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OAS Sidesteps Decision on Panama

February 28, 1988

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The governing body of the Organization of American States sidestepped a position on political instability in Panama, refusing in an extraordinary eight-hour session to chose between two men claiming to be the country’s ambassador.

″In Panama, there are two presidents - one who represents civilian authority and one who represents military power,″ Costa Rican OAS Ambassador Guillermo Villalobos Arce told the OAS’s permanent council.

Most of the speakers during the session, which ended at about midnight Saturday, voiced support for ousted Panamanian President Eric Arturo Delvalle.

Delvalle sent Lawrence Chewning Fabrega to represent Panama, while military strong man Manuel Antonio Noriega sent Roberto Leyton, who has been the envoy. Leyton protested that the discussion violated the organization’s charter and said the permanent council was an inappropriate forum for an airing of his country’s ″internal affairs.″

Over the course of the session, the OAS ambassadors heard bitter recriminations about promises the Nicaraguan Sandinistas failed to keep, allegations the United States seeks to destabilize Panama, invocation of the name of the late Panamanian strong man Gen. Omar Torrijos, and questions about America reneging on its commitment in two 1979 treaties to completely transfer control of the Panama Canal to Panama by the turn of the century.

Just for good measure, Gabriel Lewis, a former Panamanian ambassador to the United States who is now part of Noriega’s political opposition, had OAS technicians play a tape-recording of his telephone conversation earlier in the day with a distressed Mariela Delvalle, wife of the deposed president.

In it, she told Lewis what she had told military officers who came looking for Delvalle: ″My husband is not here, nor are you going to find him.″

But the council failed to come to grips with the question of whether to recognize the portfolio of Leyton or Chewning.

Representatives of several non-OAS countries, seated in a section for official observers, gave Chewning an ovation when he briefly entered the mahogany-walled council chamber and conferred with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D- Mass., who came as an observer.

But from the time the council meeting was supposed to start, at 4 p.m. EST, until shortly after 9 p.m., the action was away from the council chamber, as the roughly 30 ambassadors wrangled in private over whether to seat Leyton or Chewning.

A carnival atmosphere developed as Lewis, Chewning and Kennedy alternately met with reporters in the ornate lobby of the OAS building, while musicians, waiters and waitresses prepared one floor above for a dinner-dance.

At one point, the U.S. ambassador to the OAS, Richard T. McCormack, shrugged his shoulders, and told a reporter, ″I’m supposed to be up there. I’m the host for that thing.″

This was just moments before the formal debate began - and just after a rumored deal to settle the credentialing problem had collapsed.

A member of the U.S. mission, talking on grounds of anonymity, said the OAS council members had seriously discussed seating neither Leyton nor Chewning. This official said they came close to giving the seat to Soraya Cano, a career Panamanian diplomat.

But Paraguay’s Juan Alberto Llanes, chairman of the OAS permanent council, ruled that for purposes of the debate, Leyton must be seated - and he was. And that’s when the fireworks began.

″The chairman feels it is important and necessary to have a representative of the sister republic of Panama present,″ he said.

Given the floor, Leyton declared: ″A precedent is being set here because the representative of Panama considers that the events taking place in my country are strictly matters of our own internal affairs.″

Guatemala’s ambassador, Francisco Villagran, countered with an assertion that ″we are faced with a historic decision. Will we be in favor of autocratic governments?″

McCormack denounced Delvalle’s ouster by Panama’s National Assembly.

″What we do or do not do ... could have a strong bearing on the decisions of other generals as they decide whether or not to let democracies survive,″ he said.

Nicaragua’s Carlos Tunnermann took up for Leyton, saying the OAS debate could not be allowed ″to serve as a pretext for interventionist action.″

Lewis gave the debate its most riveting moments as he came to the table as a specially appointed representative of the government of El Salvador.

When Leyton vehemently opposed Lewis’ seating, waving his arms to emphasize his points, Lewis reminded the Panamanian that ″it was here, where we condemned (former Nicaraguan strong man Anastasio) Somoza. He repressed the Nicaraguan people, and now the Sandinistas take away the right of self- determination.″

″We are suffering a new phenomenon - narco-militarism,″ Lewis said in attacking Noriega. ″This narcotic-militarism knows no frontier. It is dedicated to the illicit trade that respects no borders, no boundaries.″

Two federal grand juries in Florida accused Noriega of drug trafficking charges earlier this month.

This was not the kind of government Torrijos envisioned when he joined President Jimmy Carter in signing the Panama Canal treaties in 1979, he said.

McCormack took the opportunity to say the United States had no intention of ″backing down″ on the treaty commitments - as Leyton had suggested.

Leyton persisted, nonetheless.

″We demand that the government of El Salvador furnish proof of these allegations,″ he said. Leyton directed his fire at El Salvador because that country had requested the emergency OAS session.

″This forum is being used like a political circus,″ Leyton screamed.

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