Panama Anti-Government Strike Fizzles

Associated Press

A planned general strike largely fizzled Monday, but demonstrators rallied by the thousands in Panama's capital to demand the ouster of the nation's military strongman, Gen. Manuel A. Noriega.

About 5,000 people chanted "Down with the military dictatorship!" and "Noriega is an assassin!" after they gathered in the late afternoon in a public square surrounded by colonial-style buildings housing government agencies, including the attorney general's office.

Police stood by without interfering and there were no incidents.

Besides calling for Noriega to step down, they were protesting an Aug. 4 arrest order for six opposition leaders on charges of armed insurrection. The six went into hiding the next day, reportedly in foreign embassies.

The rally came at the end of a day that saw most businesses open their doors to customers despite a call by an anti-Noriega alliance for a 24-hour nationwide work stoppage.

Spokesmen for the National Civic Crusade, which was behind the boycott, blamed its lack of success on government intimidation and the leaders' inability to promote it through newspapers, radio and television.

The city appeared almost normal as the business day began, its streets crowded with traffic and at least 70% of its commercial establishments open for business.

But many stores, shops and banks had fewer people working than usual as thousands of employees heeded the strike call and stayed home.

Some businesses that opened in the morning had closed by midday, their owners citing a lack of help and a shortage of customers.

About 5,000 additional soldiers and police patrolled the streets to prevent disorder and keep traffic flowing normally. Police could be seen at virtually every corner.

The Civic Crusade had called for the late afternoon demonstration using handbills and word of mouth.

The government shut down three opposition newspapers and several radio stations in late July, and it censors those radio and television stations that remain on the air.

"Basically, the problem is the threats, the pressure and the fact that we don't have access to any newspapers, radio or television," said Daniel Atencio, a professor at the University of Panama and a Crusade spokesman.

Carlos Gonzalez de la Lastra, another Crusade spokesman, said that many store owners "feared not opening because of enormous pressure on the part of the government, including threats of violence."

De la Lastra said owners of some of the city's largest supermarket chains had been told by government officials that police would break down their doors if they heeded the strike call.

The strike was the fourth called by the Civic Crusade, which claims 192 business, professional, civic, labor and other groups in its alliance.

The last strike, in late July, virtually shut down the capital for two days. Crusade leaders said that work stoppage was at least 90% successful.

The strikes, along with almost daily demonstrations, are aimed at forcing the ouster of Noriega, who heads the nation's military and police forces and is seen by opponents as the power behind Panama's civilian government.

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