Every day it seems that Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega becomes more and more of a headache for the United States. So far, no one in the State Department has come close to finding a cure.

Noriega is making headlines again in connection with the upcoming Panamanian election May 7, which Bush administration officials are saying candidly will be rigged to ensure victory by Noriega protege Carlos Duque, who was selected by Panama's ruling coalition.The net result will be that Noriega, the defense force commander, will continue pulling the strings from behind the scenes as he has for the past five years. It also means no change in sight for chilled U.S.-Panama relations.

Understandably, frustration in Washington is mounting. Noriega is considered one of the major hemispheric issues facing the new administration - ranking right up there with priority items like the debt, drug trafficking and Marxist penetration of Central America.

A major worry is the continued smooth functioning of the Panama Canal.

To date, Noriega has thumbed his nose at the United States and weathered the tempests. He's survived an indictment in Florida on drug smuggling charges, along with a series of U.S. sanctions against Panama designed to topple him.

Now the realization has finally sunk in in Washington that the upcoming May election will be anything but open and free.

The State Department last month said it's hard to imagine a free and fair election carried out in an atmosphere of heavy-handed repression and intimidation.

Add to that a recently released report by the Puebla Institute, a lay Roman Catholic human rights group, which predicts, "These elections will be the most fraudulent of all in a series of fraudulent elections."

Still, a large number of Panamanians oppose Noriega and perhaps could use the election process to their advantage with a strong turnout. If Noriega is forced to resort to massive voter fraud to ensure victory, his stature is certain to suffer another blow both at home and internationally.

Unfortunately, even this isn't likely to be fatal to Noriega's continued tight control of the Panamanian government.

"Nobody believes the election will be a solution in the struggle," concluded Ambassador Juan Sosa, a leader of the anti-Noriega forces in Washington.

The harsh reality is that Sosa is right: Until the Noriega dilemma is resolved, he will remain a burr under the saddle of U.S. Latin American policy. Short of military intervention - which would be politically and diplomatically disastrous - there is nothing the United States can do except wait.