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U.S. Forces Prepare to Leave Panama

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

PANAMA CITY, Panama, March 21, 1996 – Will the United States maintain a military presence in Panama after 1999?

The answer lies with the Panamanian government, according to U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry.

"We are preparing to comply with the Panama Canal agreement, which requires us to leave at the end of 1999," Perry said during a flight to U.S. Southern Command's Panama headquarters. "But if the Panamanian government and the Panamanian people decide they wanted us to stay and ask us to stay, that's something we could discuss with them."

Perry did not discuss the issue of a continuing U.S. presence with Panamanian officials during his visit to Southern Command March 9 and 10. Perry deferred to the U.S. ambassador as point man in future discussions with the Panamanians.

Southern Command gave Perry options on the issue, which he said range from total withdrawal to leaving some behind.

The command started pulling out troops in 1994. A treaty implementation plan calls for a gradual U.S. drawdown to 7,500 troops by the end of 1995, 5,600 by 1998 and zero by the end of 1999. The United States will also turn over about 4,700 buildings and about 93,000 acres to the Panamanian government.

So far, more than 1,000 buildings and 22,000 acres have been turned over. The School of the Americas moved to Fort Benning, Ga., and the Panamanian jungle has already started reclaiming the now unused complex, a command official said.

The military will gradually vacate Quarry Heights, Fort Clayton, Fort Kobbe, Howard Air Force Base, Albrook Air Force Station and Rodman Naval Station on the Pacific side, and Fort Sherman and Galeta Island on the Atlantic side. These military facilities are welltended oases of red tiled roofs, white tropical buildings, manicured lawns and palm treelined streets. The American enclaves are in lush green countryside edged by junglecovered mountains, and in the distance lies the sea. The humid, tropical climate translates into high maintenance costs for the military tenants.

While the U.S. military has made good use of its bases in Panama and would continue to do so if asked to stay, Perry said, none is critical to U.S. national defense. Howard plays an important role in U.S. counterdrug activities, and once the base is turned over, DoD will have to arrange to continue using an air base in the region, Perry said. A jungle training center now operating in Panama can be rebuilt elsewhere, he said.

Southern Command's mission will continue, though its headquarters will move from Quarry Heights to Miami by summer 1997, command officials said. The command is responsible for all U.S. military activities in Latin America from the MexicanGuatemalan border to the southern tip of South America. It encompasses 19 countries and 9.5 million square miles.

According to command leaders, the command's focus is on building regional cooperative security, coordinating militarytomilitary activities, supporting the national counterdrug strategy and structuring Southern Command for the future.

Southern Command conducts operational, multinational and engineering exercises and humanitarian and counterdrug operations. U.S. forces help construct roads and bridges, improve basic sanitation facilities, build wells, schools and medical clinics. About 56,000 U.S. troops, about 42 percent reserve component personnel, rotated through the region during fiscal 1995.

The region is important to U.S. national interests, officials said. Democracy is prospering in Latin America, and the economy is expanding. Foreign investment in the region has doubled since 1990. U.S. exports to Latin America increased from $30 billion to $79 billion between 1985 and 1993, resulting in the creation of about 900,000 U.S. jobs, officials said.

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