The Reagan administration's policy on Panama has been an unfortunate non-policy that has done more harm than good, says the publisher of an opposition Panamanian newspaper closed last February by that country's government.
Roberto Eisenmann is in Salt Lake City this week attending the Inter American Press Association's annual general assembly.He said the economic pressures the United States has applied in its effort to oust Panama's military strong-man, Manuel Noriega, have not worked because such pressures are only effective when part of a coherent political policy.
The administration lacks such a policy, said Eisen-mann, although its efforts have had broad domestic support - they were embraced by members of Congress from Sens. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., to Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.
And the Panamanian said the United States put the rest of Latin America in a difficult position with the way it went about things. "As far as Latin America, I don't think anybody's come to Noriega's defense, but obviously many were embarrassed to attack him for fear of seeming to be U.S. lackeys, so it was very unfortunate."
Eisenmann said the situation in Panama has become unreal in many ways. "The three main U.S. officials in Panama live in a sort of Disney World. The U.S. ambassador represents his government before the government in hiding. The administrator of the Panama Canal constantly strives to keep the Panama Canal out of Panamanian political considerations, as if it were in North Carolina. And the chief of the U.S. Southern Command works to defend the Panama Canal, which everybody knows is militarily indefensible. So it's a Mickey Mouse kind of situation."
Eisenmann said the United States should support the demilitarization and the decriminalization of Panama, as well as the need for legitimate democracy in the country.
"And they should not tell Panamanians what to do. We have to solve our own problems. They constantly have the temptation of wanting to manipulate, and all that does is harm.
Eisenmann doesn't know what to expect from a President Bush or President Dukakis. He said Bush has the troublesome resume of having been head of the CIA while Noriega was on the agency's payroll, and Dukakis harps on that but hasn't said what he would do.
Eisenmann has been in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1986, when Panama's Legislative Assembly passed a resolution condemning him as a traitor.He said he received a death threat from the same group that decapitated opposition figure Hugo Spadafora, "so you have to take it seriously."
He spends about half of his time writing columns and giving speeches and the other half working as vice chairman of the board of Dadeland Bank of Miami, which he helped found during an earlier exile. A former Chamber of Commerce president in Panama, Eisenmann made his money in banking and real estate before his opposition to Noriega's populist predecessor, Gen. Omar Torrijos, prompted him to create La Prensa, together with other regime opponents.
Although Eisenmann had money, he and the other dissidents decided to diversify ownership of the paper, so it was created with the capital of 700 small shareholders.
"In essence it was the democratic community giving itself a voice," he said. It grew to be the country's largest-circulation daily.
Since its creation in 1980, he said, the paper has undergone every kind of repression. "They've attacked us physically. They've attacked our journalists physically. We've had constant death threats. We've suffered exile. We've suffered jail sentences to our editors and three full-fledged attacks by the military."
Eisenmann gave part of Tuesday's report to IAPA's press freedom committee on the current situation in Panama, where not only La Prensa but also three other newspapers, a television station and six radio stations have been closed.