Ranking Panamanian officials seeking to dispel doubts in the U.S. Congress about the Panama Canal treaties have made it clear in recent speeches and interviews that there are no basic differences between Panamanian and U.S. interpretations of key defense provisions of the agreements.
These officials say that the United States could resort to military action to protect the canal's neutrality once the waterway comes under Panama's control after the year 2000. They also imply that U.S. warships would be given priority in an emergency.
The crux of apparent contradictions that surfaced in Washington last Tuesday over interpretation of the treaties focuses on the use of the word "intervention." That word suggests meddling in internal affairs to most Panamanians, and the notion has been agrily rejected by the Panamanian government.
"We have repeated time and again that the United States will not have the right to intervene in the internal affairs of Panama." Romulo Escobar Bethancourt, chief Panamanian negotiator, declared on television Friday.
"But Panama and the United States have the responsibility to keep the canal open, secure and accessible. And each one has the right to defend the canal."
The question of whether the treaties adequately safeguard future U.S. military rights has become crucial to the Carter administration's drive to win Senate ratification of the canal pacts.
Panama is not expected to issue any public clarification of its treaty interpretation until government leader Gen. Omar Torrijos returns from his European tour next week, high government officials here said.
The thrust of their remarks, how ever, suggests that American opponents of the treaties "have picked erroneously or maliciously on the word intervene" to try to prevent their ratification in the U.S. Senate, as one official put it.
"How much blood do the American senators expect to draw," said one senior Panamian official angrily. "Haven't we already said enough. How can they expect Torrijos to tell his people that U.S. Marines are invited to invade here whenever they wish. They are asking us to give them the right to come and kill us. Obviously, no such right exists."
Carlos Lopez, a member of the Panamanian team that negotiated the agreement, said in a televised interview Thursday that the United States has the right to access to the canal and when "a country's rights are disregarded, that country has the authority to react. It can go to war, or may take reprisals."
"This must be very clear," he continued, "because there is a very clear right conceded to the U.S. and to the entire international community - the right to have the canal always neutral and always open."
A senior Panamanian official who asked not to be identified said in an interview: "Of course the United States has the right to take military action. But it is the hardest thing for us that the Americans keep saying they can come back here and intervene."
Another acknowledgement of Panama's exolicit understanding of U.S. military rights was made last month by Aristides Royo, also a member of the negotiating team, who said:
"The United States could and would and is authorized to take measures regarding anything that is contrary to the concept of neutrality" of the canal.
American officials here say that there remains a grey area with Panama not giving explicit assurances that the United States can defend the canal against possible actions by Panama itself.
As outlined by top U.S. officials, the language of the treaty pledges both countries to "maintain the regime of neutrality" in a canal and gives the United States the "permanent right of intervention" if it considers the canal to be threatened by anyone.
The problem obviously deals with Panama's sensibilities. "When in this century have we asked from any country that it must declare that the United States has the right to intervene?" one American official commented.
A good part of the confusion appears to stem from the fact that unlike the Americans, Panamanian officials do not use position papers when explaining sensitive legal and political points. In addition, there is an element of political opportunism and nationalist passion that enters into the picture.
Torrijos, in an interview with the French magazine L'Express published in Paris today, said his country got much less from the new treaties than he had expected.
"It is the price my generation had to pay to put to an end the perpetual presence of the United States on a part of our territory," Torrijos said.
"It is certain that the right of intervention has not been clearly defined by the texts and it is therefore dangerous. I personally give it only a moral value. The future generations will have to guarantee the neutrality of the interoceanic canal so as to avoid creating any flimsy excuse intervention."