Top officials of the Panamanian government remained, in the words of one official, "hermetically sealed" from the press and public yesterday as they debated ways to persuade the Panamanian people that the neutrality treaty passed by the U.S. Senate Thursday is the same treaty approved in a national plebiscite in October.
It appeared, however, that they first had to convince themselves.
Officially, the statements were guarded but positive. Panamanian officials are studying closely Senate amendments and a reservation clause added to the treaty to ensure that they do not violate Panama's sovereignty or integrity, and the initial judgment publicly is that they are acceptable.
Privately, sources close to the government used terms like "disgust" and "outrage" to express the way they felt about the Senate's additions.
The most offensive of those additions is the so-called DeConcini reservation authorizing U.S. military intervention on Panamanian soil if the canal is closed at any time or if its operations are interfered with.
The reservation refers to the time beyond the Dec. 31, 1999, date when U.S. bases here are to be closed and troops withdrawn.
Opponents of the government of Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos immediately focused on the reservation as a substantial change in the treaty that would require a new national plebiscite under Panama's constitution.
The Panamenista party, led by exiled former president Anulfo Arias, issued a statement "notifying world opinion that, if the [Torrijos] dictatorship evades a plebiscite" and accepts the reservations, Panamanians now and in the future "may morally and legally disown" it.
The Foreign Ministry said Thursday night the government would have no further comment on the matter, apparently in an effort to defuse the impact of the reservation and help the chances of the second treaty in the Senate.
The Panama Canal treaties were approved by a 66 percent majority in last October's plebiscite here. The government is now trying to avoid demands for a new vote and to head off the volatile student movement.
Sources said the government is considering postponing the reopening of the University of Panama, scheduled for early April, until the Senate votes on the second treaty that will turn the canal property over to Panama at the end of 1999. University students are currently on Easter recess and protest demonstrations organized Thursday and yesterday were poorly attended.
Government officials met yesterday with members of the local press in a meeting closed to foreigners. Reports on the treaty vote in local newspapers emphasized the positive aspects of the treaty's passage.
Despite the "understandings and reservations" attached to the treaty, one local editorial noted, the "just spirit of President Jimmy Carter prevailed in the attitude of the North American Senate."
One high-level source, however, privately noted that Carter, who apparently agreed to the reservation proposed by Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) before it was voted on, had "sold out because he had to save himself."
Because Carter felt the treaty ratification would be endangered without the reservation, the source said, he agreed to it even though he knew Panama would find it both insulting and unnecessary.
Torrijos, who left Panama City last night without making a public appearance and headed for an undisclosed location in the interior, was known to feel that the reservation added insult to the injury suffered over the past several months by making new concessions to garner Senate support.
Regardless of the date spelled out in the treaty for the canal's neutrality and withdrawal of U.S. forces, the Panamanian government has little doubt that the United States can, and will, use military force to keep the canal open if necessary.
Still, Panama has not been inclined to have that fact put in black and white.
One government official described the lack of public celebration following treaty ratification Thursday as a Panamanian comment on the flawed document.
Despite this assessment, however, and the wide, albeit positive coverage given to the issue, many Panamanians yesterday seemed unaware of the intrincacies of the Senate debate and instead voiced a quiet satisfaction that the ordeal was at least partially over.
For the government's part, in spite of the high level of irritation, there is little doubt that the reservation will be allowed to stand without serious challenge and , if the government has its way, without a new plebiscite.
"The patriotic decision of the Panamanian people," a Foreign Ministry statement said, "was based on two treaties." As long as the second document is pending, "the United States will not have given its definite answer to the decolonization process agreed to with Panama in the treaties."