Some U.S. prosecutors are reportedly very upset over a proposal floated by the Reagan administration that drug-dealing charges against Panama strongman, Gen. Manuel Antonia Noriega be dropped in exchange for Noriega leaving office and going into temporary exile. The prosecutors' criticisms, however, are misplaced.
The arrangement supposedly would require Noriega to give up control of the armed forces and engage in talks with opposition leaders to decide who would take the army. Noriega himself would have to leave Panama until after the next election in 1990, probably for a stay in Spain or the Dominican Republic.Several prosecutors have expressed outrage, saying Noriega is a drug dealer and ought to be prosecuted. The 12-count Miami indictment says he and others earned $4.6 million in payoffs by allowing Colombian cocaine dealers to ship U.S.-bound drugs through Panama, and to launder their money there.
But this criticism overlooks several circumstances. First, Noriega isn't about to come to the U.S. and stand trial. Second, getting rid of the quasi-dictator would help turn Panama toward democratic rule, without revolution or bloodshed. Third, it would eliminate a stubborn obstacle that has turned into something of an embarrassmentto the U.S., and caused hardship for the innocent people of Panama.
The U.S. imposed an economic embargo on Panama nearly four months ago in an effort to oust Noriega. That embargo has caused banks to close, caused the Panamanian economy to suffer badly, required troops to be sent to the Canal Zone to protect the 30,000 Americans who live there, and sent Noriega seeking allies among the Cubans and the Soviets.
Getting rid of all of that - and Noriega, too - seems like a reasonably good outcome, just for dropping drug charges that probably never would have been able to send him to prison anyway.
Officials in Panama deny that Noriega has struck any deal, so nothing may come of the proposal. But if it ever gets past the discussion stage, there are clearly far more advantages than drawbacks in such a trade.