If Gen. Omar Torrijos, the self-styled "maximum leader" of panama, is forced by the U.S. Senate to resubmit the canal treaty on neutrality to a second [WORD ILLEGIBLE] here, the result would probably be humiliating defeat for both the treaty and the general.
Just such a lethal stew is being cooked up by treaty enemies in the Senate. If they succeeds attaching formal amendments to the treaty and the 700,000 voters here have to vote again, the result will be a large scale, probably fatal decline in public support (which only reached a meager to percent in the Oct. 23 first plebascite).
Romulo Betancourt, Torrijos's tough, outspoken chief treaty negotiation, told us that if antitreaty senators nail on a formal amendment [WORD ILLEGIBLE] opposed to an "understanding", [WORD ILLEGIBLE] the permanent U.S. right to intervene "against the canal, a second plebescite will be unavoidable under Panama law. That U.S. "right" is now in the form of a joint statment by President Carter and Torrijos.
"Torrijos is not trying to make trouble," Betancourt said. The almost desperate hope here is that the Senate will attach the Carter-Torrijos statement to the treaty only as an "understanding." That would leave the treaty text unchanged, finessing a second plebescite.
What Betancourt failed to explain, however, is why a second plebescite might well defeat the treaty. It would hinge as much on the rising unpopularity of Torrijos as on the hostile but unstated reaction everywhere here to the parade of visiting senators twisting Panam's arm to accept treaty changes. These changes are perceived as humiliating.
"If the general has to take the treaty back to the country, in my opinion it would fail," David Samudio, head of the large (but now legally inactive) Liberal party told us.
A political enemy of Torrijos ever since the general seized power in 1968, Samudio supported the first plebescite after the directorate of the Liberal Party voted for it, 48 to 9. The party's governing body would undoubtedly vote overwhelmingly against backing a second plebescite, costing Torrijos tens of thousand of votes.
Reason No. 1: National pride. This is a potentially explosive emotion kept just beneath the surface by an acute, accurate awareness of the futility of going to the mat with the superpower to the north. A new plebescite might crack that surface in a wholly unpredictable way, a fact that neither Torrijos nor the large anti-Torrijos establishment will discuss publicly for fear of offending the United States.
Reason No. 2: Torrijos himself. Many prominent anti-Torrijos leaders here - businessmen, bankers, traders - voted "yes" in the October plebescite despite full awareness that a "no" vote would hurt the maximum leader. That decision, based on the deeper interest of Panama's future and its relationship to the United States, would yield to rabid anti-Torrijosism in a second ballot.
In 10 years, Torrijos has increased the national debt from $160 million to nearly $2 billion; has closed the credit window to the outside world; has earmarked 38 cents of every tax dollar for debt service; has allowed unemployment to go close to 20 per cent; and, most important, has extinguished all vestiges of democracy.
Naturally, then, the temptation is strong to strike at Torrijos, using a second plebescite as the weapon. "Another plebescite will not be decided on the treaty." one well-informed Western diplomat told u. "It will stand or fall on Torrijos."
Thus, the treaty is under a heavy threat from collateral political handicaps here as it is in the United States. There, a major impediment is deep, emotional concern over yielding control of the canal enterprise at a time when the United States is in a worldwide defensive posture that has its roots in the humiliation of the Vietnam defeat.
In between his attempts to market the treaty retail to visiting U.S. senators, Torrijos is keeping quiet - and praying. Going public with his fears about a second plebescite might look like a threat, bringing reprisals from Washington.
But his fear is genuine. A second plebescite would prejudice his political career in a most unpleasant way. But that would scarely be noticed in the wreckage of Jimmy Carter's failed effort following 13 years of U.S. promises to Panama.