Faced with a rapidly growing "Dump the Treaty" movement, Gen. Omar Torrijos has dispatched two envoys to Washington in an effort to find a new formula for staving off Panamanian rejection of the Panama Canal treaties.
The two envoys are carrying the message that Panama may have no choice but to renounce the treaties unless the United States is willing to soften the DeConcini amendment - which asserts America's right to send troops into Panama after the year 2000 to keep the canal open.
"We're going to Washington to rescue the treaty," a visibly tense top official said yesterday. "The situation is terrible here. It's clear now that as it is, we can't get the treaty approved here short of using force."
The DeConcini reservation to the neutrality treaty, which was approved by the U.S. Senate, has led to a growing sense of outrage here in Panama that has spread across the entire political spectrum. It is now widely felt here that acceptance of this reservation would threaten the survival of the Torrijos government.
The reservation, proposed by Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) asserts an open-ended American right to send troops into Panama if canal operations are intefered with after the canal is turned over to Panama on Dec. 31. 1999.
The Panamanian official declined to explain what proposals Panama will make to Washington.
"The most important thing is to save the situation. We can't have a handful of fools destroy everything that has been achieved," he said, referring to the backers of the DeConcini reservation.
Well-placed diplomatic sources here believe that Panama may propose various options to take the sting out of the DeConcini clause, including adding its own reservation to the pact, or asking for some sort of statement from the U.S. Senate saying that it has no intention of intervening in Panama's internal affairs.
They added that the Panamanian attempts were likely to be unacceptable to treaty opponents in the Senate who have been angered by Torrijos' recent complaint about the reservation in a letter to the United Nations.
The letter was seen here as evidence of the tremendous domestic pressure on Torrijos to reject the reservation and as the beginning of the effort to line up international support if Panama decides to reject the treaty.
U.S. officials also concede that treaty ratification is seriously threatened in both countries.
Panama had implicitly accepted the intervention clause all along," said one worried U.S. official "but the language in the intervention clause is like a large neon sign saying 'the lady is a whore.' There is no doubt now that sign must come down or be covered up for Panama to accept."
In the three weeks since the controversial March 16 Senate vote, there has been a strong buildup of anti-American feelings here and demands to reject the treaties have grown. The combustion point came last Thursday night as the cautious and conservative Liberal Party, which had supported the treaties all along, announced an about-face.
In a meeting with Panamanian chief negotiator Romulo Escobar, organized by a businessmen's association, political groups of left, right and center demanded that the government dump the treaties and begin negotiations anew.
The strong Panamenista Party, the Christian Democratic Party, church groups, the Independent Lawyers Movement, and the powerful business-association CONEP had demanded earlier that the intervention clause be rejected.
"It was very dramatic," said one businessman who attended, "it's the first time everyone has united against the treaties, professionals, businessmen, lawyers, everyone. The government is practically left alone."
Although the military government abolished all political parties after taking power in a coup in 1968, they survive as lobbying and interest groups which the government often has to take into account. Long-time Panama watchers agree that the solid anti-treaty bloc that has emerged now is unprecedented here and cannot be ignored by the government if it is to survive.
The change of position by the business sector, which has long wanted the treaty for its economic benefits, is seen here as particularly significant and perhaps decisive for the Torrijos government. The country's businessmen have long been at war with the populist government and blamed it for Panama's current deep economic crisis.
"It's no longer a question of whether we like Torrijos or whether we have an economic crisis" said one company director. "The Americans have gone too far. We may be businessmen but we're Panamanians too."
Only the small but influential Communist Party has followed the government request not to comment on the treaties until April 18 when the Senate is expected to vote on the second treaty dealing with the terms of transfer of the Canal and the Zone.
Yesterday the government reiterated that it has not rejected the treaties, but it is known to be deeply divided.
Knowledgeable persons here say that one faction, including Torrijos, the negotiators and some of his military advisers, supports an all-out effort to work out with Washington a formula to save the treaties.
Another group, including several Cabinet ministers, the legislative council and a number of military officials, is known to favor pulling out since they anticipate no solution acceptable to Panama. Several government officials have said privately that they will resign if Torrijos accepts the treaty with the DeConcini reservation.