Panamanians Have Second Thoughts About U.S. Bases Some Wonder If They'll Be Better Off When U.S. Forces Leave

August 11, 1991|By John M. McClintock

Panama City -- The riotous schools had been shut down. Shots had been fired at the national police chief's car and at the home of the president's uncle. The smell of tear gas was in the air. Forty Colombians armed with assault rifles were hiding in the jungle.

This must be Panama.

A few miles away, an American jogger pounds through a well-kept community of immaculate lawns and churches, only to betray her resolve at the Burger King.

The community is a little piece of transplanted Florida, where the eye is irritated not by tear gas but by the smoke of countless barbecue grills.

This community and others like it are as far from the hellish slums of Panama as the earth from the moon.

But the mystery surrounding them is not limited to Panama's poorer people.

When 35 top Panamanians, including President Guillermo Endara, began visiting the communities in February, most of what they saw was a revelation. And this was their country.

The communities are the 10 American military installations that are due to be turned over to Panama between now and 2000, the year the canal reverts to Panama.

The installations are a gold mine, embracing hundreds of homes, some with stunning vistas never before seen by Panamanians -- unless they happened to be a gardener or a maid.

Also in the inventory are barracks, schools, airports, yacht clubs, power plants, laundries, a major hospital, theaters, restaurants, supermarkets, fire departments and a radio-television station.

Yet despite the immense wealth embodied in the bases, many Panamanians are growing increasingly ambivalent about the turnover and what amounts to a final farewell to military forces that have been in Panama since 1910.

For many, the American military presence symbolizes Washington's unique relationship with Panama, a relationship that was damned for its colonial trappings but praised when it meant ridding the nation of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.

Today, with the badly-split Endara government struggling to maintain the upper hand, many are beginning to wonder if Panama can afford to lose the unstated political anchor that lies behind the gringo guard posts.

Indeed, a top member of the National Civic Crusade -- part of the coalition that helped overthrow General Noriega -- said that secret negotiations are now under way to let the United States continue leasing some of them.

Although this could not be confirmed officially, several American and Panamanian sources did admit that low-level diplomats have discussed the possibility in recent weeks.

"I would expect anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 troops to remain after the turnover," said an American military analyst here.

And last week, the Senate approved an amendment to the foreign aid bill that that included a request for negotiations on a permanent U.S. military base.

President Endara emphatically rejected the idea, although the decision will probably be up to his successor in 1994.

In a recent impromptu press conference, President Endara continued to duck the issue, saying the decision is up to his successor who will be elected in 1994. Others in his cabinet, notably Foreign Minister Julio Linares, are adamantly opposed.

The bases formed the heart of General Noriega's central premise, that the Americans had no intention of leaving such a valuable piece of real estate, the only sizable military complex south of the Rio Grande.

The Southern Command's 10,000 sailors, airmen and troops are currently operating 10 installations that include an Air Force base, a Navy port and an Army jungle warfare school. They also employ about 6,000 Panamanians.

Aside from protecting the Panama Canal and assuring the country's political stability, the installations have served as Washington's principal electronic ear on Latin America and an important headquarters in the drug war.

Panama is studying what to do with the bases under a United Nations grant. But the size of the canal and military installations -- about 10 percent of Panama's land area -- is overwhelming.

"The fact is we are simply not ready to accept the bases," said Leo Gonzalez, president of the Legislative Assembly's Canal Affairs Committee. "We have had three polls all showing that the people don't want the Americans to leave."

"First all, it would be a an economic disaster. They generate about $380 million in salaries and business, plus the retirement community. That's in an economy of $3.9 billion."

"I think we should hold a plebiscite and let the people decide. I'd bet the people would vote in a landslide to continue leasing some of them."

Others, such as Taiwanese businessman David C. T. Cho, say that the presence of U.S. troops guarantees Panama's political stability, enhancing its attractiveness for investors.

"I think we would not come here if the American troops weren't in Panama," said Mr. Cho, whose BES Corporation is planning to build an industrial park. "Quite honestly, I don't think the Panamanians have the political maturity yet. Maybe some day."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.