Panama Opposition Stages Rally, Strike

Times Staff Writer

Panama's civic opposition slowed business in the capital Monday with a one-day general strike and drew about 5,000 people to a peaceful rally demanding the ouster of military strongman Gen. Manuel A. Noriega.

Both the strike's effectiveness and the rally turnout were well below previous efforts by the business-led National Civic Crusade during the past 10 weeks of political unrest, but its leaders said their struggle will continue.

The strike shut about one-third of the stores and market stalls in Panama City. Banks opened and buses ran, but shoppers were scarce. Hundreds of factory workers, students, teachers, doctors and other professionals stayed home.

Two of the city's five supermarket chains closed, as did franchises of McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Hardee's fast food restaurants. Burger King and Mr. Chicken served customers.

Government spokesmen called the strike a failure.

Opposition leaders said the partial shutdown was all that could be expected given the press censorship, police crackdowns and economic pressures imposed by the government in advance.

"This is more a workers' and consumers' strike than a shop owners' strike," said Ricardo Arias Calderon, the chief opposition leader and head of the Christian Democratic Party. "The workers didn't show up to work, and the consumers didn't show up to shop."

It was the fourth work stoppage in the campaign of economic pressure against Noriega since a former military subordinate accused him on June 7 of corruption, electoral fraud and murder.

The Reagan Administration has backed the Civic Crusade's demand for civilian democratic rule, but Noriega, who denies the charges, has refused to step down as chief of the 20,000-member Panama Defense Forces, the nation's sole military and police organization.

Crackdown on Press, TV

Since the last strike, which shut 80% or more of all business here July 27 and 28, the civilian government dominated by Noriega has closed Panama's three opposition daily newspapers, barred radio and TV stations from mentioning the Civic Crusade and issued arrest warrants for six of its leaders.

Carlos Ernesto Gonzalez de la Lastra, a Civic Crusade spokesman, said military officers warned supermarket owners in a meeting last week that, if they joined Monday's strike, the police would forcibly open their stores and allow people to loot them.

The government hinted it would open new bus franchises to force striking bus lines out of business. It also threatened to cancel paycheck-withholding plans enabling public employees to buy on credit at retail stores if those outlets joined the stoppage.

Summoned by word of mouth, dissidents filled a public square facing both the Civic Crusade's headquarters and the attorney general's office to demand a withdrawal of criminal charges against the six opposition leaders, who are in hiding.

Five truckloads of riot police occupied the square until two hours before the late afternoon rally, then withdrew.

The Civic Crusade, a coalition of 192 business, professional and student groups, announced plans for a series of marches starting Thursday, to be followed later this month by an indefinite general strike.

As the economic warfare continues, banking sources say Panama's economic output is declining at a rate of 7% annually and that as much as 10% of all deposits have been withdrawn from the banking system since mid-June.

Opposition strategists say that although the frequent strikes have been difficult to sustain for more than a few days, their aim is to force Noriega to take increasingly coercive measures to keep businesses open. They believe such government action can only worsen the business climate and bring pressure on junior officers to force Noriega out.

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