For three short hours last February Panamanians celebrated in the streets. I drove through Panama City with a man who had been beaten and imprisoned under the current regime, and had been exiled for ten years in the Seventies by the government of General Torrijos. He was now flying the white flag of Panamanian democracy and honking his horn. Throughout the city people were sounding their horns in the streets, or standing waving white handkerchiefs; white flags were displayed from balconies and buses. It was six PM, February 25, 1988. An hour earlier, President Eric Arturo Delvalle had announced over national television that he had fired the military strong man General Manuel Antonio Noriega. With General Noriega apparently gone, Panamanians’ prayers for democracy seemed about to be answered.
We turned into Fiftieth Street, the traditional gathering place of the Civic Crusade for democracy, the street where the riots designed to oust Noriega had begun last summer. Then we heard shots. There was a smell of tear gas in the evening air. The white flags were hastily pulled in. We drove in silence between the lines of riot police—the self-styled Dobermans—and knew that something had gone wrong. In another hour we learned over foreign television that President Delvalle had failed. The army had rallied to Noriega. Delvalle was soon to go into hiding. The sole opposition newspaper was being occupied by troops. Twenty years of military dictatorship were not about to end. In Panama City that night, the streets were silent and deserted.
Delvalle’s attempt to rid Panama of Noriega was supported, though probably not initiated, by US policy makers. If so, this indicated a shift in US policy. For almost twenty years the United States supported the buildup of the Panamanian Defense Forces to keep Panama under control and to train the local armed forces that are to guard the Panama Canal when it is finally turned over to the Panamanians in the year 2000. In addition, the Reagan administration also used General Noriega to obtain information on Cuban activities in the region and help supply US aid to the Nicaraguan rebels in their war against the Sandinistas. Revelations by Noriega’s close associates to a Miami grand jury and in Senate hearings that Noriega was a major drug trafficker and had been supplying arms and information to both sides in the Nicaraguan conflict as well as in the protracted war in El Salvador seem to have forced the administration to revise its policy. No longer could the Pentagon and the CIA look upon Noriega as a “strategic asset.”
But even if Noriega is finally forced out through US pressure and Panamanian protests, will the armed forces rid themselves of corruption? Will the United States still honor the 1977 canal treaty, and hand over an important international waterway to a country that has become a haven for drug dealing and money laundering? And what is to become of the ten thousand US troops of the Southern Command …