PANAMA CITY — In the midst of Panama's political turmoil not long ago, Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, the nation's strongman-under-siege, gave the following reply to a question that is on the lips of many people here:
"This is not the Philippines, and I am not Ferdinand Marcos," Noriega told an interviewer from a Mexico City newspaper.
The notion that Noriega might go the way of exiled Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos crops up because of evident parallels between the two men and situations.
In Panama, the waving of white handkerchiefs and flags by street demonstrators recalls the yellow banners that became the trademark of Marcos' foes before his ouster last year.
Noriega's problems began in much the same way those of Marcos did--with charges of complicity in the assassination of an outspoken political opponent and of electoral fraud and corruption.
But opponents and supporters of Noriega alike say that a quick exit for Noriega, who heads the country's Defense Forces and who is the power behind the elected civilian government, is not yet likely. Despite a month of almost continuous protests, many of the elements that might force Noriega into exile have yet to fall into place.
Like Marcos, Noriega is a high-profile target for protest. Former government officials assert that he has amassed a fortune worth more than $100 million during his four years in power, not including homes and other real estate he owns in Panama and France. As head of the Defense Forces, which until 1983 was called the National Guard, Noriega makes a yearly salary of $40,000.
Former Noriega associates allege that other income comes from fees paid at the duty-free port of Colon, Panama, as well as from businesses owned by the military, including a television station, liquor stores and about 60 other enterprises.
U.S. officials and Panamanian sources have asserted that Noriega has ties to drug trafficking and to activities that help Cuba circumvent the U.S. embargo on trade with that Communist-led island.
Noriega, 49, also appears to have Marcos-like tastes. His large home in the fashionable Altos De Golf section of Panama City features expensive art and rare tropical birds. He drives an imported West German automobile and favors imported whiskey.
For his daughter's wedding last week, Noriega sent out invitations in the form of 3,000 personalized bottles of champagne and a pair of crystal champagne glasses.
He has also displayed symptoms of Marcos-style megalomania. For a time, posters bearing Noriega's portrait with a dove drawn in the background were hung all over Panama City. "Blessed is he who brings peace," the slogan on the poster said.
During a wave of unrest last week, pictures of Noriega being hugged by admiring supporters filled government-owned newspapers. No pictures of the elected, civilian titular head of state, President Eric A. Delvalle, appeared in those newspapers.
Such self-promotion has earned Noriega ridicule in Panama. Many citizens refer to him as "Pineapple Face," a reference to his rough complexion, and protesters often parade with pineapples held aloft by machetes.
However, resemblances to Marcos' style do not necessarily point to a Marcos-style exit. Many of the kinds of forces that came into play in the Philippines are not at full strength here.
The attitude of the United States, which has important stakes in Panama's stability, is ambiguous. The United States helps train the Defense Forces and maintains military bases near the Panama Canal, which has been under Panamanian sovereignty since 1979. Washington is committed by treaty to turn full operational control of the canal and its defenses over to Panama in the year 2000.
Recent strong talk from Washington about the need to restore democracy to Panama has led many Panamanians to think that the United States is prepared to pressure Noriega out of power.
In a speech last month, Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, said that in Panama, "the foremost public issue today is quite simply democracy."
But Abrams did not go so far as to suggest jettisoning Noriega, which is the principal opposition demand in Panama. Abrams also praised the Defense Forces for making "substantial progress" in supporting civilian rule and preparing to defend the Panama Canal.
In private, State Department officials made clear that Noriega's ouster is not part of U.S. policy toward Panama.
"The U.S. supports a dialogue of all the parties in Panama, but we cannot set preconditions such as the exclusion of Gen. Noriega from the dialogue," a State Department official recently told The Times in Washington.