Everyone Has an Extensive--and Abusive--Vocabulary : In Panama Politics, Very Few ‘Terms of Endearment’

Times Staff Writer

In Panama’s continuing civil unrest, a move against opposition protesters might be described as follows:

“According to the ball, Dobermans and Smurfs routed the Whitetails after Toads working for the Pineapple rounded up their leaders.”

This is the sort of language that reporters covering the struggle to oust strongman Gen. Manuel A. Noriega have grown accustomed to hearing. Without a knowledge of Panama’s colorful idiom, one would be hard put to figure out what is going on.

Everyone in Panama has an extensive and often abusive political vocabulary. On the basis of which terms are favored, a careful listener can tell immediately where any Panamanian stands in the country’s political conflict. The following is a kind of beginner’s guide:


Bola-- Literally, ball. This is slang for rumor and is perhaps the most important word in the Panamanian vocabulary.

Spreading bolas constitutes a way of life in Panama, and bolas roll with astonishing speed throughout Panama City. None is too outrageous to keep to oneself. For example, Noriega is said to have bitten off the head of a chicken in an effort to intimidate rebellious officers taking part in an abortive coup in March. Foes of the general tend to see Libyans and Cubans at every turn.

The government is fully aware of the bola’s potential for causing unrest. At the installation of his Cabinet, figurehead President Manuel Solis Palma said that a goal of the new minister of education would be to take on CONABO, the mythical National Commission of Bolas .

The government has no qualms about spreading bolas of its own. An official newspaper recently reported that the opposition had hired a sorcerer to put a curse on Noriega.


Broadcast by ‘Lip Radio’

Bolas are broadcast by Radio Bemba--Lip Radio--Panamanian for rumor mill.

Buitre --Vulture. This is the word Noriega applies to foreign reporters. He also calls them “disinformers.” Vultures, according to government propagandists, haunt the streets looking for violence and injuries to report. On occasion, Noriega’s police vent their anger at “vultures” by attacking them with nightsticks or by spraying them with pepper gas.

Doberman--The official designation for Noriega’s riot police. These men wear a shoulder patch emblazoned with a snarling dog, and they signal to one another by whistling.

Wearing helmets resembling that of Darth Vader, the “Star Wars” character, and carrying aluminum shields to ward off stones and other missiles, the Dobermans have been a prominent element in putting down anti-Noriega street protests. Protesters have rarely been willing to confront them.

Guardia --The National Guard, as the Panama Defense Forces used to be called. Although the new name is meant to call up an image of professionalism, most Panamanians still refer to the military as the Guardia , and it has become an insulting reference to Noriega’s military supporters.

Pina --Pronounced PEEN-ya. It means pineapple and is a common nickname for Noriega, whose face was scarred by adolescent acne.

But Pina is more than a nickname. It is a kind of code that permits superstitious Panamanians to talk about Noriega without mentioning his name. In answer to the question “when do you think Noriega is leaving?” a Panamanian might answer, “The Pineapple is not ripe,” or, “We’re never out of Pineapple here,” or, “We export Pineapple.”


Pitufo --Spanish for Smurf, as in the popular children’s television show “Smurfs.” Pitufos have nothing in common with the show’s mild-mannered blue dwarfs. They command the trucks equipped with water cannon that are used to disperse demonstrators. Often they move through the streets in a show of force. A Pitufo officer, asked why the unit was named after the television Smurfs, replied, “So we don’t scare little children.”

Rabiblanco --Literally, White-tail, a perjorative term for members of the anti-Noriega National Civic Crusade. The Civic Crusade is made up mostly of business and white-collar trade groups and has spearheaded the opposition to Noriega since last June. Racially, they are mostly white, and thus the nickname.

Sapo --Toad. Generally, any informer, but applied specifically to members of Noriega’s plainclothes intelligence agency. Toads not only gather information but sometimes carry out some of Noriega’s more-repressive projects. The toads figured prominently in a violent raid in March on the Marriott Hotel, where Rabiblancos had set up a press office. Most of the vultures were staying there.

Noriega, a career intelligence officer, has made the toad a personal emblem. He owns an extensive collection of ceramic toads, many of which are on display in his various offices around the capital.