Panama's High-Profile Proconsul

Ambassador Deane R. Hinton is eating waffles on his veranda overlooking Panama City. At 7:30 on a tropical morning, a hint of coolness seeps from the house through half-open glass doors. In the middle distance, birds wheel above the high-rise skyline. In other cities they might be sea gulls. Here they are vultures. Decaying, corrupt and vital to U.S. interests: this is Deane Hinton's kind of country.

After four decades in the Foreign Service, Hinton is America's closest approximation to the Roman Empire's troubleshooting proconsuls. The 67-year-old envoy served in Chile during the Allende regime. He was ambassador to Zaire. (President Mobutu Sese Seko declared him persona non "rata for an alleged assassination plot. "Total nonsense," Hinton once said. "If I'd been out to get him, he'd have been dead.") He headed the El Salvador mission in 1981-83 and served in Pakistan at the height of support for the Afghan rebels.

Just before the December assault, Hinton was ambassador to Costa Rica, a kind of reward from the State Department. "They said, 'You worked hard in Salvador. You more or less won a war while you were in Pakistan . . . So now you get a rest post'," Hinton recalls. "I was set to fade away." But Panama was too tempting to pass up. Like so much about the invasion, the appointment turned protocol on its head. "I got to the post. Then I got confirmed," he says. "Now I'm trying to find out what the hell the job is."

The job is a tough one. Hinton calls the invasion "the best drug bust in history." But Panama's economy is a shambles after years of government mismanagement and U.S. sanctions. Its military--long the country's dominant institution--was dismantled by the invading U.S. forces. Now Hinton has to help bring Panama into a new era in U.S.-Latin American relations. Washington is rethinking its traditional sponsorship of local officer corps to protect American interests in the region--a system that produced Manuel Antonio Noriega, among others. And Panama is a test case.

The heart of the program is the conversion of the Panama Defense Forces into a police force armed only with pistols and shotguns. Gone are the PDF's weapons systems. Its camouflage uniforms have been traded in for khakis. And while U.S. military advisers accompany these born again cops on patrol, teams from the U.S. Justice Department oversee their indoctrination as keepers of the peace. "We've never gone about it [this] way," says Hinton. Still, it's a long process. "With time--and this can't happen short of 15 to 20 years--the new recruits will move up and they will not have the hold] mind-set," Hinton says.

His breakfast guest reminds the ambassador that this is just what he was saying in El Salvador in 1982. "It was true in El Salvador, too," Hinton says. "We haven't done it well in El Salvador. There's a lot of change, but not enough. What I always said in Salvador was it was a question of generations in a long-term process. It happened to be true there. It happens to be true here."