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For US flexibility on Panama

REPORTS that the United States may ease its economic squeeze on Panama, though still denied by top Reagan administration officials, are welcome. Changing a policy that clearly has not achieved its goal is difficult, but the merits of flexibility in this case far outweigh those of consistency. The intense economic pressure the US has been exerting on its southern neighbor has not succeeded in driving out Panamanian Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega; it has succeeded in inflicting economic hardship on those who live in Panama and in severely damaging the economy. Panama's Roman Catholic Church, which has been trying to mediate the question of General Noriega's future, strongly opposes US sanctions as morally unjust and urges that they be lifted.

The US rushed to impose a variety of economic curbs on Panama, assuming that Noriega would swiftly surrender and that the US might gain standing with its Latin friends. The results have been embarrassing: Noriega has, with some success, painted the moves as an attack on Latin sovereignty while Panamanians have suffered.

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So far the administration has agreed to review numerous requests for exemption by American companies and individuals under a US law imposed April 8 which bars them from paying taxes and fees to the Noriega government. A few days ago many US officials experienced firsthand the results of their failure to pay utility bills: lights out. Waivers are likely to be granted for routine service payments.

Broader easing of the many US sanctions in place that more directly hit Panamanians should also be considered.

What are the alternatives to continued economic pressure? Certainly not military intervention. The only answer that makes sense is negotiations that cover not only Noriega's departure but a formula for an interim government, leading to free elections.

Yet why does the US, in a move reminiscent of a colonial power, assume it must be the key party with which Noriega makes a deal? The US should support a deal, and its influence can contribute strongly to a good one. But kingmaking and bilateralism are neither practical nor desirable.

Noriega's political opposition has refused a government offer to negotiate, unless Noriega first leaves. The US needs to make it clear to those anti-Noriega Civic Crusade leaders that the US will not be riding in on a white horse. The opposition needs to be convinced of the importance of negotiating an end to Panama's continuing economic and political crisis.

Costa Rican President Oscar Arias S'anchez and three former Presidents of Latin American countries, as well as Panamanian Archbishop Marcos McGrath, have offered to mediate such talks. The US should support that effort. US muscle and interest can help all parties come up with a formula that lets Panama move on, but Washington should hand over the chief negotiator's role to others.

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