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Let's Use a Little Diplomacy in Panama

By Jimmy Carter

Published by The Washington Post.

Ten years ago, the Senate ratified the Panama Canal treaties, which guaranteed that the canal would stay open and that Americans and Panamanians would operate the waterway together until the end of the century. After the year 2000, the United States reserved the right to defend the canal against external threats and to have priority in using the waterway during times of emergency. Latin America was united in its support of Panama's legitimate request for a new relationship with the United States, and I realized that the best way to secure the canal was by new treaties that would protect our nation's interests and transform a resentful neighbor into a cooperative partner. Sixty-eight senators agreed.

Today, despite the turmoil in Panama, the canal continues to operate smoothly. Problems that have emerged in the normal operation of the canal continue to be resolved by Panamanians and Americans. There have been attempts to politicize the canal by both governments; these have been shortsighted and, we can be thankful, have been resisted effectively by the canal's professional managers. It is a serious mistake to withhold the collected fees or allocate them in any way that violates the treaties.

During the debate on the canal treaties, several senators felt that we should insert an amendment that permitted for the United States to intervene in Panama's internal affairs. This effort met with vigorous opposition from all Panamanians and was rejected by me and the U.S. Congress. Panama does not belong to the United States. It is a sovereign country, and our relationship should be built on that premise.

Our pledge not to intervene in its internal affairs does not mean that we should be unconcerned about human rights and democracy in Panama. Quite to the contrary, we are legitimately concerned that the human rights of Panamanian people have been systematically violated under the present government.

I told Omar Torrijos, who was then head of Panama's government, of my hope for democracy for his country and that the partnership between our nations could be strengthened only if Panama were to become a democracy. He pledged his commitment to that goal and began to take steps toward reaching it. However, after his death, Panama's progress toward democracy was slowed and eventually halted.

It is clear that most of the people of Panama would like to replace the military dictatorship of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega with a democracy. His connection with international drug traffickers is a special embarrassment to his proud countrymen. The question for the United States is what is the best and most appropriate way to assist democratic Panamanians in this objective.

We should pause and consider three points. First, the United States should cease taking actions that focus suffering on the Panamanian people. If the U.S. government is correct about Noriega's character, he is unlikely to be moved by the damage we are inflicting on his fellow countrymen; moreover, he uses his control of the news media to lay maximum blame for their woes on the United States. Second, our highly publicized efforts to ratchet up the pressure only appear to be driving Noriega into a corner, when what is needed is a more diplomatic guide to an exit. Third, our attempts to damage the economy of Panama have alienated our Latin American friends. Recently, 22 Latin American governments concluded a meeting on Panama by condemning U.S. policy, not Noriega. Despite this, recent efforts by several leaders offer an alternative to Washington's heavy-handed tactics.

During the canal treaty negotiations, I relied on the advice of three incumbent presidents of democratic nations - Carlos Andres Perez of Venezuela, Daniel Oduber of Costa Rica and Alfonso Lopez Michelsen of Columbia. The treaties could not have been concluded without their help. Today these same three men are trying to help mediate the crisis in Panama. Instead of ignoring or undermining their efforts, we ought to be lending them our full support.

The movement of additional troops to Panama and the report of a firefight have raised tensions to a dangerous level. There is still time to defuse a potentially explosive confrontation. On behalf of the nation, the president should, first, reaffirm our intention to fully honor our obligations under the canal treaties. Second, we should stop punishing the people of Panama. Third, the president should appoint a competent and trusted representative to work with the Latin American and Panamanian leaders, including Gen. Noriega, to explore the various ways to permit the general to save face and restore the nation's hope for democracy.

Ultimately, Noriega is more likely to give up his authority as a result of unpublicized pressures and enticements than through public challenge and sustained punishment of the citizens of his country. The United States will be better served if we work with our Latin American friends rather than unilaterally confront the small country.

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