The Reagan Administration sent a high-ranking Pentagon official on a secret mission to Panama last week to press its strongman, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, to step down and allow free elections in the country, State Department and congressional sources said Thursday.
The emissary, Richard L. Armitage, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, held what one U.S. official called “a lengthy session” with Noriega early last week to urge him to withdraw from politics.
Armitage was picked to deliver the Administration’s strongest direct message to date to Noriega because the Panamanian strongman is a “military man” and Washington wanted “the most effective interlocutor possible,” the official said.
Access by U.S. officials to Noriega, who has resisted mounting U.S. pressure to resign, “has not been extensive” recently, and the Administration wanted to hold a “face-to-face meeting” to make sure he “knows this is our policy,” the source said. No details were available Thursday on what Armitage reported Noriega’s response to have been.
One source compared the Armitage mission to that of then-Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), whom President Reagan sent as his personal envoy to the Philippines in October, 1985, to urge President Ferdinand E. Marcos to hold a free and fair election. The February, 1986, election, which Marcos won, was widely viewed as tainted, paving the way for Corazon Aquino to oust Marcos.
State Department spokesman Charles Redman confirmed Thursday that Armitage had visited Panama last week and said the purpose of the mission was “to express U.S. government concern over developments in Panama over the last six months.”
One non-U.S. government source said he understands that the Reagan Administration favors a reform program that would include Noriega’s retirement by April as armed forces chief, as well as the withdrawal of his close military associates, the holding of democratic elections and improvements in the judiciary.
Redman refused to confirm reports that Armitage had pressed Noriega to resign.
However, Redman said, “We’ve long believed that Panama should join the democratic current in Latin America and move to a situation where the military has a much reduced role in politics.”