By John Lindsay-Poland
The US military revealed for the first time on March 9 which US bases in Panama it plans to consider keeping beyond the year 2000, when the Carter-Torrijos Treaties mandate their withdrawal.
In hearings convened by the hawkish Republican leadership of the House National Security Committee, the Pentagon's Frederick Smith identified Howard Air Force Base, for its use in the drug war, and training centres on Fort Sherman and Rodman Naval Station as the facilities in Panama the US may use into the next century.
Smith also testified that the US "could defend the Panama Canal against external threats with forces based in the United States".
Democrat Representative Robert Torricelli, the National Security Committee's ranking minority member, reportedly called Howard Air Base "indispensable". Smith claimed only that "the primary impact of not having a[n air] base in Panama will be on our ability to stage aircraft for counter-drug operations".
Early this year the National Security Council initiated an inter-agency review of Panama policy that will formulate a US negotiating position on the presence of the US military in Panama and other treaty-related issues.
The efficient and secure operation of the Panama Canal continues to be the major strategic interest of the US in Panama, according to the State Department's Anne Patterson. In addition to counter-narcotic and combat training goals, Patterson cited "search and rescue and other humanitarian missions" and instilling "confidence in canal users" as other potential reasons for a limited US troop presence beyond 1999.
Patterson also named "countervailing considerations" such as whether Panamanians will support a US military presence in the future, the intensity of opinion among those opposed to extending the bases and budget pressures implied by keeping bases in Panama open while the Pentagon closes domestic bases.
The Neutrality Treaty, one of the two treaties signed by Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos in 1977, declares that only Panama will maintain military forces or installations in Panama after December 31, 1999. But a reservation tacked on to the treaty during the Senate ratification process — and consented to by Panama — says that the two countries may make new agreements to station US military forces in Panama after the scheduled departure date.
The news of the active US interest in keeping some bases stirred new protests in Panama over the issue. Roberto Eisenmann, editor and owner of La Prensa, Panama's largest daily, came out against keeping the bases on March 15, saying that while Panama is prepared to cooperate "100%" in the drug war, "this requires neither military bases nor the presence of a single US soldier on our soil".
Rolando Murgas, dean of the University of Panama's law school, said that if Panama negotiates a new base agreement, "We would renounce a historical commitment that several generations have adopted in the fight for national sovereignty. Such military sites have served to subjugate our identity."
One Panamanian government source, who did not wish to be cited, said that Panama needs more time to absorb some of the bases into the national economy, but that a long-term lease is out of the question. In February the president of Panama's association of business executives, Felipe Rodriguez, called for delays in the transfer of bases to Panama, claiming that Panama did not have the administrative capacity and legislation to put them to the best use.
Rodriguez' declarations came in the wake of Panamanian foreign minister Gabriel Lewis' trip to the US, where he visited Senator Jesse Helms. Helms reportedly suggested to Lewis that a base be maintained in Panama for the drug war, but Lewis said that Helms' view is not a majority opinion in the Congress.
Others indicated that base negotiations may only await a decision by the US to make the first move. Solidarity Party leader Samuel Lewis, the brother of Panama's foreign minister from the same party, said, "Panama has to maintain a dignified stance and not offer what has not been requested".
Long-time Canal Treaty opponent Representative Philip Crane, previously on the right fringe of Panama policy, has taken the hint and advocates making a proposal for keeping bases "before that option is overtaken by events".