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A Year Later: Panama

A year ago the United States forces wrested Panama from the grip of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega. Operation Just Cause was designed to topple the corrupt, drug-dealing general, return the reins of government to elected representatives of the Panamanian people, and protect US lives and interests. It did all that, but it also left a litter of chaos and uncertainty. Panama's new civilian leaders will have to shoulder much of the clean-up. But, in fact, they remain heavily dependent on the US.

The extent of that dependency became clear two weeks ago during a bizarre mini ``coup'' staged by the supporters of former police commander Eduardo Herrera Hassan.

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The rebels rescued Herrera, who was suspected of plotting to overthrow the government, from his island prison and flew him to Panama City, where they seized police headquarters. The goal, they said, was to gain ``more respect'' for the police - composed of retrained Noriega troops. But behind the incident lay the military's habit of inserting itself into politics.

The government instantly called in the US Army. With the help of 500 GIs, the affair soon ended, leaving increased doubts about the ability of President Guillermo Endara to run his own country.

Over the past year, Mr. Endara has struggled, mostly in vain, to lift Panama from its economic morass. While some business activity has picked up, unemployment is 25 percent. Poor people bombed out of their homes during the invasion still camp out in airplane hangars. The critical banking industry, a mainstay of Panama's economy, has yet to approach its old vigor.

Correcting such conditions takes time. Noriega, after all, plundered his country's financial resources, distorted its politics, and ran up a $540 million debt.

This year, the US military in Panama will spend some $700,000 on health services, school buildings, and other civic-action programs. Yet most of the $420 million in recovery aid promised by the US has yet to materialize.

Some of it is held up by Panama's refusal to sign a crime-fighting pact with Washington. The pact is aimed at drug trafficking, but Panamanians worry that its provisions on financial crime will hamper their banking business. That hindrance and others should be cleared away to allow the aid money to flow.

Last December's invasion was relatively quick and tidy, militarily speaking. One lesson of Panama may be that even a little armed intervention leaves behind large, enduring commitments.

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