Suddenly in parts of the press and television there is a retelling of the more or less familiar story of Panama's strongman, Gen. Manuel Noriega, accused drug trafficker, weapons peddler, murderer, double agent (spying for both the United States and Cuba), election fixer and coup maker. Interesting details have come to light, but what is even more intriguing are the possible explanations of why the rerun is occurring and of whose interest it serves.
The more innocent explanation is that the information on Gen. Noriega took on a shape so ominous and undeniable that the American intelligence agencies collecting it and the political bureaus receiving it simply could not keep it to themselves. The administration was caught between an American habit of winking at local foibles in order to enjoy the strategic comforts of close association with Panama, and its growing apprehension that Gen. Noriega's misrule was threatening to undermine the American interest in the stability of the country and its great canal.
*A darker explanation is that elements on the American right who have never reconciled themselves to the Panama Canal treaties are pumping out damaging information about Gen. Noriega in order to make a case for going back on the American treaty commitment to turn over the canal to Panama in the year 2000. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who has used his Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee to air some of the charges, allows that "it may be entirely necessary down the road" for the United States to try to assume power over the Panama Canal again. An odd political matchup is taking place in Washington: conservatives whose interest is to demonstrate Panamanian frailty, liberals appalled by Gen. Noriega's human rights record.
In this murky scene, two things are clear. Gen. Noriega, who presides over a system that does not permit a fair judgment of the shocking charges against him, does not have a mandate from the Panamanian people and must allow the country's admittedly frail and uncertain democratic process to get back on its feet. Meanwhile, the United States -- and this means Congress, too -- cannot afford to give the slightest sustenance to the notion of revising the canal treaties. That way lies a cynical cultivation of instability in Panama and a threat to the strategic assets that the United States removed from risk precisely by the treaties some would now casually reopen.