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Venezuela's New President Issues Call for Panama's Noriega to Quit

February 05, 1989|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | Times Staff Writer

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Carlos Andres Perez, angered by a lack of public assurances for free elections in Panama, called Saturday for the resignation of Gen. Manuel A. Noriega as that nation's military strongman.

In the first press conference of his new presidential term, Perez said he is willing to work with the United States and "all Panamanian sectors" to help "return that country to an authentic democratic process."

"Panama calls itself a democratic country," the Venezuelan president said. "It has a constitution and laws that set a limit on how long a military man can remain in the armed forces. If Gen. Noriega complies with these regulations and resigns his military power, he would do a great service to Panama and Latin America."

Panamanian opposition leaders said the criticism by Perez, an internationally known political leader and center-left champion of Third World causes, was the strongest yet by a Latin American leader against Noriega's six-year dictatorship.

Signal to Democracies

"The fact that he is saying this at the beginning of his presidency has enormous significance," said Ricardo Arias Calderon, the opposition's vice presidential candidate in Panama's scheduled May election. "It is a signal to the democracies of the region to bring concerted pressure on Noriega."

Noriega, commander of the Panama Defense Forces since 1983, has exceeded the statutory 25-year limit for active military service. When Panamanian President Eric A. Delvalle tried to remove him from his command last February, the Legislative Assembly, manipulated by Noriega, ousted the civilian leader.

Since then, the general, who is under indictment in Florida on drug-trafficking charges, has survived repeated efforts by Washington to unseat him. U.S. officials say they are now focusing their diminished influence on efforts to guarantee a fair election.

Working in the same direction, Perez invited Manuel Solis Palma, the man Noriega picked to replace Delvalle as president, to attend Perez's inauguration Thursday. He said that Solis came with a promise to make "important announcements" on the opposition's demands for amnesty for political exiles, the reopening of 11 media outlets shut down last March, the inclusion of opposition parties on Panama's electoral court and amendments to the election law to prevent fraud.

Solis Palma left Friday without any such announcement. Instead, he said he brought a private message from Noriega promising a fair election but rejecting any effort by outsiders to dictate Panama's internal policies.

"Perez is angry with Noriega," an aide to the Venezuelan leader said. "He didn't want a private message. He wanted Solis Palma to stand up here and tell the world how a free election will be run."

The ruling party in Panama last week named as its civilian presidential candidate Carlos Duque, a Noriega associate who manages a television station and an import-export company owned by the Panama Defense Forces. He will be opposed by a multi-party opposition slate headed by attorney Guillermo Endara.

Perez's interest in Panama dates to his previous presidential term, from 1974-79, when he supported then-President Jimmy Carter's negotiations with Panamanian military strongman Omar Torrijos that led to the treaties transferring the Panama Canal from U.S. to Panamanian hands.

After his election two months ago, Perez helped encourage Panamanian opposition parties to choose a single slate of candidates and invited them to his inauguration.

At his press conference, Perez said that Panama has "regressed dramatically" from the democratic course Torrijos set before his death in 1981. He said only a Panamanian government with a "reliable democratic system" can assume responsible management of the canal.

Eleven Latin American heads of state attended Perez's inauguration, reflecting the region's gradual return to civilian governments from the military regimes of the late 1960s and the 1970s.

Perez called Friday's ouster of Paraguayan strongman Gen. Alfredo Stroessner by another general "the best gift I received" for his inauguration.

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