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Public Papers - 1989 - December

Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters in Corpus Christi, Texas

1989-12-27

The President. I want to thank the mayor, Her Honor, for coming out to greet me. It's great to be back at Corpus Christi Naval Air Station, where I learned to fly airplanes in 1943.

But in any event, I'm very pleased with the turn of events in Panama. Noriega turning himself in was about as good a Christmas present as our soldiers and marines, airmen and the American people could want.

We are sending a reconstruction task force down there next week to help with some financial planning. And indeed, they've had a couple of their top people in Washington, I think, yesterday -- maybe today. I know one team went to see Secretary Brady at his home in New Jersey.

Things on the ground, I'm told, checking just before we got here, are quiet -- certainly far quieter than they've been. And there is no evidence of people going to the hills to fight on. There seem to be stories to that effect, but we have no hard evidence of that at all. The latest estimate was something like 40,000 weapons taken. That's quite a bit for a force that's about 20 percent that size in terms of numbers of people -- maybe less -- I don't know the exact numbers. They estimate now that there was something like million in cash taken from Noriega's home, which will, of course, be turned over to the Endara Government.

In conclusion, I'd simply say that the military, and the country team as well, did a first-class job. And for those who are unfamiliar with the complexity of an operation of this nature, you ought to study it and learn from it because it was an amazingly well coordinated, superbly executed operation.

Now, inasmuch as this is a vacation, I thought I'd take a question or two to get the year ending up in reasonably good fashion, but not too many.

Wait a minute! We've got the wires who have to be on my protocol? All right, let's follow protocol.

General Noriega of Panama

Q. We have charges against Noriega in this country, but Panama wants to bring him to justice as well. Would we continue to press our demands for extradition if the government of President Endara wants to bring Noriega to justice in their country?

The President. I think that would require a lot of consultation, because we don't want to do anything that implies undermining the sovereign power of Panama or the fact that this government is operating with the trust of the people. So, we'd have to have some real serious negotiations if it comes to that. That's not the way it appears to be leaning, but I wouldn't want to go against the will of the Endara Government.

Here we go. UP [United Press International], and then we'll get a couple of others.

Q. Could you tell us the status of the efforts to break the impasse on getting -- --

The President. Just ongoing talks, and I think the Nuncio is awaiting instructions from the Vatican. We've made clear our preference, and that is to bring the man to trial and subsequently to justice because of this indictment that's against him.

Q. Mr. President, a lot of people think the Vatican is wrongheaded in these doing -- is the Vatican being wrongheaded in not turning him over immediately? What do you think the legal issues are here?

The President. How would you like it if people were negotiating and talking and then somebody jumped up and said they were wrongheaded, especially at this time of the year, especially since it's the Vatican?

Q. But are they? [Laughter] What are the legal issues?

The President. We're not posturing ourselves, calling people to task at this point at all. We're trying to solve a difficult problem here, and we're totally engaged. The Secretary of State and I will be talking about it in just a few minutes more. But I'm not going to start name-calling at a time when we're trying to solve a very important problem for the United States system of justice.

Q. You just said, when asked about Panama taking him -- you said that's not the way it's leaning, as if it's leaning in some direction. Where is it leaning?

The President. Well, I can't help you on -- --

Q. And secondly, if the Vatican decides that it will be a third country, will we do something to stop that?

The President. Well, it's too hypothetical. And where it's leaning? I hope it's leaning for his being returned to the United States. But again, I think that the question that was asked about officials in Panama has to very much be on our mind. And we will obviously want to see him extradited to the United States, and that may determine where he ends up. But look, at this point, we're still going down the road of trying to get him sent here.

Q. Mr. President, do you fear that Mr. Noriega might disclose any CIA information that could embarrass you or the Government?

The President. No.

Q. Nothing whatsoever?

The President. I don't think so. I think that's history. And I think that the main thing is that he should be tried and brought to justice. And we are pursuing that course with no fear of that. You may get into some release of certain confidential documents that he may try to blindside the whole justice process. But the system works, so I wouldn't worry about that.

Q. Would you open up any documents that he might request so that there would be no question, as there has been in other cases?

The President. There would be enough to see that he is given a totally fair trial, certainly. But nobody is going to -- well, totally to see that he gets a fair trial.

Q. How are you going to handle concerns by Latin American countries that the United States shouldn't have even gone in?

The President. Well, I think that's going to require a lot of diplomatic effort, and a lot of it on my part. And I've talked to many of the leaders in this hemisphere already. But I think as they see this government that was democratically elected, they see it functioning, they see Noriega brought to justice, they see that he's out of the picture -- none of them supported him at all, they found him outrageous -- then I think you'll begin to see the problem that might have been caused by a prolonged conflict down there laid totally to rest.

Q. Have you picked up the phone and called either the Papal Nuncio in Panama or Pope John Paul? And if not, why not? Are you personally involved in the negotiations?

The President. I'm personally involved, but I haven't done either of those two things.

Q. Can you tell us what you have done?

The President. Next question.

Andean Drug Summit

Q. Peru says that it won't attend a drug summit as a form of protest. What is your response to that? Are you concerned that it might compromise the effectiveness of a summit in February?

The President. Well, I would hope that [President] Garcia would change his mind.

Q. But will it compromise the effectiveness of the drug summit?

The President. Well, inasmuch as Peru is an Andean country and this is an Andean summit with the United States participating, trying to help them, I would think it would be less inclusive, obviously. But I think that there are ways to continue to try to help Peru in this fight.

General Noriega of Panama

Q. Have you put any time limit on how long this stalemate can go on?

The President. No, no time limit. Just like we didn't have a time set on when Noriega would no longer be in the field fighting.

Romania

Q. Mr. Bush, your reactions to events on Romania, the execution of [President] Ceausescu. Are you concerned that there is a kind of retaliational frenzy going on there as opposed to getting on a path to democracy?

The President. Well, I'm just amazed and respectful of the change that has taken place. We did say that we were concerned that the trial of Ceausescu should have been more open, but that's their matter. They went forward, and I think now is to bring the remaining holdout security forces to bay. The army seems to be doing that. And my concern is for tranquillity and freedom in Romania. And you know what touched me was hearing this guy singing a Christmas carol. It was reported that it was the first time in public airwaves in some 40 years that a Christmas carol was allowed to be heard on TV. It made a dramatic statement for me.

Worldwide Democratic Change

Q. -- -- the State of the Union seemed awfully impressive when you said that the day of the dictator is over, but I'm assuming that even you didn't anticipate these events taking place in the course of this year. What are your expectations and hopes for 1990 as far as -- --

The President. I think democracy and freedom is on the move around the world. So, no, you're right; I didn't predict the rapidity of this change. I don't think anybody in the world did, but we rejoice in it.

General Noriega of Panama

Q. Mr. President, apparently the Vatican said this morning they could not turn Mr. Noriega over to the United States or a third country. And you say it doesn't seem to be leaning towards him going to the Panamanians. I mean, doesn't that statement settle it, or is there something going on that you're not telling us?

The President. What was the statement, Michael [Michael Gelb, Reuters]?

Q. The Vatican, apparently, perhaps while you were in the air, said that they could not turn Noriega over to the United States or, I believe, any third country. Wouldn't that settle it?

The President. That complicates things if they said that. But I've learned not to make comment until I know exactly what was said and in what context it was placed. But we will continue to negotiate.

We've got time for two more. Right over there -- make that three.

U.S. Military Action in Panama

Q. Mr. President, are you concerned that you're not sending the proper signal by going on vacation while the fighting continues in Panama?

The President. No, I'm not concerned about that at all. Why should I be? Things have done well. It's winding down. I am in very close touch by telephone, by secure links. And the Secretary of State is here, and we have some important things to go over. So, it never occurred to me. Now, if the matter were still going and there was a lot of fighting and Noriega was not in custody, it would have been different.

Look, I don't make any cover. I'm going to be enjoying myself, and I think the American people understand that. And I think I've worked pretty hard all year long. So, I'll keep on this path, and I hope it's correct.

General Noriega of Panama

Q. Do you believe that Noriega could still be a threat to regaining power so long as he remains in Panama?

The President. That would concern me, yes, unless he were in total custody and sentenced to the prison sentence he deserves.

Last one.

Q. Do you believe, though, that he could get a fair trial in Panama?

The President. It is with regret that I tell you I can't hear you.

Last one.

Q. You're the Commander in Chief. It's your helicopter.

The President. Last one.

Panamanian Elections

Q. Will the Endara Government hold new elections any time soon, or do you think they don't have to have new elections?

The President. I don't know. I haven't heard the discussion of when that will be. They've just finished an election not many months ago. I believe it will be certified by the electoral commission. And I think they should have time to govern now.

Thank you all. I hope you all have a marvelous time, and that you, too, don't have to work every minute. I hope there's some R R out there for you and relaxation.

Note: The President spoke at 10:08 a.m. upon his arrival at the naval air station. Following his remarks, the President visited friends on San Jose Island, TX.

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