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


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."

Many Panamanians believe Mr. Endara would last about 10 minutes if American troops were withdrawn. The insecurity is so palpable that Mr. Endara has surrounded himself with a CIA-trained security force. And cabinet ministers show guests their Uzis.

The restive nature of Panamanians was demonstrated in recent weeks by shots fired at the home of Jorge Endara Paniza, who heads the Social Security system, currently the object of cutbacks by his nephew the president.

Shots were also fired at the car of Gonzalo Menendez Franco, the head of Panama's 10,000-man police force. (It was Mr. Menendez Franco who dispatched a tiny police unit to hunt down the 40 armed Colombians in the Darien jungle. After spending days hacking through the bush, they came across a large encampment but found no one there.)

The easygoing 54-year-old President Endara is routinely blasted for his lack of forceful leadership, his connections to a money-laundering bank and his inability to control his pouty 23-year-old wife.

Most recently, the Endara government closed the Panama City schools after police used tear gas and birdshot to disperse high school students seeking his ouster. (High school students were among the first to confront General Noriega's riot squads in the late 1980s, inspiring their elders to act.)

Since the 1989 United States invasion installed Mr. Endara as president, the country has gone through five national police chiefs, one of whom allegedly tried to overthrow the government, while another stole money.

The men behind the recent shootings were believed to be ex-officers in the Noriega military. And people remain uneasy about the loyalty of the current police force, most of them making $280 a month, far below their bribe-supplemented pay in the deposed regime.

Last November, it was American troops -- not Panamanians -- who recaptured a former colonel who allegedly was trying to spearhead a police revolt against Mr. Endara.

U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton explained the used of American force this way: "That was the decision of the democratic government of Panama, which we spent American lives and fortunes to install. . . . We were not about to let some colonel take it over and throw it out."

Mr. Hinton repeated Bush administration policy that the United States has no intention of leasing any of the military installations after the year 2000. But Washington will still retain its treaty right "to defend the neutrality of the canal," he said.

"I see all this, and it pains me," said Balbina de Perinan, a legislator with the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party, once dominated by General Noriega.

"We are a baby of the United States, yet we must have the courage and the will to create a mature nation. We must cut our historic umbilical chord, and that means the canal and the bases must be ours. That means no American troops. We must stand on our own two feet."

John McClintock is The Sun's Mexico City correspondent.

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