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Latin Americans pick up after US in attempt to oust Noriega

There is an ``I told you so'' smugness in Latin America's reaction to the collapse of United States' negotiations with Panama's Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega. Critical of the US attempt to singlehandedly dislodge the general, Latin American diplomats and officials have advocated all along a regionally negotiated solution.

They may now have their chance.

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Though they see an opportunity for such a mediation now that the US has begun to push for a ``Latin solution,'' the region's leaders are bitter about the situation they will inherit. And they are skeptical of US promises to support such a solution. The question of military intervention, it seems to Latin leaders, is still a possibility that the US won't rule out.

After feeling that they were generally ignored by the US during the Noriega affair, these Latin Americans are scrambling to float concrete plans for Panamanian talks.

``The situation is more serious than ever,'' said Carlos Andr'es P'erez, former President of Venezuela as he left Washington Friday after talks with State Department and congressional officials.

Mr. P'erez and two other former Latin American presidents are still smarting from what they felt was a diplomatic slap in the face from the US earlier this year. They were involved in delicate negotiations with General Noriega for his departure in February when the US encouraged then-President Eric Arturo Delvalle to fire Noriega. The firing led to Mr. Delvalle's ouster, a political and economic crisis, and Noriega's retrenchment.

That failed diplomatic initiative was followed by another in which a number of Latin American leaders encouraged the Roman Catholic Church to sponsor dialogue within Panama. The deal included asylum in Spain for Noriega if the US would drop drug trafficking charges against him. The US refused to do so.

P'erez, who said he believes that some mediation plan will emerge within two weeks, would not discuss the substance of his US talks except to add that ``the US cannot continue with the same interventionist attitude.''

Indeed, there is general Latin agreement that the US could not now be a partner in any Latin-based solution.

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``The best people to solve the problem are Central Americans. Noriega is using anti-Americanism to stay, and this will eliminate that because we'll be talking brother to brother, like family,'' says Oscar Padilla, Guatemalan Ambassador to the US. He says a number of plans are being considered, and general sentiment is that the ``US cannot be allowed to participate.''

``The US government has taken positions without any consultations with any other Latin American. I always knew Noriega would not step down for the US. It's evident the measures adopted by the US have made the situation much more difficult - and it is not proper for them [US negotiators] to say, `We've done our best and now it's your problem,''' says a high-level Peruvian.

Calling the Latin American response ``Monday morning quarterbacking,'' a US State Department official says ``the US was not attempting to do this on its own'' but consulted Latin Americans behind the scenes all along. In the case of the P'erez negotiations, says the official, the US was not at fault; Noriega bargained in bad faith.

Elliot Abrams, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, recently said that Latin America has not acted forcefully enough with Noriega because of its principle of non-intervention in internal affairs.

But ``Latin Americans would have been far more subtle and quiet [in trying to oust Noriega],'' says a diplomat with the Organization of American States, a group that promotes solidarity among the Americas. ``Noriega would have been far more disposed to them rather than to appear to be kicked out by Washington.''

Similar subtlety is required when dealing with the US. Latin nations, says the OAS diplomat, were unable to be more vocal in their criticisms of the US and calls for a regional negotiation because of their financial dependence on US institutions.

Latin American diplomats and politicians explain that their potential role in solving Panama's crisis has been complicated by a regional preoccupation with self determination and hypersensitivity to interventionism after generations of living under the shadow of the US.

While few Latin American leaders back Noriega, they are obliged by traditional regional sentiment not to support what is seen as US bullying of Panama. Further, they say, anything that is perceived as US meddling in Latin America is fodder for leftist guerrilla recruitment.

US policy, says the Peruvian diplomat, ``hasn't made Noriega the villain but the key man. He's been smart enough to wrap himself in the Panamanian flag and nationalism and the issue of the protection of the Panama Canal.'' (The diplomat adds that Latin leaders do not believe the Noriega accusation that the US would like to renege on the Panama Canal treaty.)

Noriega's new stature makes it more difficult for Latin American leaders to pressure him to step down, he says. It is difficult, says the Peruvian diplomat, to show back home that Latin leaders are not siding with US policy just because their goal of getting Noriega to step down happens to coincide with what the US attempted to do.

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