After Victory in Panama

December 20, 1990

Tactical victory in the U.S. invasion of Panama one year ago today was swift and complete. Its political outcome is delayed and uncertain.

The greatest indictment of the weakness of the democratically elected regime of President Guillermo Endara came from within. On Dec. 4, a former police chief, then in jail as a coup planner, broke out and with 35 followers advanced on the capital and seized police headquarters with hostages. The regime feared its own police would not put down the comic opera rising. It had to call on U.S. troops. On Dec. 5, some 500 GIs put down the rebellion. A subsequent poll found that 56.4 percent of Panamanians believed the government would have fallen had the U.S. not intervened.

The police consist of old Noriega soldiers in new uniforms who are not trusted or effective. Some 17,000 criminal charges have been filed for abuses under the old regime but almost none has come to trial. Crime is rampant and the army still thirsts for power.

This is a dismaying state of affairs for the United States, which invested idealism along with firepower in the effort to bring democracy to Panama. But President Bush's promise of $1 billion in aid has become $460 million, only one-sixth of which has entered the Panamanian economy. After the invasion, a force of 300 U.S. troops set about doing good works, such as repairing bridges and schools. This unit is now down to 24 soldiers.

Panamanians still fear that the deposed General Manuel Noriega may beat the rap in his pending Florida trial and return. President Endara claims to want to try the dictator for crimes in Panama, but few believe that a jail in Panama could hold him. People lack confidence in the government, which lacks confidence in itself.

For Washington, this is a no-win situation. It is torn between intervening to shore up democracy and stepping back to let Panamanians solve their own problems. At the least, The U.S. government should keep its word and try to be helpful. The most that can be said for success of the operation is that, one year after removing the tyrant, the tyrant remains removed. But the blessings of liberty are still largely awaited.

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