Return of the Big Stick (9/99)

For Panama, the end of the millennium should be a time of celebration. After all, when Old Glory slides down the Panama Canal Commission flagpole for the last time at noon on December 31, the US will complete the most significant territorial concession in its history – the surrender of 430,000 acres of prime real estate straddling the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Finally gone will be 11,000 US armed forces personnel based at the headquarters of the US Southern Command. This will make it the first time since the 1800s that the US doesn’t have a military presence on the Panamanian isthmus.

Panama’s move to assume control of the canal will be handled under the leadership of the country’s first female president, Mireya Moscoso, whose election this May was the third orderly contest in recent years. The voting was apparently free of corruption, a development that runs counter to Panama’s long history of military coups and electoral fraud, auguring well for the future of the country.

Yet, the party may have to be postponed. Disturbing recent developments indicate that the country will face a continued challenge to its sovereignty. Using its relentless pursuit of a "war on drugs" as justification, the US is working hard to retain its imperial role in the Caribbean and Latin America. Ironically, ceding the canal to Panama may actually lead to a more dominant US position in the region, a scenario that concerns not only Panama but many other Latin American countries as well.

Border Skirmishes

With the transfer of Howard Air Force Base to Panama in May 1999, the US complained that it lost a vital base for its anti-drug surveillance aircraft. Even under ideal circumstances, it warned, regaining the surveillance capacity it had will take at least two or three years. In a letter to US Defense Secretary William S. Cohen dated May 20, Republican congressmen John L. Mica of Florida, Benjamin A. Gilman of New York, Indiana’s Mark Edward Souder, and Georgia’s Robert J. Barr described the "loss" of Howard as "one of the worse disasters in US counterdrug history."

"Failed negotiations" with Panama endanger the US War on Drugs, the letter charged. Basically, the US claims – and Panama denies – that Moscoso’s predecessor, Ernesto Perez Balladores, originally agreed to extend the US presence in Panama, but backed out in September 1998.

What the letter didn’t say was that the US was already pressuring Panama to sign a 12-year agreement, a "deal" that Panama was wary of accepting, given its historical relationship with the US. In the past, despite the economic benefits that the canal offered Panama under US hegemony, many Panamanians looked at the US military presence as an affront to their sovereignty. Their leaders have long warned that for the US to remain indefinitely would rupture bilateral ties, and even threaten the canal’s security.

Former President Endara once told the press, "We have a saying here that Panama has actually five borders. There is Costa Rica to the west, the Caribbean to the north, Colombia to the east, the Pacific to the south, and the United States right through our middle."

With Panama standing its ground, the Clinton administration began to pressure several other counties in the region to allow the stationing of aircraft. Early this year, the US managed to negotiate short-term agreements with the Netherlands to station aircraft in the Dutch Caribbean protectorates of Aruba and Curacao. It’s also seeking an agreement with Costa Rica. The opening of centers in Aruba and Curacao will allow the US to continue about 65 percent of the surveillance missions flown out of Howard in 1998.

But the US has run into opposition. A deal that will allow US military personnel on Ecuador’s soil at an airbase in Manta has angered Ecuador’s Congress, which must approve international treaties but wasn’t informed about the agreement. Juna Pons, the Congress’ president, has demanded that Ecuador’s government provide details. What disturbs many Ecuadorians is that the airbase will initially be staffed by eight to 15 Americans; that number could mushroom to 250 if patrol flights increase.

Despite the threat of US decertification in the drug war, Peru has also strongly resisted efforts to establish a US airbase in the country. Meanwhile, Venezuela has rejected US requests that it allow military aircraft to fly through Venezuelan air space without specific authorization. In late July, Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey had the audacity to criticize Venezuela publicly for declining to let the US violate its airspace, warning the country that refusal to accept anti-drug planes could turn its skies into a haven for drug smuggling.

A Convenient Enemy

In the end, it’s the Panama Canal that the US really wants, and the failed "war on drugs" that’s providing the pretext to regain it. In June, General Charles Wilhelm, head of the US Southern Command, made a startling admission before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Pentagon was drawing up contingency plans to intervene in Panama – if necessary, he said, in order to protect the security of the canal. The reason? Panama’s security forces, which replaced the country’s armed forces after the 1989 invasion of Panama, are "undermanned and underequipped to deal with the growing threats from Colombia guerrilla incursions and drug traffickers."

The general neglected to mention that the US disbanded the Panamanian army in 1989 after its invasion to kidnap Manuel Noriega, replacing it with the much weaker Panamanian Public Forces. Wilhelm did say that the plans would either be implemented cooperatively with the Panamanians, or unilaterally "if the conditions dictate."

Although the increasingly powerful Colombian guerrillas have crossed into Panama on raids for food, supplies, or some R & R, the US hasn’t adequately explained how they threaten the stability of the canal, nor asked Panama if it would like help in protecting its borders. "Never have the US military forces been here to guard our borders," foreign minister Jorge Ritter told a news conference in June. "And they have even less to do with the security of Panama. Nor do they have anything to do with the security of the canal."

Nevertheless, in September, the US will reportedly put pressure on newly elected President Morosco to work out what General Wilhelm described as "cooperative security arrangements." A June 7 report from the web site of the publication El Panama America claims that the US is also pressuring Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Brazil for permission to deploy military forces and equipment along their borders to stop the advance of Colombia’s guerrilla groups.

A June report by El Espectador, Colombia’s second largest newspaper, indicates that the US "anti-drug plan" would include the formation of a multilateral military force – under US direction, of course. The proposal has already been presented at a meeting of the Organization of American States. Most Latin American countries, including Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela, oppose it.

These initiatives, drawing the US deeper into the internal affairs of its Caribbean and Latin America neighbors, without any real debate in Congress, should concern all Americans. The government appears willing to repeat history, once again using the big stick approach in dealing with the region. Such a development will certainly require a major commitment of military forces, resources, and money.

The desire to maintain an imperial presence in the Caribbean and Latin America remains strong, currently fueled by a failed War on Drugs that exerts a devastating influence on the US domestic and foreign policy. The drug trade continues to expand, while the US anti-drug policy, which stresses interdiction, shows little ability to contain it.

Rather than freezing relations with other Latin American countries by violating their national security, what’s needed is a bit of self-analysis, the frank review of policies and conduct in the long US "war on drugs." The conclusion looks obvious: It’s time to end this failed crusade to stamp out the drug trade with military might.

Ron Chepesiuk, a Rock Hill, SC, journalist, is the author of Hard Target: The U.S.’s War on International Drug Trafficking, 1982-1997, and the forthcoming The War on Drugs: An International Encyclopedia, to be published this December.