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Interview With Members of the White House Press Corps on the Situation in Panama

May 13, 1989

The President. Let me take a couple of questions. But first, a word about Panama, just to be very clear. And if I were speaking to the Panamanian people, I would tell them that the affection of the American people for the people of Panama is still very much intact, strong. Secondly, I would say to the Panama Defense Forces, the PDF, they have a useful role to play, and they will in the future of Panama have a useful role to play. The problem is not the PDF, per se; the problem is Noriega.

And if Noriega were to leave office, we would have good relations with Panama. We would have good relations with the Panama Defense Force. And clearly, the good feelings between the American people and the people of Panama would grow and prosper. And so, I would hope that Noriega would leave and that the results of this election would be recognized. The fraud in the election has been condemned by people all across the world; the European Community, leaders in our hemisphere, all the way to Japan -- people speaking out in indignation against this thuggery and against what the man has done.

So, I just want to be sure that the people of Panama understand that relations can quickly return to normal if Mr. Noriega will leave and set aside his dictatorship and permit democracy to prevail.

Q. Do you think they have any doubt about that? And aren't you calling for a coup on the part of the PDF? I mean, the Catholic Church in Panama also has basically been saying the same thing to the PDF. Are you saying -- --

The President. That I just said?

Q. Are you saying that you would like the PDF to get Noriega out?

The President. I would love to see them get him out. We'd like to see him out of there -- not just the PDF, the will of the people of Panama.

Q. It sounds like you're calling on the people of Panama to rise up and basically have a revolution. Is that what you're trying to say?

The President. A revolution -- the people rose up and spoke in a democratic election, with a tremendous turnout, said what they wanted. The will of the people should not be thwarted by this man and a handful of these Doberman thugs. That's what I'm saying.

Q. What do you think the people should do now?

The President. The people should do everything they can to have the will of the people respected. They ought to heed the international calls, and they ought to just do everything they can to get Mr. Noriega out of there.

Q. Have you been in conversation and contact with President Cerezo and others? Venezuela apparently has offered Noriega asylum. Have you been in contact with the Venezuelans, and do you have thoughts on when and where Noriega should go?

The President. No, but I have no doubt that countries would receive him.

Q. Why, have you had any assurances indirectly on that?

The President. Well, I have a habit of not liking to go into detail with what I talk to others about. But I'm just confident that they would receive him, and I think Noriega knows this, too.

Q. You said the other day that you would not favor dropping the drug indictments. But if he were to go to someplace that, either through prearrangement or postarrangement, did not have extradition arrangements with the U.S., how would you feel about that?

The President. Well, that could well be an answer. That could be a solution.

Q. What? Going to a country that -- --

The President. Yes, because if he has -- no, he was saying, if there was a country that prohibited extradition -- and he ought to think about that.

Q. Would you allow him to go to a country -- --

The President. -- -- think we have any control over that.

Q. Would you allow him into a country that didn't have an extradition -- --

The President. He can go anywhere he wants. But I am obligated as the President of the United States to respect our laws and to go forward on fulfilling obligations under the law. But if he went to a place where there wasn't any extradition treaty, then that would be a different situation than if he went to a place where there was an extradition treaty.

Q. Do you care which one he does?

The President. Yes, I'd like him to -- well, I care that he does whatever it is that it takes to get him out of there right now. And that's what I'd like to see happen.

Q. -- -- more than getting him -- --

The President. I think it's right for the people of Panama. It's right for the democracies in this hemisphere. You cannot have an election that is blatantly stolen, where people that win are beaten up by thugs.

Q. So far, you have struck out -- and so did President Reagan -- in trying to get him out of power. Do you have any other options?

The President. No.

Q. Well, they haven't been successful.

The President. Still at the plate, and we'll stay at the plate until we can help the people of Panama have the democracy for which they spoke so articulately in an election. And we're not going to give up on it.

Q. This effort will not be a success until he leaves, right?

The President. No effort can be a success until he leaves. That's right.

Q. A couple of days ago, you said that the goal of your sending those extra troops down there was to protect American lives. Now you seem to be adding a new, much more outspoken dimension to your intention here, which is to see Noriega leave and leave -- --

The President. I'm not changing the definition of the role of the American troops at all.

Q. Have you had any contact with him indirectly, sir, in the last 2 days?

The President. Last 2 days? No.

Q. How about directly -- --

The President. No, you asked the question properly.

Q. How does it feel personally, after over a year of seeing this drag on -- [inaudible] -- now this thing comes to a head? How does it feel when you read the accounts and see the pictures?

The President. See, I think there's a whole new ingredient in Panama, regarding the relationship with Panama. And the ingredient is the election. And I think the election made so clear that the people want democracy and made so clear that that democracy is being thwarted by one man that that in itself could be the catalyst for removing Noriega.

Now, why do I say that? Because, heretofore, you have not heard the neighboring countries around Panama speaking up. Now they're speaking up loud and clear. You have not heard the Church as indignant as it is now. You have not seen the EC [European Community], our friends in Europe, speaking up and denouncing what happened. And I think the Japanese weighed in on this. So, I think this is a very different climate now and one much more conducive to possible change, because the people spoke so overwhelmingly, and heretofore, that has not been quite as clear. Never underestimate the power of the people, even though their will seems to have been frustrated short-run.

Q. Do you think the OAS [Organization of American States] will do something on Wednesday?

The President. Helen [Helen Thomas, United Press International], I would hope so, and I think it would be helpful if they did. And I'd love to see a very powerful and strong statement coming out of there, and I'd like to see it as unanimous. But I'm not sure what will come out of it. But I think it's well worth the effort.

Q. Mr. President -- you're worried about the people in Panama and what they've gone through, and it's in their hands. Are you concerned, though, about any violence that might be started by anything that the people would do to change the situation where innocent lives may be lost or children would be hurt and families disrupted as they try to make a change for democracy?

The President. I always worry about the loss of innocent human life. And I would be worried about that.

Q. What about American -- --

Q. Would you caution them against rising up in violence?

The President. American life? We will protect American lives in every possible way. That is a solemn responsibility of the President, and that's one of the reasons I augmented our forces in Panama -- is the reason I augmented them.

Q. Are you concerned that the situation there -- with your calls and mounting pressure internationally -- would lead to a situation right now in Panama that might lead to violence that would, in fact, endanger American lives more than they would be otherwise?

The President. Well, it's too hypothetical. I mean, I would be concerned about any escalation of violence that would endanger American lives. And I think we're in a good position to protect our American lives and interests.

Q. Mr. President, your words could be seen, though, as inciteful, basically saying to the Panamanian people that it's up to them: Don't let it die. Your will seems to have been thwarted, but you've got to hang tough. The people could see that as inflammatory, like it's a call to -- [inaudible] -- to revolt. Would you add any words of caution -- --

The President. No, I would add no words of caution. The will of the people should be implemented. And if I wanted to increase the rhetoric, strengthen it, I would do so. But I think I've phrased it just about the way I feel.

Q. And the will includes -- --

The President. What?

Q. And the will includes -- [inaudible] -- demonstrations in the street? What form would you say -- --

The President. Look, I'm not about to get into proposing a three-point action plan for the people of Panama. All I want them to know is that if they get rid of Noriega they will have an instant normalization of relationship with the United States and there will be a useful role for the Panamanian Defense Force. And I think there has been some doubt about that, perhaps in the Panamanian Defense Force itself, as to how we now view the Force, because of the thuggery of its leader. And this gives me an opportunity to clarify that specific point, as well as to repeat my support for Endara and Calderon and Guillermo Ford, who was so brutally beaten.

Q. Are you contemplating sending even more American troops down there now?

The President. Well, if I were, it would be unlikely I would announce it here, just before landing in Starkville, only because I think it would be prudent to do it differently. But I'll answer your question, though: I have no short-run plans, but that doesn't preclude anything I'll do in the future.

Q. You know Noriega. Is it strictly power that he wants or is there a point where he could be negotiated out?

The President. I don't know, Helen. I think it's power that he has wanted, but I don't know what his view is now that he's seen a total repudiation of his rule. And you see, I keep coming back to the fact that what happened the other day in the election is something quite different than has been on the table before. So, I just don't know the answer to it. It might be now he'd like to find a way to get out. I would hope that would be the case, but I don't know that for a fact. He has lost all support, all respect -- the man is considered just out of it, an outlaw, by the world community now as a result of what happened. But I don't know. It's a good question, yet I don't know how to answer. I don't have an answer for it.

Q. Are you saying that the United States at this juncture has, more or less, done what it could and that now what we're going to do is lend moral support to whatever the Panamanians decide? That we really can't from the outside do anything further?

The President. No, what I've said is that we've taken certain action to protect American lives. I have now spelled out, although I hope it had been understood before, what it would take to have good relations with the United States; and I will continue my own efforts internationally. You see, I do think it's important that it not be the United States, the Colossus of the North, coming down there to try to dictate to the people of Panama. And that's one of the reasons I spent a lot of time last week working with the international community and instructing the State Department to do the same thing. So, we will continue our international efforts.

Q. Are you disappointed in the response to that of the PDF and some of the Panamanians to why you sent the troops down there? Are you disappointed in their response?

The President. Well, I'm not sure I know what their response has been. The PDF response?

Q. Yes. I mean, you've come out here to clarify your views.

The President. No, I'm not disappointed in the response. What I'm trying to do is make clear to the Panamanian Defense Forces that there's no vendetta against the Panamanian Defense Forces as an institution. There is clearly the desire to see Mr. Noriega get out of office. I don't know how they've reacted to the American forces.

Q. Mr. President, how long can the people of Panama be expected to put up with Noriega?

The President. About 4 days ago -- [laughter] -- when they demonstrated loud and clear they don't want any more. They've had it; and their will should be respected and honored. So, we've got to find a way to have that magnificent expression of democracy be honored.

Q. Are there certain things that you and the administration are sending them immediately, once Noriega leaves?

The President. Oh, sure. We'd recognize immediately the Endara government. As soon as he's sworn in, we would return our Ambassador; we would remove our economic sanctions; we would, in essence, have normalized relations with a country for whom we have great affection and whose people have great affection for us.

If you talk to those two delegations that came back, both of them -- the liberal members of the delegation, the conservative members, the Republicans, the Democrats -- all of them certified, stipulated that the people of Panama have great affection for our country and for our people. So, you'd see an instant release of this oppression; and you'd see an effort by the United States to help Panama go down the road to democracy and to help them economically, as best we could, and to welcome them as they rejoin the family of democracies in this hemisphere. That would happen instantly. We wouldn't need a lot of delaying or thinking about it either. But it has to have the -- with that -- it's the departure of Noriega and the recognition of the people's will; those two have to go together.

It has been lovely. It has been delightful here.

Q. Was there some development this morning or some intelligence that you got that caused this today?

The President. No, but I know because I was talking to General Scowcroft [Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs] yesterday and talked to Secretary [of State] Baker this morning. And I've had an uneasy feeling that perhaps what I've told you here today was not known clearly there. And it gives me a chance to -- well, the question as to how we view the Panamanian Defense Force itself, what would happen if Noriega left, vis-a-vis the United States of America, and I hope it's known that Endara -- --

Q. You think that -- --

The President. Well, I think in a situation of this nature, where the head of the PDF has become such a pariah, that there perhaps -- been misunderstanding there as to how we view the institution itself and other of its officers. But if they come in there and Noriega goes and they respect the will of the people, I -- you know, we see a very useful role for the Panamanian Defense Force, in their own internal security and for their own -- any threat they might feel they had to the external security.

Q. Mr. President, has the PDF -- --

The President. I really do have to go.

Q. If the PDF asked for U.S. military help, how can we respond? What would we do?

The President. Asked for it to do what?

Q. If they asked for military support -- if the PDF asks for military support from the United States.

The President. Support for what?

Q. Military troops.

The President. For what purpose?

Q. To move in on Noriega.

The President. If the PDF asks for support to get rid of Noriega, they wouldn't need support from the United States to get rid of Noriega. He's one man, and they have a well-trained force. That's my -- --

Q. What about if -- [inaudible] -- opposition asked for military support?

The President. I've outlined what we're doing. I've outlined what we're doing. I'd love to see this be resolved diplomatically. And when you have overwhelming world opinion on your side, maybe something is possible in the short-range future that has not been possible over the difficult past.

It's been a great pleasure.

Q. Do you still expect a smooth summit in terms of resolving the missile issue?

The President. We'll work it out.

Q. This is Panama day.

The President. No, no, it's a good question. It will work out. This alliance is strong.

Note: The interview began at 1:21 p.m. on board Air Force One. Helen Thomas, United Press International; Rita Beamish, Associated Press; Frank Sesno, Cable News Network; Joe Walsh, NBC/Mutual Radio; and Steve Kurkjian, Boston Globe, participated in the interview.

George Bush, Interview With Members of the White House Press Corps on the Situation in Panama Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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