Assembly Members Ticked Off at Eaton
Saturday, December 17 2005 @ 09:15 pm EST
Contributed by: Don Winner
Acquittal in GI Killing Complicates US-Panama Relations
Military Base Negotiations Reaching Deadline
By John Lindsay-Poland
Negotiations between Panama and Washington on the possible presence of US troops in Panama after 1999 have been plagued with conflict. In April Panama's concession to a Chinese-controlled developer for a remake of Panamanian ports provoked a Republican reaction to a US conglomerate's loss of its bid for the ports and threats of sanctions. In July the controversy over revelations that the US military tested depleted uranium and nerve agent in Panama without informing Panamanian officials cast a shadow on the military's record as a gracious foreign guest.
On November 1, just as negotiators were apparently wrapping up the talks, a Panamanian jury acquitted Pedro González for the 1992 killing of a US soldier, Sergeant Zak Hernández. González is the son of the president of Panama's legislative assembly, Gerardo González, an opponent of a continued US military presence in Panama. Meanwhile, although Panamanian negotiator Jorge Ritter declared that the two countries would either announce an agreement or say why an agreement was not reached by the end of November, the date passed with diplomatic silence on the subject.
The Clinton administration was considering the base agreement with Panama at high levels when Panamá Update went to press on December 9. Since July the two countries have been negotiating the creation of an international "counter-drug center" at Howard Air Base in Panama that would track unauthorized air traffic in the region, as well as train Latin American military and police forces. The base would reportedly keep 3,000 US troops in Panama after 1999, when the Canal Treaties call for their departure.
According to the Panamanian Center for Research and Social Action (CEASPA), Foreign Minister Ricardo Alberto Arias attempted to round up regional support for the proposed center at the Latin American summit in Venezuela in early November. Panama wants to raise a "chorus" of Latin American support for the project -- so far tepid -- in order to silence domestic opposition. But a truly multinational base will require more than the token presence of seven Latin American military representatives currently stationed at Howard Air Base. If the region's governments don't fully back the center, Panama told Washington it could let the project quietly die on the vine or await a better political moment to renew negotiations.
One Panamanian official told the FOR that a key sticking point for other countries is jurisdiction and operations in national air space by foreign jet fighters. "Other than a few courses for certain military units," says Ricardo Soberón, an analyst with Andean Commission of Jurists, "I don't think the Brazilian, Ecuadorian, Peruvian or Mexican armed forces will give up their domains, allow interdiction in their territorial waters, etc."
Signals that the counter-drug base may not prosper accompanied tensions with Washington. Foreign Minister Arias told Panama's ambassador in Washington, Eduardo Morgan, that "difficult moments are coming" in relations between the two countries, and asked for Morgan's resignation, which the ambassador gave on November 17. Arias announced that if the counter-drug center is not in Panama, the United States will set it up somewhere else.
GI Killing and Trial Touch Nerves
The shooting of Zak Hernández, a 19-year-old Puerto Rican in the US Army, occurred in June 1992 on the eve of President Bush's visit to Panama, his first after the December 1989 invasion which killed at least hundreds of Panamanians. (see "Trial for 'Just Cause'")
The elder González's opposition to the US military presence is apparently one reason why the trial of his son was delayed for so long. "With his son in jail," a Latin American diplomat said, "he must be careful not to offend the President, who knows perfectly well he has a trump card and has used it to keep González in line." González has been remarkably silent in the last year on the proposed counter-drug center. With the acquittal of his son, he may feel he owes a favor to President Pérez Balladares when a military base agreement comes before the legislature for approval.
US Ambassador William Hughes reacted to the verdict with "profound disagreement" and an accusation that witnesses and jurors had been bribed and intimidated. A US government source said the verdict threw base negotiations for a loop because it showed "you can shoot US soldiers with impunity." Washington has been arguing for "special status" for US forces who operate in Panama, which would require that they be tried by US military courts if they commit crimes.
Former president Guillermo Endara said that the case is "embarrassing" for Washington in light of US interests in keeping soldiers in Panama. President Ernesto Pérez Balladares said simply that "the United States should respect the jury's verdict" and that "there is nothing more to discuss."
The United States had posted a $100,000 reward for the younger González's capture, paid witnesses to give testimony before a grand jury, and a private prosecutor for his case in Panama. Gerardo González, meanwhile, arranged for his son to surrender directly to Pérez Balladares, then charged the former police chief who investigated him with falsifying evidence.
Defense lawyers argued indirectly that even if González committed the killing, the 1989 invasion and the fact that soldiers were not tried for the hundreds of deaths caused by the invasion meant Panamanians should not be jailed for killing a US soldier.
In a public letter after the verdict, Hernández' parents, who came to Panama for the trial, said: "The capitalist nationalism of these pseudo-patriots clouds the understanding of the poorest and those who truly suffer in this country. Puerto Ricans know from experience the feelings of being marginalized and supplanted in our land, when we are abused and our people die. This struggle is not foreign to us, but true patriots offer their lives for their country, they do not use it for themselves."
Ambassador Hughes presented five demands related to the case to Foreign Minister Arias after the verdict, including that physical evidence be preserved for possible use in a US trial. Hughes' public and private objections bother many Panamanians. "Juries don't always do what you hope for, even in the United States," said one Panamanian official. "Has the ambassador forgotten about the O.J. Simpson case?"
"Whether the Americans like it or not, this guy was declared innocent by a jury of his peers," a high Panamanian official said. "If they snatch him, it will be without our knowledge or consent."
Sources: La Prensa 10/28, 11/10, 11/27, 12/2/97; New York Times 8/24/97; interview with US official 12/3/97; El Siglo 11/3/97; El Panamá América 11/27/97; Miami Herald 11/3, 11/4, 11/19/97; The Panama News 11/8-21/97.
Diputados molestos con embajador de EU
REACCIÓN. El presidente de la Asamblea, Elías Castillo, afirmó que el embajador de Estados Unidos (EU), William Eaton, "se extralimita en sus labores diplomáticas" luego de que éste afirmara que la "única forma de terrorismo judicial que existe en Panamá es la corrupción" en medio de la polémica por la revocatoria de la visa del magistrado Winston Spadafora, que se dio después que la Comisión de Credenciales archivara una denuncia contra ocho magistrados.