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Panama Deals With Something New: Unrest

October 04, 1987|Linda Robinson | Linda Robinson is associate editor of Foreign Affairs.

NEW YORK — Some remarkable things are happening in Panama. A previously quiescent public has come out into the streets repeatedly to call for justice, liberty, democracy--and the ouster of strongman Manuel A. Noriega, the brigadier general who heads the Panamanian Defense Forces and, behind the scenes, the government itself. The Panamanian economy has lurched into crisis, intentionally precipitated by the opposition, but fueled by the fact that this secret banking haven depends on stability to attract dollars.

A broad-based protest movement has been able to organize nearly daily activities. The government has asserted that the opposition is narrowly based in the middle-class, but in fact the poorest barrios as well as the business district have been the scene of demonstrations.

Even Panamanians are amazed at the way the opposition has blossomed since June 9, when Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera accused Noriega of running drugs, rigging the 1984 presidential elections and plotting deaths, not only of activist Hugo Spadafora but also of Gen. Omar Torrijos, the leader who died in a 1981 plane crash.

Foreign observers, however, say the protests pose no threat to the regime, which has cracked down by closing the opposition press, breaking up some demonstrations with birdshot and arresting participants. Yet the protest movement, the Cruzada Civilista Nacional (National Crusade Against Militarism), is unprecedented in size and persistence: The country has never in its history seen such political activism. Many Panamanians keep waiting for the crusade to fizzle, but both CCN leaders and participants say "We can't go back now," feeling they have burned their bridges. The CCN, headquartered in the Chamber of Commerce offices and including five opposition parties, communicates its daily protests by leaflets, word of mouth and a four-page paper, Alternativa.

Although a few people have been killed by official or paramilitary groups, the marches have been largely nonviolent; they almost have an air of civic-day parades. By themselves they do not pose a threat to the government but Panamanians are saying no to Noriega in another way: The CCN has declared economic war on the government--no paying of taxes, no buying of lottery tickets (a national pastime) and boycotting of those doing business with the regime. The government has suspended payment to its creditors, foreign and domestic, and may soon be unable to meet its payroll.

As a result, the opposition has created an even more powerful force: loss of confidence in the government, which is undermining Panama's main business--banking and associated services. A large portion of an estimated $32 billion in deposits is leaving the country at an alarming rate. One foreign bank has already closed its branch and some domestic banks may fail in the next few months. Credit is unattainable and the spillover effects will soon be widespread as businesses such as the important construction industry are slowed through lack of credit or orders. Both government and private employers will have little choice but to lay off workers.

But the odds are that the government won't back down anytime soon; it is counting on the bankers and businessmen supporting the crusade to fold when they begin to feel the pinch. Some protesters feel Panama faces a long haul to democracy because there is no known rival to Noriega, no apparent split in the military and no reform movement such as the one that played a crucial role in Ferdinand E. Marcos' decision to flee the Philippines.

The United States faces a policy dilemma in Panama similar to those it has faced in Haiti, the Philippines and Korea--and still faces in Chile. After years of supporting authoritarian governments in these countries, the United States has been confronted with a choice of continuing its support or shifting to the side of those calling for democracy.

Although there was some behind-the-scenes effort to encourage a transitional movement in the Philippines, as there is in South Korea, the Reagan Administration by and large has waited until a change was inevitable before supporting what became faits accomplis. Such caution worked in the Philippines and, with luck, will work in South Korea. But Panama may be a case where something more forceful than not impeding change is called for. The long, drawn-out scenario that now seems likely does not serve U.S. interests well; it spells increasing trouble just at the time the United States is scheduled to turn over the canal and withdraw its military forces.

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