Restless Panama

June 13, 1992

At one level, Panama has recovered nicely since the United States' invasion of December 1989. The economy is growing rapidly. Bank deposits are rising. Some dent has been made in the debt inherited from the dictatorship of Manuel Noriega, so that the country is once again eligible for IMF credit. New high-rises alter the Panama City skyline. The Panama Canal is efficiently managed under the 1977 treaties; 1991 saw the second-highest tonnage in its history.

But at another level, where most of the 2.5 million Panamanians live, the little country is a mess. The visible prosperity for some has not dented the poverty of most. Small business has not recovered from the looting that followed the U.S. invasion. In this commemorative year for Christopher Columbus, the city named for him at the Caribbean terminus of the canal -- Colon city -- is a dysfunctional slum where the sewage does not flow and half the people are jobless.

Despite the toppling of General Noriega and his conviction in the U.S. on drug charges, the use of Panama for drug transit and money laundering continues. That would explain the selective prosperity that omits most of the people. President Guillermo Endara appears ineffectual. He means well and is constitutionally ineligible to seek re-election in 1994, but he has had to be protected from coup plots in the military where loyalty to General Noriega lingers. Colon city was seized with demonstrations all spring. The university is a residual hotbed of the left where the U.S. is blamed for all troubles, though less vigorously than in the past.

One kind of opposition led to the sniper slaying of a U.S. soldier and wounding of another on jeep patrol in the country Wednesday night. It was quite another, of student demonstrators, that attempted to mar President Bush's visit and speech Thursday. That protest would probably have failed, but trigger-happy police with tear gas started the confusion that led Mr. Bush's protectors to whisk him away with the program in disarray.

The fundamental situation is not new. Since the U.S. conspired to wrench Panama free of Colombia in 1903 to build the canal, Washington has been portrayed simultaneously as overly powerful and doing too little. Mr. Endara is criticized both for not winning enough aid and for over-dependency. U.S. Ambassador Deane R. Hinton is his most important adviser.

With the invasion, the U.S. clearly accepted responsibility for its former protectorate's well-being. Panama needs an economic base, in addition to the canal, that's legal. The scheduled departure of U.S. military by century's end adds to the urgency. As long as Panamanians are so unhappy with things as they are, Americans cannot be content with the fruits of U.S. intervention.

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