The new Panama Canal treaties have sparked an intense scramble for power and position among Panama's main economic and political groups that is likely to put Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos under considerable pressure in the coming months.
Both U.S. and Panamanian officials are known to be concerned about possible unrest. More than ever, it is felt, a strong government will be needed to administer the changes the treaties will bring.
Instead of giving Torrijos the dramatic victory he needed, the widely held view here is that the many concessions he was forced to make to the United States have weakened the general's position, at least momentarily.
U.S. officials both here and in Washington therefore have tried to dismiss Torrijos' stated plans to sabotage the canal had the treaties failed to pass the Senate as a mixture of anger against the United States and muscle-flexing at home designed to regain lost prestige.
Immediately following Senate ratification last Tuesday Torrijos announced that it was a "well thought-out decision" of the Panamanian National Guard that the canal "would be destroyed" or its operations disrupted if the vote was negative. Since then he has told reporters he got the idea from Libyan leader Muamma Qadafi, who had told him that if Libya's oil fields were ever invaded, Libya would burn them.
Whatever the details of Torrijos' plan, leading analysts here are convinced Torrijos would have felt forced to make some dramatic gesture of protest, going beyond just irate talk. The military command in the Canal Zone implicitly recognized a threat by moving large numbers of troops into strategic areas.
According to an American military spokesman, there was no special alert for U.S. troops her last week, but eye-witnesses reported large, unusual troop movements, particularly near the continental divide and the crucial water reservoirs.
"We weren't on alert, we just changed the name to increase readiness," one officer said."Whatever you call it, many of us were all together in a central place in the jungle not far from the canal."
In the days since the ratification protests against the treaties or its amendments have been subdued. After two small street demonstrations, student leaders said they were now discussing a strategy against the "neocolonial era Panama has entered."
The leftist students who have often served Torrijos as an effective spearhead of anti-American protest clearly feel betrayed by his many concessions to the United States.
There already are signs the government will now have little patience with them. Two days ago, police reportedly broke into the home of a leftist leader and stole his files and political propaganda. Several other student leaders reported they were placed under "overt" secret police surveillance and threatened.
The government yesterday sent an indirect reply to the country's main political opposition groups who declared last week that they regarded the altered treaties as illegal if not ratified by a new Panamanian plebiscite. Through an association of government employees, the government said "a plebiscite would be against the national interest and serve only to create confrontations."
The four moderate opposition parties quickly moved to gain political leverage this summer as Torrijos has stated plans to introduce some modest political reforms into his authoritarian regime. Leftist intellectuals and church groups also intend to call for a plebiscite to keep pressure on the government.
Conservatives, who already have said they are satisfied with the treaties, have started maneuvering to become "the spearhead of Panama's new development." A spokesman for the powerful National Council of Private Enterprise said their first priority was to demand key positions in the government, particularly the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. They also want a cutback in union power and a decisive voice in planning the economy and all projects related to the canal.
"It's like the hunting season opened," said one top government official. "Like Carter, Torrijos had to pay a high political price to get the treaties. Now, everybody's coming in to collect their political debts."
Analysts here fell that the next few months will be crucial as interest groups push for political influence.Torrijos can no longer blame the Americans for the country's ills and while the deeply divided antigovernment forces are not a serious challenge to the military regime, they could make life very uncomfortable until the economy improves.
The canal treaties cannot produce immediate economic benefits because U.S. legislation to implement them may take up to a year. An important side-effect, however has been the removal of uncertainty over the outcome of the canal battle, which has been a major obstacle to Panama's economic recovery.
The large foreign business community here exudes confidence. "We have 22 years of almost guaranteed stability ahead of us," the manager of a large foreign bank here beamed.
Planning Minister Nicolas Barletta, however, said he was "cautiously optimistic" as the first serious investment projects of the last few years are now coming in. The most important plans involve a $47 million "oil tank farm" on the Pacific coast where Alaskan oil will be stored before moving through the Canal. On the Atlantic side, a Canadian firm will construct a container port, while the government here expects to double the free zone and built and industrial park.
Once the treaty goes into effect, Panama will receive about $65 million in canal revenue. It will be able to develop shipbuilding, repair and dry-dock services.
Many of the nonessential canal operations such as stevedore, warehousing, tug and launch services - regarded as potentially immensely profitable - will also become Panamanian.
Nevertheless, it will be difficult for the government to make a serious dent in the nation's serious employment problem. Even if all planned projects get under way, Panama's 60,000 unemployed represent close to one-fifth of the work force, while current new projects will provide some 3,000 jobs.