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Plans for Panama Anti-Drug Center Faltering


July-August 1998

Plans between the U.S. and Panama for an international anti-drug center to be located at the former Howard U.S. Air Force Base in the Panama Canal Zone are reportedly faltering. A 1977 treaty between the U.S. and Panama established a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Panama and turnover of the Panama Canal and the Canal Zone territory to Panamanian Control. Panamanian sovereignty had long been offended by U.S. control of a wide swath of Panamanian territory in the heart of the country. The plan's failure could end more than 90 years of U.S. military presence in Panama (George Gedda, "U.S., Panama at Impasse on Troops Presence After '99," Orange County Register, June 17, 1998; Christopher Marquis, "Helms Says Panama Lags in Plan for U.S. Presence," San Jose Mercury News, June 17, 1998; Larry Rohter, U.S. Accord With Panama on Troops Hits a Snag," New York Times, April 26, 1998, p. A10)

Panama President Ernesto Perez Balladares approved the anti-drug plan in December 1997, but it prompted criticism from Panamanian officials and citizens who said the plan was an excuse to continue the presence of U.S. troops in Panama past December 31, 1999, when Panama assumes full control of the Canal Zone. Former Panamanian Vice President Ricardo Arias Calderon complained that parts of the agreement had nothing to do with anti-drug efforts.

In April 1998, President Balladares retreated, calling the plan "ill-conceived." Perez Balladares is seeking to amend the Constitution so that he can run for another five-year term. A vote is scheduled for August 30.

The anti-drug base proposal calls for 2,000 military and civilian personnel to be stationed in Panama. About 80% of those personnel would come from the United States, but some for purposes other than fighting drugs. U.S. officials say it would not be cost-effective to maintain the base without carrying out other U.S. objectives, such as military training and humanitarian relief. Continued U.S. military presence in Panama would mean additional millions of dollars for Panama's economy. At a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on June 16, committee chairman Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) accused Panama of trying to "impose dramatic limitations on the size, scope and duration of the U.S. presence."

Embassy of Panama - Press Officer, Raquel Alfaro, 2862 McGill Terrace, NW, Washington, DC 20008, Tel: (202) 483-1407 ext. 130, Fax: (202) 483-8413.

Updates on the status of the anti-drug center can be found at: <> and <>.

Senator Jesse Helms - SD-403, Washington, DC 20510, Tel: (202) 224-6342, Fax: (202) 228-1339, E-mail: <>.