Secretary of State George P. Shultz yesterday criticized sharply the Panamanian armed forces' continued control of their country's government and said the Reagan administration has no "present intention" of lifting its freeze on military and economic aid to Panama.
At a news conference, Shultz described the political turmoil that has wracked Panama throughout the summer in terms that did not mention its embattled strongman, Gen. Manuel Noriega, by name but left no doubt of the administration's view that he should step aside and permit a return to civilian democracy.
"We have a freeze on our economic and military assistance," Shultz said. "It remains in effect. And we don't have any present intention of lifting that freeze. There are real problems in Panama.
"We want to see in Panama, as elsewhere, an emergence of civilian, democratic control. We recognize that it's essential for Panama to have a strong professional armed force, and we support that. But we believe the armed forces should be professional and not political . . . . That is our stance."
After a pro-Noriega demonstration damaged the U.S. Embassy in Panama City June 30, the administration quietly suspended aid, rejected a Panamanian request to buy tear gas for crowd control and downgraded contacts with Noriega.
He and top commanders of the Panamanian Defense Forces are the power behind President Eric Arturo Delvalle's civilian government in the Central American country, vital to U.S. interests because of the Panama Canal.
Noriega has been the target of widespread protests by students and opposition political parties charging him with complicity in narcotics trafficking and the murder of a political dissident. The embassy incident was regarded as an attempt by his supporters to deflect attacks on Noriega by appealing to anti-American sentiment.
Initial expectations were that the aid freeze would be ended after Panama compensated the United States for the damage. The Panamanians made a $106,000 payment late last month.
Earlier this week, the Panama situation was discussed at a high-level White House meeting, and sources familiar with the session said there was talk of restoring some aid and cooperation regarded as important to U.S. interests.
However, the sources continued, that idea was abandoned because of awareness that it would provoke anger in Congress, where criticism of Noriega is widespread, and because of Shultz's abhorrence of the increasingly repressive, strong-arm tactics of the Panamanian military in trying to crush the opposition.
At his news conference, Shultz specifically deplored the action of Panamanian authorities Wednesday in raiding the offices of opposition figures and ransacking their files.
An echo of the congressional hostility to Noriega was heard on Capitol Hill yesterday where an unusual coalition of Senate conservatives and liberals joined in introducing legislation aimed at ensuring that U.S. aid stays suspended while the military remains in power.
Conservatives distrust Noriega's close ties with Cuban President Fidel Castro, and liberals charge that he is guilty of human-rights violations.
Cosponsors of the bill included Republicans Jesse Helms (N.C.), Alfonse M. D'Amato (N.Y.), David Durenberger (Minn.), Frank H. Murkowski (Alaska), Steve Symms (Idaho) and John S. McCain III (Ariz.). Democratic sponsors were Alan Cranston (Calif.), John F. Kerry (Mass.), Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and Dennis DeConcini (Ariz.).
At a news conference, Helms described the group as encompassing "the widest political wingspread in history." A Senate staff aide said that, while it is unlikely that the legislation will be acted on before Congress' planned recess tonight, the aim "is to keep the administration honest on this question until the Senate returns in September."
The freeze on new payments and shipments from U.S. aid programs affects about $26 million in military aid and related assistance.