The U.S. Challenge in Panama


The U.S. Challenge in Panama

February 29, 1988 5 min read Download Report
Michael Wilson

(Archived document, may contain errors)

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(Updating Backgrounder No. 632, "Washington's Nine-Point Agenda for the Panama Problem," February 12, 1988.) The political turmoil in Panama soon may threaten United States security interests and even American lives. With some 50,000 American civilians and 10,000 American troops in Panama, it is unclear how their safety can be guaranteed in the political near-anarchy of today's Panama. One message is clear, therefore, from Panama's turmoil. It is time for the U.S. to reassess the terms of the 1977 Panama Canal Treaty. While encouraging democracy and political stability, the U.S. also should seek to assure a continuing U.S. military presence in Panama to protect the Canal and international commerce.

The political crisis in Panama has now erupted into a battle between the civilian government and the Panamanian military. In recent days, Panamanian President Eric Arturo Delvalle has exercised his legal right and tried to dismiss military strongman General Manuel Antonio Noriega from his position as commander-in-chief of the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF). As de facto ruler of Panama, Noriega has fought back with a brutal attack against Panama's civilian government. By the time the first round of infighting was over at the start of this week, Delvalle was in hiding, the PDF high command was presumably fully supporting Noriega, and former Minister of Education Manuel Solis Palma, was the new President.

These events have thrown Panama into a renewed state of siege. The "independent" press and radio have been shut once again and opposition figures are harassed and intimidated. The military controls the streets.

Selling U.S. Secrets. Political, social, and economic tensions have been mounting since the June 7, 1987, allegations against Noriega by former PDF second in command and one-time Noriega friend Roberto Diaz Herrera. He accused Noriega of political murder, election fraud, drug trafficking, money laundering, gun running, and selling U.S. secrets and technology to Cuba's Fidel Castro and Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qadhafi. These charges seem plausible to Panamanian observers. They point out that Noriega, whose official salary does not exceed $50,000, owns five houses in Panama, a luxury Paris apartment, and a French Alps villa and has amassed a fortune of at least $500 million.

Adding further validity to these charges were the testimonies earlier this month of Jose 1. Blandon and other close Noriega associates before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's subcommittee on terrorism, narcotics, and international communications. Blandon, a former

top advisor to Noriega, related in riveting detail Noriega's involvement with the Medellin Cartel, Colombia's narcotics mafia.

Blaming Yanquis. Noriega's involvement with narcotics and terrorist organizations makes him particularly dangerous. According to U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officials, Panama has developed into one of the world's foremost drug-profit laundering centers. Panama's bank secrecy laws, among the toughest in the world, mask these illegal transactions. A large percentage of the drug profits finance not only larger drug operations, but also regional communist insurgencies. Guerrilla groups in Colombia, Peru, and El Salvador use the profits to purchase weapons, airplanes, boats, protection, and favors. It is Noriega's involvement in these affairs that led to two recent U.S. Grand Jury indictments.

As President Delvalle awaits his uncertain fate, the strains between the U.S. and Panama increase. Noriega and his PDF lieutenants blame their troubles on "Yanqui hostility" and on the so-called agents of U.S. imperialism. They are trying to convince their fellow Panamanians that "conservative" forces in Washington are instigating Panama's political and economic turmoil in an effort to undermine the Panama Canal Treaty and make Panama subservient to the U.S.

America's Gibraltar. Noriega's policies and the ongoing turmoil will have grave consequences for U.S. regional security interests. At stake is the Panama Canal. This hemisphere's strategic equivalent of Gibraltar, the Canal is a military asset of immeasurable importance to the U.S., allowing U.S. Navy vessels to move swiftly between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The Canal also enables shipping to move quickly and inexpensively between the east and west coasts of the U.S. For almost all of the Canal's history, of course, it remained safely in U.S. hands. In 1977, however, the Carter Administration signed the Panama Canal Treaty and ceded U.S. control over the strategic choke-point.

The premise of the Treaty was that a cooperative relationship between the U.S. and Panama would be maintained. The Treaty sought to guarantee that the waterway always would remain secure and neutral. American commercial and military vessels, as well as ships from other nations, were to be assured safe and non-discriminatory passage. Yet even at the time of the Treaty's signing and its troubled Senate ratification, these assumptions were suspect. Today, in light of Panama's increasing instability, they clearly cannot be taken for granted.

Also at stake in Panama is the 10,000-man Southern Command in charge of all U.S. military operations in Latin America. Threatened too are the lives and safety of 50,000 U.S. citizens living in Panama, and the general stability of the isthmus. PDF forces could disrupt the smooth operation of the Canal, harass or arrest innocent U.S. citizens, threaten to cut off power and the military bases, destabilize the nation to the point where domestic communist insurgency could spread, and provide the Nicaraguans and Cubans with a tempting target for subversion.

Noriega's improving and expanding relations with the Soviets, Cubans, and Nicaraguans, meanwhile, jeopardizes not only U.S. security, but also that of the region's fragile democracies. The Kremlin already is taking advantage of the U.S.-Panama tensions. Agreements have been concluded between the Soviet Union and Panama that provide the Soviet airline Aeroflot with Panamanian landing rights and Soviet ships with the use of port facilities at Vacamonte on

Panama's Pacific coast. Noriega has given Castro information on U.S. troop movements and contingency plans. Noriega has also helped Cuba assist Latin American revolutionaries, drug traffickers, and terrorists. Panamanian-Libyan relations have also been improving ever since Noriega sent a personal delegation to meet with Qadhafl.

Without prompt actions from Washington, the situation will continue to deteriorate. The U.S. should play a forceful role in the Organization of American States (OAS) emergency meetings being set up to investigate the crisis. Washington also should give its full support to Delvalle and even consider recalling the U.S. ambassador. The U.S. should encourage the Latin American democracies to condemn Noriega's actions and not recognize the new constitutionally illegal Panamanian government.

The Panama Canal obviously is vital for U.S combat and support shipping, particularly in periods of international turmoil. The Canal has become increasingly important because of growing tensions in the Caribbean Basin. A political crisis in Nicaragua, El Salvador, or Colombia would require immediate U.S access to the waterway. The Panama Canal provides the U.S. Navy with operational flexibility as well as rapid mobility. It reduces the need for an increase in the number of regional naval facilities because it allows vessels to move from one ocean to the other so quickly. The only option to the Canal is to make the 13,000 mile voyage around the Tierra del Fuego, vastly increasing financial costs, safety risks, and time. Example: Were the Canal closed, a ship steaming at 22 knots would take about 24 days to sail from New York to San Diego. Using the Canal, the ship could make the journey in just ten days.

Reassessing the Canal Treaty. Given recent events in Panama, Washington should begin reassessing some of the terms of the Panama Canal Treaty and consider ways to assure that the security of the important waterway will not be impaired now or in the future. This probably will require a permanent U.S. military presence near the Canal just as the U.S. military has guarded the Canal from its first day. Most important, Washington should warn Noriega that Southern Command forces will be used if any U.S. security interests are gravely threatened.

Michael G. Wilson Policy Analyst

W. Bruce Weinrod Director, Foreign Policy and Defense Studies


Michael Wilson