The White House, in a shift in strategy, said today the aim of U.S. policy in Panama is to oust Brig. Gen. Manuel A. Noriega from power but not necessarily drive him from the country.
"Our policy is that Gen. Noriega must go, which means leave power... We have said we prefer to see him leave Panama but the policy issue is leave power," said spokesman Marlin Fitzwater.
U.S. officials previously said that Noriega, who is under indictment in Florida on drug trafficking charges, could not stay in Panama because he could run that country's government from behind the scenes even if he gave up power officially.
But with harsh U.S. economic sanctions failing to drive Noriega out of power, U.S. officials recently began reconsidering their stance, sources in Washington have reported.
Fitzwater today told reporters U.S. officials were in touch with the Panamanian military leader on a continuous basis and said the Administration is willing to listen to Noriega's ideas and plans.
"Our position has always been that he leave power. Now there have been statements by the President and Secretary (of State George P.) Shultz and others that we'd like to see him leave and go to another country. But the policy has always been that he leave power and that's where it is," Fitzwater said.
While Fitzwater denied that there had been any softening of U.S. policy, his de-emphasis of the question of exile for Noriega was in marked contrast with a statement made by State Department spokesman Charles Redman on Wednesday.
"It's nearly inconceivable that you could come to any sort of an arrangement that would leave a former dictator in place and as a consequence, I believe that everyone who has looked at this believes that leaving the country is the most obvious solution" for Noriega, Redman said.
The White House official rejected suggestions that U.S. financial sanctions have wrecked Panama's economy but have failed to achieve their goal of breaking Noriega's grip on the strategic Central American country where about 10,000 U.S. troops are based.
'Under Enormous Pressure'
"(Noriega) is under enormous pressure to leave and I think it's just a matter of time before that occurs," he said. "These sanctions have worked, they are working and the need now is for determination and patience."
But Fitzwater said he would not characterize the status of U.S. discussions with Noriega when asked if the talks had made progress.
"Our policy is that he must go. We would prefer that he leave the country. I can't fine tune it any more--the rest must be left to negotiations," he said.
Washington recognizes Eric A. Delvalle, who was deposed by Noriega's forces after a power struggle in February, as Panama's legitimate president.
In Panama City, state security agents arrested at least eight opposition leaders and sought others today hours before a planned mass demonstration against Noriega's rule.
The arrest of all leaders of the National Civic Crusade was ordered Wednesday night by Panama's attorney general under a law prohibiting "tumultuous meetings" aimed at "intimidating or threatening" others.
The U.S. Southern Command told American servicemen and their dependents in Panama to reduce the amount of time they spend in public areas, citing the probability of anti-Noriega demonstrations.