President Reagan is to officially announce today that Panama has failed to cooperate in combatting drug trafficking to the United States, but he will not impose the extraordinary sanctions called for by some members of Congress to force the ouster of Panama's military strongman, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.
White House and State Department officials said yesterday that the president's scheduled action today in "decertifying" Panama as a cooperative drug-fighting state will have little immediate effect because economic and military aid were cut off last summer and Panama's share of the U.S. sugar quota was suspended this winter.
The decertification, made under a 1986 law requiring a U.S. aid cutoff to countries not "fully cooperating" in the war on narcotics smuggling, will require the U.S. to vote against loans for Panama in international lending organizations such as the World Bank.
While Panama, a nation of 2 million, has no pending loan requests, it owes about $2 billion to foreign commercial banks, giving it one of the world's highest per capita debts. The administration believes Panama's economic woes eventually may cause important segments of the society to abandon Noriega, bringing about his fall.
Several members of Congress, angered by Noriega's ouster last week of the figurehead civilian president, Eric Arturo Delvalle, have called for trade sanctions and the suspension of Panamanian landing rights.
However, the officials, who requested anonymity, said Reagan rejected such steps for now, reflecting his advisers' concerns that they might prove counterproductive.
They fear a Noriega move to rally nationalist feeling with claims that the United States wants to create chaos so it can renounce the 1977 treaties giving Panama full control over the Panama Canal at the end of the century.
Noriega, who has controlled Panama since 1983, has sought unsuccessfully to foment anti-American sentiment since last summer when unrest erupted over charges that he was engaged in corruption and drug trafficking. Last month, U.S. grand juries in Florida indicted Noriega on drug and racketeering charges.
Reagan also plans today to reject calls to decertify Mexico and Colombia, which have been criticized heavily for failing to cut the flow of drugs to this country.
While Panamanians have remained largely passive in the face of calls for Noriega's ouster, U.S. officials believe that Panama's economic problems have cost Noriega the support of the general public and the business community. Noriega is sustained in power only by senior officers of the 15,000-member Panamanian Defense Forces, who have enriched themselves from military graft, officials say. However, these officials say, younger officers, who lack a big stake in the systemic corruption, may eventually force Noriega and the old guard to step aside.
Although this is now the prevailing position within the administration, many officials in the Defense Department and intelligence agencies believe that Noriega cannot be forced out against his will and that U.S. efforts should focus not on confrontation but on trying to persuade him to go willingly. These officials, some of whom feel they are seen unfairly as backing military dictatorship in Panama, argue that hostile policies toward Noriega since last summer have worked against efforts to obtain his cooperation, so that his mistrust of Washington blocks chances of negotiating a deal for his departure.
Meanwhile, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), a longtime Noriega critic, yesterday called on the Justice Department to ask Panama to extradite Noriega to stand trial here on the drug charges.
In a letter to Attorney General Edwin Meese III, Helms said Panama is a party to a 1972 international protocol that provides extradition authority for the crimes Noriega is charged with.