Panama Protest Slows as Shops Abandon Strike

Times Staff Writer

A two-day-old general strike called by foes of the military's domination of Panama lost momentum Friday as about half the capital's businesses and shops reopened.

Leaders of Panama's largest civic protest in 19 years said they are worried that the work stoppage would not carry into next week and are looking for new ways to press for free elections.

As about 1,200 white-clad dissidents filled Panama City's modern Church of Carmen to pray for a peaceful end to the crisis, fatigue-clad soldiers of the Panamanian Defense Forces stood outside, brandishing M-16 automatic rifles but making no move against the churchgoers.

Using a state of emergency decree, soldiers arrested two prominent dissidents elsewhere in the city. They were identified as Rodrigo Correa, owner of an opposition radio station, and Dr. Gerardo Victoria, head of a medical association. Doctors threatened to close emergency rooms at all private hospitals unless Victoria is released.

The protests erupted Tuesday after the Defense Forces' retired chief of staff implicated Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, Panama's strongman, in the death of Gen. Omar Torrijos, Noriega's predecessor, and in the killing of an opposition leader and the rigging of the 1984 presidential election.

Opposition leaders and independent analysts said that neither the rioting, which paralyzed the capital Wednesday, nor the strike, which halted most commerce Thursday, produced any visible cracks in Noriega's support among the 16-member military high command.

Asked in a radio interview if he would resign, Noriega replied, laughing, "No, why should I?" His office said he then left Panama City for a weekend inspection of highway construction projects.

The military has dominated Panama since a 1968 coup, and Noriega has been its commander since 1983, ruling behind a succession of civilian presidents.

Opposition Demands

The indefinite strike was called by the Civic Crusade, a group of 35 business and professional groups, to demand an independent investigation of the allegations against Noriega, made by Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera, and new presidential elections.

Banks, schools and many downtown shops remained closed Friday, and most city buses did not run. But clothing, appliance, jewelry and other retail stores reopened along Central Avenue, a major bargain-shopping strip. Public utilities, air travel and Panama Canal shipping were never affected.

Opposition leaders said the work stoppage was hampered by press censorship, state control of the economy and the political aloofness of Panama's Jewish community, which is prominent in retail trading. The government employs nearly one quarter of all workers.

Roberto Brenes, a Chamber of Commerce spokesman, said the strike is expected to get smaller Monday, one of two monthly paydays.

"We have made a strong moral argument, and we hope the Defense Forces are listening," he said. "Now it is time to re-evaluate the merits of a strike. Maybe civil disobedience can be more effective if people come downtown to work and agitate on their lunch hour."

While the strike itself posed no apparent threat to Noriega, the broad middle-class opposition movement of politicians, professionals, students and housewives that sprang up this week appears destined to survive as a continuing challenge to the military.

The Roman Catholic Church has played a guiding role in the movement by sponsoring Friday's Mass at the Church of Carmen and negotiating with the government to ensure Diaz's safety.

"The cries of a united people will never be conquered," said Father Fernando Guardia, a top aide to Panama's archbishop, in his homily. He drew standing applause with a dramatic appeal to nonviolence: "The people do not have arms! We do not want arms! We do not need arms!"

Ex-President Applauded

Among those in the front pew of the church was Nicolas Ardito Barletta, the government candidate who became president in the 1984 election that Noriega is accused of rigging. Churchgoers applauded when he entered and embraced opposition leader Ricardo Arias Calderon, a Christian Democrat.

Barletta lent credibility to Diaz's allegation that Noriega ordered the 1985 killing of Hugo Spadafora, a leading dissident. Breaking a two-year silence, the former president asserted Tuesday that he was ousted by Noriega two weeks after calling for an independent inquiry into the crime.

La Prensa, the newspaper that printed Barletta's statement, and a sister publication, La Extra, suspended publication Friday when their editors refused to submit to prior censorship under the state of emergency. Three television stations halted newscasts for the same reason. Four radio stations were closed by the government, and the rest were obliged to hook into a government news network.

No Spanish-language media in Panama reported a U.S. State Department declaration that criticized press censorship here and supported an investigation of Diaz's charges.

'External Factors' Blamed

President Eric Arturo Delvalle late Thursday, in a televised speech, blamed the disturbances on "external factors"--an apparent reference to the United States--and said such forces were acting against Panama because of the nation's support of the Contadora peace process in Central America and a desire to undermine treaties giving Panama full control of the Panama Canal in the year 2000.

Noriega has denied the allegations against him. His government has made no move to investigate them, nor has it brought any charges against Diaz.

The retired colonel remained at his two-story mansion behind a 20-foot wall in Panama City's well-to-do Alto de Golfo neighborhood, accompanied by nearly 100 relatives, friends, priests and other supporters.

In an interview late Thursday, he said he fears for his life but has turned down a church offer to help him get asylum in a foreign embassy.

"There is no security anywhere in Panama," he said. "If they want to kill me, let them come here."

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