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(en) Taking Drug War Too Far?

From Tom Burghardt <tburghardt@igc.apc.org>
Date Thu, 9 Apr 1998 17:29:22 -0700 (PDT)
Cc amanecer@aa.net, ara@web.net, ats@locust.etext.org, bblum6@aol.com, mnovickttt@igc.org, nattyreb@ix.netcom.com, pinknoiz@ccnet.com, sflr@slip.net

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

                    TAKING DRUG WAR TOO FAR?
     The Christian Science Monitor
     Thursday April 9, 1998
     Howard LaFranchi, Staff writer of The Christian Science
     PANAMA CITY -- On a tropical patio in a middle-class
neighborhood, a group of Panamanian intellectuals sit around a
table littered with position papers, sodas, and bowls of limp
cheese puffs. They are trying to figure out how to stop what they
see as the next United States invasion of Panama.
     "We've been an occupied country for 100 years," says
Diogenes Arosemena, an international law expert. "So it's all the
more painful that just when we thought we were about to become
truly sovereign, we realize the American soldiers are coming
     Talk of a US invasion in this Central American home to the
Panama Canal may sound cold-war-ish and anachronistic, and
probably comes as a surprise to the Pentagon. Under a US-Panama
treaty ratified in 1978, the US is to relinquish control of the
canal and all remaining military bases by Dec. 31, 1999.
     But Mr. Arosemena and his friends say a proposed
international drug-fighting center that would operate on one of
the US military bases here, with the support of at least 2,500 US
soldiers, means occupation all over again.
     "Just as Britain turned over Hong Kong to China, the United
States is to turn over its remaining military bases by the end of
next year. But this [drug center] is a sure sign that both sides
are getting cold feet," says Miguel Antonio Bernal, a prominent
political analyst here.
     "But what the Panamanian government thinks makes good
economic sense, and what the US thinks serves its geopolitical
interests, does not fit our vision of an independent Panama," he
     The proposed multilateral antidrug center, or CMA as it is
known by its Spanish acronym, may be literally unheard of in the
     The idea is to provide a civilian-run facility where
antidrug officials throughout the continent (and eventually
perhaps Europe) could receive training and access to drug-
trafficking intelligence.
     "We've learned from experience that if you don't have
countries working together on [drug trafficking], you just push
the activity from one place to another," says US Ambassador to
Panama William Hughes.
     Yet because the center would include a sizable US military
presence for logistical support - and perhaps because the
Panamanian government has failed to explain openly what the CMA
would and wouldn't do - the proposal is causing considerable
hand-wringing in Panama.
     And with the sense of uncertainty rising, it may well touch
off an ugly demonstration or two before the issue is settled.
     In the government's favor are opinion polls showing that a
majority of Panamanians support some kind of US military
     That feeling dates from the canal's construction, but was
heightened in 1989 after the US invaded to restore democracy and
topple military strongman Manuel Noriega.
     But Mr. Bernal and his "national consensus" group say such
numbers reflect a fear of the unknown - the US has been a
presence in Panama since President Theodore Roosevelt caused the
new country to be carved out of Colombia in 1903.
     That public uncertainty about a Panama without Uncle Sam can
be reversed, they say, with education and national pride.
     The CMA proposal actually came out of the office of
President Ernesto Perez Balladares in late 1995 as a response to
those "US stay here!" opinion polls.
     Many Panamanians were worrying about the effect of a full US
withdrawal and an estimated $200 million in lost economic
activity. Some shippers and other business leaders were also
jittery about the prospect of a canal without a US presence.
     The government said it would only advocate creating such a
center if it were multilateral and civilian-run.
     The idea was also supported by the US, which carries out
regional antinarcotics surveillance from the canal area's Howard
Air Force Base, and which already hosts military liaison officers
here from a half-dozen South American countries.
     Howard's antinarcotics surveillance activities have already
had a regional impact, US officials say, by curtailing the
infamous "air bridge" that Colombian drug lords developed to
ferry huge amounts of cocaine and other drugs north to the US.
     A regional center would augment that, they insist, by
offering more extensive training and reaching more participants.
     US officials also strongly counter arguments that the CMA is
nothing more than a US military base in disguise.
     "We don't need a military base in Panama, and we certainly
don't need it to project power or collect information today,"
says one US official in Panama. The center, unlike a military
base, would not be fenced off from Panamanian society, the
official says.
     An agreement creating the CMA was set for signing late last
year. But Panama surprised the US by presenting a new list of
suggested amendments, most of which reflected concerns of other
Latin countries, especially Mexico and Brazil.
     The concerns included wording that speaks vaguely of other
uses for the center beyond antinarcotics work that would leave
the door open to US military intervention in the region. The US
and Panama say the wording refers to benign activities like
disaster relief.
     Mexico especially appears to be concerned that the center
would be another step toward what it considers a worrisome
militarization and creeping interventionism of regional antidrug
     Those arguments and more are fueling Panamanian opposition
to the center. Critics like Bernal say the "secrecy" in which the
Panamanian government has cloaked the proposal only raises
     Some US officials agree with that point, saying the
government could have taken the proposal to the people "in town
hall format" without revealing sensitive specifics.
     Other opponents, like Panama City architect Ricardo
Bermudez, say the center would disrupt the chance this booming
city was finally getting to integrate its "heart" with the rest
of the community.
     "These bases occupy some of the city's finest jewels, and
Howard is [in] the heart of the heart," he says.
     Yet like other critics, Mr. Bermudez says the central
drawback of the CMA proposal is that it denies Panama the
possibility to finally stop living as an "adolescent" under the
American guardian and develop as a truly sovereign nation.
     "No one's against waging this battle against drugs," he
says. "But at what price for Panama?"
     Copyright 1998 The Christian Science Publishing Society. All
     rights reserved.
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