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He Sees Plot Aimed at Canal Control : Accusations Put Spotlight on Panama's Strongman

July 18, 1986|WILLIAM R. LONG | Times Staff Writer

One former official said that Transit's manager, Carlos Duque, charges a fee much higher than $1 per box for contraband Colombian coffee that comes through the Free Zone on its way to the world market. Contraband coffee shipments violate an international agreement on coffee export quotas.

The coffee fees, this source said, are shared by Duque and Noriega.

The military also owns Licores de Tocumen, a string of duty-free liquor shops at the country's busy Tocumen International Airport. "They run that for petty cash," one of the former officials said.

According to a foreign analyst, a recent study shows that the Defense Forces and individual officers are linked to about 60 private business enterprises.

"These guys are always looking at things with dollar signs in their eyes," the analyst said. "The ethos around here is that the reason you are in government, the reason you are in the National Guard, is to pursue your private business interests, and that is perceived as quite legitimate."

'Make a Dollar'

Noriega is widely regarded as the most active and astute of the officer-entrepreneurs.

"He's the type of boy who will pick up a nickel and make a dollar out of it," said Demetrio Lakas, who was Panama's figurehead president from 1969 to 1978.

One of Noriega's business associates is a man named Carlos Wittgreen. Through him, several sources said, Noriega owns an interest in Servinaves, a company that provides supplies for Cuban government fishing boats in the Pacific.

One source, a businessman who previously held a government position, said that Wittgreen, with Noriega's blessing, has had a series of secret business deals with the Cuban government.

One such deal, the source said, has involved placing Cuban lobster, shrimp and citrus fruit concentrates in the U.S. market by routing the products through Panama and then other Central American countries. A U.S. trade embargo prohibits the sale of Cuban goods in the United States.

Wittgreen is also said to have helped the Cubans to buy U.S. goods, including minicomputers and other electronic gear, in violation of the trade embargo. Under U.S. pressure, Noriega recently told Wittgreen to break off such commerce with Cuba, according to the source.

3 Daily Newspapers

The Defense Forces own one business that loses money but is valuable for political reasons. It is Editora Renovacion, known as ERSA, a publishing company that produces three daily newspapers. The military controls what is printed in the papers.

All television channels and most radio stations are pro-government. Only one Panamanian newspaper, La Prensa, opposes the government.

Some of Noriega's more hopeful opponents speculate that the recent accusations against him mean that the U.S. government has decided to help remove him from power. Others, more cautious, say they see only signs that the Reagan Administration is sending warnings to Noriega to watch his step.

The Panama Canal, Panama's geographic position as an international crossroads, and its proximity to the wars of Central America give the country special importance in U.S. policy.

Willy Cochez, vice president of the opposition Christian Democratic Party, said that many Panamanians blame the United States for helping to keep Noriega in power despite his misdeeds.

"The gringos have been accomplices," Cochez said. "The gringos have a debt, not with the opposition but with the country. They have a debt with Panamanian democracy."

Power Concentration

Ricardo Arias, the party's president, said it is "very unlikely" that the United States will try to destabilize Noriega.

"I think he is in the process of concentrating more power in his hands than anyone in all our history," Arias said.

A foreign political analyst agreed that Noriega's power is not directly threatened.

"What really matters in this country is whether he's got the support of the general staff of the National Guard, and I think he's got it," the analyst said. "As long as he's got that, he's in the catbird seat."

Times Caribbean Bureau Chief William R. Long was recently on assignment in Panama.

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