The Bush administration, looking for hopeful signs after the bungled coup attempt in Panama, is encouraged by evidence of the growing repudiation in Latin America of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega's rule.
And administration officials are hoping to accelerate the process at two major international parlays over the next month and in other diplomatic encounters as well.At his news conference Friday, President Bush said he was delighted by signs that Noriega has so little support elsewhere in the hemisphere.
Panama's membership in an eight-country hemispheric consultative body has been suspended, and when the seven active members met this past week in Peru, Noriega's government was roundly criticized.
Still, there appears to be litte sentiment in the hemisphere for U.S. military action against Noriega. In contrast to many members of Congress, no hemispheric leader criticized Bush for not providing Panama's rebel leaders with more military support on the day of the coup attempt.
Noriega seems to believe that diplomatic isolation counts for little as long as he retains the support of Panama's Defense Forces, but U.S. officials say the country's outcast role will further erode his already questionable support within the military establishment.
The officials say all but two democratic countries in the hemisphere - Mexico and Ecuador - have withdrawn their ambassadors from Panama City.
"Those two embassies barely have contact with the Panamanian government," one official said Friday, asking not to be identified.
He said the most active embassies in Panama City appear to be those of Cuba, Nicaragua and Libya.
The Panama question is likely to be a major topic this week when Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez comes to Washington for talks with Bush.
Saying the time has come for Noriega to retire, Gonzalez last week called for new elections followed by the appointment of a new military commander by the elected president.
As an inducement for Noriega to go along with Gonzalez's plan, he would be allowed to retire in Panama, thus evading possible extradition to the United States, where he faces drug smuggling charges. So long as he remains in Panama, he cannot be extradited.
The administration will give Gonzalez a hearing on his plan and also hopes to press its case against Noriega at a summit meeting of hemispheric democratic heads of government set for Oct. 27-28 in Costa Rica.
Bush and about 17 other heads of government are planning to attend, but administration officials say it would be a mistake to raise expectations that the summit will lead to dramatic action against Noriega.
Among Spanish speaking countries, the only presidents not invited are from Cuba, Chile and Panama, none of which has an elected government.
Yet another opportunity for the administration to pressure Noriega will occur in mid-November when foreign ministers of the 31-nation Organization of American States meet in Washington.
The OAS held four special sessions on Panama between May and August, but a team of OAS mediators was unable to fulfill its mandate of achieving a democratic transfer of power in Panama.