Canal control no guarantee of stability for Panama

Transition: The Central American nation faces a future made all the more uncertain by a past filled with corruption.

August 15, 1999|By Rick Rockwell

THIS YEAR, Panamanians erected a symbol of national pride. In downtown Panama City near the sea, there stands a giant clock that ticks off the time until the United States officially leaves the Canal Zone.

Because the United States will hand over control of the canal at the end of this year, the clock also stands as a countdown to the millennium, a new age for Panama. But, as Panama moves toward this major transition, questions are pursed on the lips of experts from the Canal Zone to Washington about the fate of this country that straddles the isthmus of our hemisphere.

The images that the experts conjure up are not the dry stuff that keeps policy wonks glued to computer terminals. Instead, the discussion sounds more like the script of a bad 1940s film (featuring Sydney Greenstreet, in a Panama hat, and slow fans circling overhead in the tropical humidity), especially when the talk turns to drug smugglers, guerrilla invasions, espionage and government goon squads bent on quelling dissent. These topics have experts wondering what will befall Panama when it finally controls the canal.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, raised warnings about Panama during a House International Relations Committee meeting last month. Because Panama's armed forces were dismantled after the U.S. removal of dictator Manuel Noriega, Rohrabacher cautioned that the country is vulnerable to "the well-armed narco-terrorist forces" in neighboring Colombia. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC by its Spanish acronym, controls 40 percent of the country and has pushed Colombian President Andreas Estrana to the bargaining table.

Reports of FARC guerrillas occupying the jungles and nature reserves of Darien, Panama's southernmost province, which borders Colombia, have circulated in Panama City for the past 18 months. Unlike Rohrabacher, however, Panamanians are ambivalent about their chances of being swallowed up by Colom- bia's rebels. Perhaps their nonchalance stems from the fact that, until 1903, Panama was part of Colombia. What might not be found in the history books is that when Colombia wouldn't sell the land necessary for the construction of the canal to the United States, covert methods and sheer force became the options of choice for Washington.

U.S. agents fomented unrest in Panama, and backed by U.S. naval forces, Panamanian rebels seized control. A U.S.-backed military junta not only ran the country but also sold the Canal Zone to the United States. The result has been that, for most of this century, Panama has practiced the politics of extremes: stillborn attempts at democracy punctuated by military coups. Democratically elected presidents would often have high-minded goals of trying to remake their nation into something other than a U.S. puppet state. Their work would be undone by corrupt dictators, such as Noriega, who had no trouble making Panama a major banking center for drug lords.

Today, Panamanian President Ernesto Perez Balladares represents Noriega's legacy. Perez Balladares heads the PRD (Democratic Revolutionary Party, by its Spanish acronym), the party that ran Panama under the Noriega regime. Although Perez Balladares' methods are more sophisticated than those of his predecessor, his administration has been marked by corruption. For instance, in a scandal that Panamanians called the piata, members of Perez Balladares' Cabinet were accused of abusing their positions to acquire land in the Canal Zone during the transition.

Houses and property in the canal are expected to sell at premium prices after the United States leaves, because they will be close to the canal, Panama's commercial hub. When Panama's leading newspaper, La Prensa, exposed the behind-the-scenes deals, government ministers threatened editors at the paper. "What people aren't hearing about is how our freedoms are threatened by this government," said Elizabeth Brannan, La Prensa's Washington correspondent. "They use restrictive press laws to threaten us, to keep the press from digging up all the embarrassing facts."

Indeed, the Organization of American States (OAS) named Panama as one of the three worst nations in the hemisphere in a recent report that reviewed the state of free expression. "In Panama," said Santiago Canton, the author of the OAS report, "the judicial branch is being used to control freedom of the press." Canton said there were at least 40 cases in Panama of the government's trying to gag the media through the use of fines because of aggressive investigative reporting.

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