At midnight on December 31, 1999, the United States is due to evacuate Panama, removing thousands of troops and ceding control of the Panama Canal to its rightful owners after nearly a century of occupation. But the Clinton Administration is planning to keep the U.S. military in Panama anyway. The stated reason: to fight the drug war.
This past October, U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry informed Latin-American defense ministers at a meeting in Argentina that the United States is negotiating with Panama's President Ernesto Perez Balladeres to establish a multinational counter-drug center on Howard Air Base in Panama City. Thousands of U.S. troops will remain on the base to provide training and logistical support.
Heading these negotiations is John Negroponte, who served as U.S. ambassador to Honduras during the height of the contra war. Later in his career, while U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Negroponte pushed for heavy military involvement in the so-called drug war.
Now Negroponte is getting his wish. He and General Barry McCaffrey, the four-star general and Gulf War veteran whom Clinton named director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in 1996, are committed to drawing the United States ever closer to the brutal militaries in the region. And Clinton is all for it.
Before his appointment as Clinton's drug czar, McCaffrey headed the Panama-based U.S. Southern Command, which for years has been at the forefront of military involvement in drug policy. It was McCaffrey who last summer proposed keeping 5,000 U.S. troops in Panama after 1999, a proposal made just as the Southern Command was launching "Operation Laser Strike," which sent hundreds of U.S. troops into the field to help police and military forces in Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru undertake a major counter-narcotics and crop-eradication operation. Before that, U.S. forces under McCaffrey's command provided the Colombian and Peruvian armies with sophisticated radar and surveillance equipment to track the flow and production of drugs in an operation known as "Green Clover."
Despite Republican charges to the contrary, Clinton has hardly been a dove in the drug war. In 1988, Ronald Reagan devoted $4.8 billion to anti-drug efforts. Clinton's latest budget calls for $15.1 billion, with two-thirds earmarked for repressive interdiction and law-enforcement efforts--the same skewed ratio set by Presidents Reagan and Bush.
Lately, Clinton's policy has gone from bad to worse. Beyond the proposed anti-narcotics base in Panama, Clinton is pressing for a series of measures that will augment the U.S. military's role throughout the hemisphere.
In fiscal year 1997, for example, the Administration requested $213 million for the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement account. These funds, which represent a $98 million increase from the previous year's allotment, will be used primarily to arm and train the military and police forces of Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and Mexico. With barely a whisper from the media, Washington passed money to these forces by slashing $53 million from overseas-development programs specifically earmarked for children.
This fall, Clinton announced at the United Nations that the United States was sending an additional $112 million in military equipment--including helicopters, surveillance aircraft, patrol boats, troop gear, ammunition, training, and assistance--to the Colombian national police and the Colombian, Peruvian, Venezuelan, and Mexican militaries--forces that the Administration asserts "continue to deserve and need our support" in the battle against drugs. Eleven members of Congress promptly sent a letter to Secretary of State Warren Christopher complaining that Clinton did not notify the proper Congressional committees before announcing this major transfer of weaponry.
Under the guise of the drug war, the Clinton Administration is bolstering …