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.