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Panama's strife and US bases

IT is still too soon to know just how the current political crisis in Panama will be resolved. One aspect, however, is clear. United States officials are following a pattern already established in similar incidents in Haiti, the Philippines, and South Korea. Through deft diplomatic maneuvering in a rare spirit of bipartisanship, administration and congressional leaders alike have contributed to the positive turns of events in these countries, and Panama may well be next. In crafting an appropriate response, policymakers should be mindful not just of similarities but differences.

There are strong parallels between the situation in Panama and the Philippines. Unlike Panama, the Philippines was a US colony. But American involvement in Panama has been just as prominent; it started in 1903 when a group of US diplomats and businessmen sponsored the revolution that led to Panama's secession from Colombia. Within a decade, the Panama Canal was nearly complete, and a broad swath of land, literally dividing the country in two, was proclaimed US territory.

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Over the years, US interest has grown to the point where the country now houses the US Southern Command, one of a handful of such military commands situated around the world. Panama and the Philippines are both home to strategically vital American military assets. Beyond that, though, there is little that permits serious comparison. An intelligent, long-term policy toward each country regarding continued use of these military assets requires understanding the distinctions between them.

Perhaps no bilateral relationship in the world more deserves description as ``special'' than the US-Philippine relationship. The period of ``enlightened colonialism'' during the war - when the colonizer was essentially denuded in the presence of the colonized and the nations shared the embarrassment of retreat and defeat - is woven into the fabric of the US-Philippine relationship. Perhaps the best example: the fact that Philippine nationals are permitted to serve as active-duty members of the US armed forces.

Successive American and Filipino governments have approached the issue of US military bases within this context of long-shared experience. The original bases treaty was strongly skewed in favor of the US, a holdover from the colonial relationship.

Over the years, however, the agreement has been modified so that its most offensive elements, including questions of criminal jurisdiction and remuneration, have been resolved in a mutually beneficial manner by a systematic review process. Indeed, despite the growing level of opposition, as reflected in the extreme by the activity of the communist New People's Army, it is unlikely that any Philippine leader could win a national election on a platform calling for outright removal of US bases.

Philippine President Corazon Aquino has thus far soft-pedaled the issue, choosing instead to focus on questions of economic development, equity, and the recent senatorial elections in which her candidates won overwhelmingly. Her focus suggests broad support for such an approach. But the next review of the bases agreement, next year, may well be complicated, given the much stronger and more legitimate opposition today than under former President Ferdinand Marcos.

By contrast, the nature of the US relationship with Panama has been considerably less positive. One need not look beyond the remarkable difference in living standards between the former Canal Zone and its surrounding areas to understand the mixed emotions of contempt, envy, respect, and fear which characterize the attitudes of a people who live in a region of the world not known for its fondness for ``Yanqui'' involvement in its affairs.

The willingness of the Panamanian government to use anti-American sentiment to stir up a momentary burst of nationalistic support is particularly apparent on Jan. 9 in Panama City. On this Day of the Martyrs, one can see the government-controlled press give prominent coverage to the events of January 1964, when riots broke out over the restrictions imposed on the flying of the Panamanian flag at certain sites within the Canal Zone and several young Panamanians were killed.

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The situation regarding US military facilities in Panama is remarkably different from that in the Philippines. In Panama there is no system of periodic review. The question of the US military presence there beyond the year 2000, when Panama is scheduled to assume complete responsibility for the canal's operation and defense, has essentially not been discussed.

The 1977 US-Panamanian agreement governing the change is ambiguous on that issue. Article V of the treaty declares that ``only the Republic of Panama shall ... maintain military forces, defense sites, and military installations within its national territory'' after the year 2000. Yet Annex A stipulates that ``nothing in the treaty shall preclude'' the making, by Panama and the US, of any agreement regarding the stationing of US military forces or maintenance of defense sites.

The disturbing reality, though, is that in Panama, unlike the Philippines, a leader could and probably would win a national election on a platform including a call for removal of all US military installations. The late Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrara, once Panama's President, who saw the treaties through to fruition, has nearly cult status in Panamanian history. Indeed, whatever legitimacy Gen. Manuel Noriega has as his successor comes as a result of his close association with General Torrijos.

The Reagan administration and the Congress should continue to fan the spark of democracy that has flickered in Panama during the past month. Ideally, the goal would be to see General Noriega and his cronies, in and out of uniform, toppled from power. It is heartening that, thus far, Noriega's anti-American rhetoric has backfired. Panama's people are simply fed up with the excess of corruption and murder associated with his rule. The US should be under no illusion, though, that any future potential leaders, even including the moderate and highly respected Christian Democrat Ricardo Arias Calder'on, would, absent Noriega, be disposed to conduct ``business as usual'' with the US regarding the bases.

The on-again, off-again negotiations of the canal treaties themselves began under President Eisenhower and took nearly two decades to complete. Now is the time to prepare for the year 2000, either by engaging in serious negotiations for a bases treaty beyond that time or by withdrawing and repositioning the Southern Command on a gradual and deliberate timetable.

Lawrence T. Di Rita is a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, specializing in the study of Soviet foreign policy in Central America.

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