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Desperation in Panama?

That the security forces in Panama have come down hard against critics of the government is a sign that army chief Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, who dominates political life there from behind the scenes, may be getting desperate.

Late Sunday night, on the eve of another general strike called by civilian groups that want Noriega to resign, soldiers closed down three opposition newspapers and put all other news media in the country under censorship. The next morning heavily armed soldiers stormed the house of a renegade army colonel, Roberto Diaz Herrera, who has allied himself with Noriega’s critics. Details of the battle are sketchy, given the strict media controls imposed by the government, but Diaz Herrera may have been wounded before being taken into custody. He precipitated the current crisis in Panama by publicly accusing Noriega of having been involved in running drugs, stealing elections, murdering his political opponents and other forms of corruption.

Despite the crackdown by the government, the general strike was a success. Correspondents reported that about 80% of the businesses in Panama City, the nation’s capital, were shut down. As often happens when heavy-handed repression is employed against a peaceful opposition, support for the critics of the government increased, rather than diminished, as a result of the crackdown.

The spread of popular opposition to Noriega’s thuggish military regime is the only hopeful sign on the horizon in Panama, however. With the notable exception of Diaz Herrera, other top-ranking military officers seem to have closed ranks around Noriega. That is less a sign of the general’s popularity than of how thoroughly corrupt the Panamanian military is under his gangster-like control. Because most of his fellow officers still support him, resolution of the government’s standoff with the civilian opposition is apparently still a long way off.

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The Reagan Administration has quietly made it clear that it stands with the opposition forces in the current crisis. It was revealed last week that the United States has suspended the remaining military and economic aid that Panama was due to receive this fiscal year. Now would be a good time for the U.S. government to publicly announce that no more aid of any sort will flow to Panama --$33 million is scheduled for the coming fiscal year--until the immediate crisis is resolved. While Noriega may not yet be on the verge of breaking and running, the Administration can apply pressure to try to control his repressive tactics and to guarantee the safety of government critics--including Diaz Herrera.


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