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Panama's president-elect meets Clinton, agrees to help on Haitian refugees


WASHINGTON -- Panama's president-elect, a stalwart in the political party that Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega controlled until U.S. troops ousted him in 1989, is suddenly the darling of official Washington.

President-elect Ernesto Perez Balladares says he would allow up to 10,000 Haitians to stay in temporary havens in Panama after he takes office Sept. 1. The Clinton administration thought it had a deal with Panama's incumbent president, Guillermo Endara, to take in the boat people. But Mr. Endara, who was installed by U.S. troops after Noriega's downfall, abruptly withdrew his offer this month, leaving the White House strategy in shambles.

Mr. Perez Balladares has set strict conditions on his offer: The Haitians must stay at U.S. military bases in Panama under U.S. supervision, andfor no more than six months.

The flow of boat people has ebbed in recent days, so the question of havens may be moot. But Mr. Perez Balladares has also pledged to help the United States in anti-drug efforts and to press for new laws to prevent money-laundering in Panama and increase penalties for violators.

That President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore met with Mr. Perez Balladares at the White House yesterday to discuss Haiti, among otherissues, offers an instructive tale of how mutual economic, diplomatic and security interests of the present can outweigh the differences of the past.

"We'll judge the guy more on his performance and less on his record as a member of Noriega's former party," said one Clinton official.

Five years ago, Mr. Perez Balladares managed the campaign of Noriega's hand-picked presidential candidate, Carlos Duque. In the 1989invasion that ousted Noriega, U.S. troops seized and questioned Mr. Perez Balladares for several hours before releasing him.

Since then, he has resurrected his discredited Revolutionary Democratic Party by distancing it from Noriega and embracing the legacy of another former dictator, Gen. Omar Torrijos.

"Noriega kidnapped our party more than we got together with him," said Mr. Perez Balladares, who won a narrow victory in May over six other candidates in Panama's first democratic elections in more than a quarter of a century.

"We've been able to separate that. People understand that Noriega had no political following in Panama. He was a strongman whose leadership was based on force."

Although a disciple of General Torrijos, Mr. Perez Balladares says he will not repeat that regime's curbs on the press and political dissenters.

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