The human-rights issue has become a political football in the Panama Canal treaty negotiations, with both supporters and opponents of a new treaty exploiting it o further their causes.
A group of Panamanian exiles opposed to the government of Brig. Gen. Omar Torrijos has set up a Pamian Committee for Human Rights in Miami. With support from some conservative Americans, it has taken its campaign to descredit the military regime as far as the U.S. Congress.
Panama is aware that human rights violations could become a serious obstacle at the time of U.S. ratification of a treaty. So it has countered with a new campaign denouncing violations in the U.S.-controlled Canal Zone and taken it to the United Nations.
Compared to the human-rights situation in many countries in Latin America, none of the violations charged by either side could be considered severe. Yet on both sides of the canal fence, people appear determined to gain political mileage by challenging each other's moral stance.
For several months now, bitter accusations have been tossed back and forth in the American and Panamanian press, and, as observers here see it the volume of the offensive is turned up as one or the other side feels the need for a well-timed fuss.
Before the current round of treaty talks for example, a Panamanian an accompanied by wife and children but without the mandatory identification card was refused entry into Ft. Clayton in the Zone. The military guard calls Zone police, and the Panamanian charged, the Zone policeman was ill-mannered and rough.
The "humilitation" led to a wave of protests, to the U.S. embassy, to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, and on front pages and television broadcasts of Panama's government-controlled media.
In that some period, the vigorous anti-Torrijos lobby in the United States stepped up its charges against the military government by producing a long list of arrests, beatings, tortures and disapperances. A closer study showed that most of the incidents took place before 1974. With the exception of 20 Panamanians sent into political exile in recent months, there have been few serious violations in the last four years.
Last week Torrijos announced that he will allow the return of 51 Panamanians exiled since he came to power. About 150 have gone into exile under Torrijos. It is also true that there are no political prisoners in Panama's jails.
The impact of the war of words has been limited so far to heating up the already steamy debate over the canal. Experts in canal politics fear, however, that too much further rhetoric could reduce the chances of any draft treaty being approved in the U.S. Congress.
In calmer moments, both sides admit they have been guilty of some violations - of civil and political rights in the case of Panama, and labor and racial discrimination in the Canal Zone.
As American officials see it, the separate school and housing patterns are the unfortunate leftovers of the past when black Carribbean laborers were housed in separate towns.
"The situation is not easy to change," said one well-placed American, "but we've made as much progress as Georgia. Twenty years ago we had water fountains and restrooms marked "colored". At the moment racial discrimination in the Zone is about what it is in the average small American community.
As for "unequal labor conditions" in the Zone, qualified Americans concede that Panamanians are right to complain about the so-called "security positions" in the U.S. Army's Panama Canal Co., which runs the waterway. These positions, as one American expert explained, as one American expert explained, "are a device aimed at reserving jobs for Americans, rather than protecting classified materials. The company has now drastically cut them back, but still maintains some 500."
Panamanians have long scoffed as well at the 15 per cent "tropical differential" paid Americam employees for enduring the tropics. One Panamanians employee pointed out bitterly: "Many of these Americans were born here, and often even their parents. So why should they earn more than I in the same job?"
The violations on the Panamanians side are more blatantly political. Opponents to Torrijos' populist, nationalist dictatorship list the banishing of all politcal parties, the strict control over the press and the intolerance to any political opposition shown by police beating of student protesters and exile for those the regime sees as a threat. The 20 recent exiles were from the left and the right.
Gen. Torrijos, who took over nine years ago in a military coup, discussed some of these issues in a recent interview.
"Sure this is a dictatorship, but it's a friendly one," Torrijos said, "The political parties were dissolved by decree. They were the tired leftovers of the old oligarch regime. Now we have representatives who form a National Assembly but who live in their community, not like those gentlemen congressmen who'd get dust on them only at election time."
Asked why he felt he needed to keep such tight control over the press, the general replied: "There is a big difference between cosmetic freedom and fundamental freedom. The press is only cosmetic. Panamanians are not muzzled, they are very open and you'll hear plenty of complaints. But I don't want any dissent about how we go about getting the canal. It embarrasses me. It's like treason of our national cause."
As for remaining exiles, Torrijos said, "They're better off then being in Jail." The rightists, he said, are too pro-American and the leftists want to move too fast.
Light hearted as Torrijos may seem about human rights, his awareness of his image in the United States clearly causes him some concern.
"I'm traveling a lot these days to get support," he said. "I want other rulers and other people to know me. Because of the distortions in the international press, people have the idea I am sore sort of white Idi Amin."