As Panama's government has adopted a wait-and-see attitude in the face of the current Senate canal treaty debate, Latin American nations are beginning to express their grave concern over a treaty reservation allowing U.S. troops to intervene militarily in Panama.
Several Latin governments reportedly have already sent replies to a letter sent by Panamanian leader Gen. Omar Torrijos in which they expressed their support for Panama's position. Others are voicing their dismay over the congressional action through diplomatic channels.
Latin diplomats here are privately calling the reservation, introduced by Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), a "dangerous" and "unacceptable" precedent. They say it is not only in violation of inter-American pacts, but also could embroil them in any U.S. Panama dispute since most hemispheric heads of state attended the Washington signing of the pact last September.
The Latin American position if particularly important because the Carter administration has frequently stated that the new Panama Canal treaties will be the cornerstone of its policy toward the continent.
The Panamanian government itself was relieved at what it considered "encouraging signs in the U.S. Senate that an acceptable formula may be found," as one key official said. Torrijos is evidently not planning to take any steps now that he has successfully drawn attention to his domestic plight and widespread opposition here to the DeConcini intervention clause.
The press here carries daily reports the U.S. Senate, but the government itself has done nothing to influence public opinion. Every evening the television broadcasts panel discussions in which opponents of the treaties, including the country's most respected diplomatic and legal experts, ask the government to renounce the pacts if the DeConcini clause is not revoked, or call for a Panamanian counterproposal or a plebisicte.
Top government officials here concede that they will have an enormous problem defusing the high emotions that have build up here even if a new agreement with the Senate is worked out.
But Panama's Latin allies so far have kept a conspicuously low profile. "We are taking stock of the serious situation that puts all of us in a bind," one prominent Latin diolomat here said.
While no Latin American nation could endorse a U.S. demand to intervene military in Panama, the Pacific coast nations are deeply worried about any unrest that might result because the canal is the route for more than half of their trade.
Panama is reported to have privately received the full support of Venezuela, whose oil dollars could help it smooth the serious economic difficulties that would follow a collapse of the pacts. Reliable sources said Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez had told President Carter he was dismayed over the Senate's intervention clause during Carter's recent visit there.
Mexico's foreign minister, who recently visited Venezuela, reportedly also carried a message from President Jose Lopez Portillo in support of Panama. Mexico is particularly sensitive to any hint of intervention in the treaty and its president was one of the few heads of state not to attend the September signing ceremony in Washington.Argentina has called home its Panamanian ambassador for consultation.
Cuba is said to find itself in an embarrassing position since it was a fierce supporter of Panama's drive to get a new treaty, but Havana would not endorse any overt U.S. military invention clause if Torrijos did.
None of the major Western European users of the canal so far have reportedly sent a response to the Torrijos' message. Torrijos sent a letter to 115 nations expressing his concern over the Senate's demand to the right to intervene militarily in Panama.
Western European diplomats said it was still rather early because, although the letter was dated March 24, it had been held back and was delivered only April 6. But at the core of this delay, they said, was their government's uncertainty at what action to take.
"We're dealing with what is more or less an American colony. We are users of the canal and allies of the U.S.," said the ambassador of a large European nation. "The advice from Washington has been not to act and some of us (would) rather not take sides."