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Failed US efforts leave vacuum in Panamanian negotiations. Other Latin nations, opposition may fill it

In yet another round of his drawn-out duel with the United States, Panama's Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega has emerged with the last laugh. By stringing along US hopes for an agreement until the last minute before deflating them, the cagey military strong man has made the US administration look not just ingenuous but impotent. The blow, comes ironically, just as President Reagan prepares for delicate negotiations with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev Sunday.

As a flustered US withdraws to contemplate a problematic next step, Panamanian government officials and political analysts say the negotiating vacuum could be filled by two forgotten forces: the internal opposition and other Latin American countries.

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Yesterday morning, Ricardo Arias Calder'on, head of the opposition Christian Democrat Party, called on the Presidents of the fledgling Latin American democracies to fill the breach and broaden the negotiations with the Panamanian government. ``The absence of the participation of Latin American democracies ... has left the impression that this is a conflict between only Noriega and the US government.''

While many people welcome the idea, most analysts caution that these smaller players will have no more negotiating leverage than the US did. They do not wield drug-related indictments, economic sanctions, or military force. And despite their Latin American savvy, General Noriega would have no more incentive to leave his all-powerful post as commander-in-chief of the Panamanian Defense Forces.

For the moment, at least, Noriega apparently has neither the desire nor the need to leave.

Panamanian and US officials offer a variety of reasons for the failure of the talks. Lu'is G'omez, a close Noriega ally who is vice-president of the Legislative Assembly, says the sticking point was the US refusal to recognize Noriega's hand-picked President, Manuel Solis Palma. Undersecretary for Political Affairs Michael Armacost, on the other hand, says Noriega was dissuaded from signing an agreement by a core of corrupt military cronies fearful of a future without his protection.

But foreign diplomats and political analysts say any negotiations would fail for a more basic reason: neither the indictments nor the deteriorating economy seem to bother Noriega enough to force him out. And if the proud general ever goes, it will be his own way and not by the dictates of another country's political calendar.

In a speech scheduled for yesterday afternoon, Noriega was expected to lambast the US but leave some space for further talks - not only with the US but also with Latin nations and Panama's internal opposition.

``Panama is always ready to negotiate - there is no other road,'' says Rigoberto Paredes, a legislator for the military-run Revolutionary Democratic Party and a Noriega confidant. By withdrawing its offer, Mr. Paredes says, the US ``leaves us to resolve our problems on our own account with our own friends. Perhaps the road is longer but the victory will be more glorious.''

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Such rhetoric sparks contradictory responses within the opposition.

Some leaders of the business-led National Civic Crusade shrink from the prospect of a more consolidated regime and a more protracted economic crisis. These wealthy businessmen talk about abandoning the fight. As one demoralized business executive said shortly after hearing about the failed talks: ``See you in Miami.'

But other opposition leaders see this as precisely the moment to rejoin the nation's political dialogue. For the past several months, they say, the US has stolen the spotlight - but turned the drama of a democratic transition into a black comedy.

``We have nothing to do with it,'' says a Crusade leader who sees the failed negotiations as some kind of cruel justice for the US. ``We never would have given so much away.''

Though traditionally opposed to any form of compromise with Noriega, some sectors of the opposition may see this uncertain moment as their last chance to save Panama.

One leading opposition lawyer says Guatemalan President Marco Vinicio Cerezo, a Christian Democrat like many in the opposition, has offered to mediate talks leading to a solution of Panama's intractable political and economic crises.

Even US Secretary of State George Shultz, in his somber press conference Wednesday, mentioned the need to poll the efforts of Latin democracies. In March, a small-scale Latin effort flopped when Noriega rejected the suggestion of Costa Rica's President Oscar Arias and Spain's Prime Minister Felipe Gonz'alez that the Roman Catholic Church mediate.

The road may be open to renewed Latin involvement. But nothing can remove the main roadblock: Noriega enjoys power too much to give it up.

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