate its "heart" with the rest of the community.

"These bases occupy some of the city's finest jewels, and Howard is [in] the heart of the heart," he says.

Yet like other critics, Mr. Bermudez says the central drawback of the CMA proposal is that it denies Panama the possibility to finally stop living as an "adolescent" under the American guardian and develop as a truly sovereign nation.

"No one's against waging this battle against drugs," he says. "But at what price for Panama?"

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