With growing international support and a strengthened American military presence nearby, Panama’s opposition Saturday stepped up its pressure on the regime of Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, announcing new public protests, including a general strike.
As these plans were disclosed, diplomatic sources said they were picking up increasingly loud expressions of discontent within the Noriega regime, particularly among the officials used as a civilian front for the military elements who control the government.
“Noriega is in trouble,” said one diplomat whose country has a close relationship with Panama. “Some of them (the civilians) are fighting among themselves and want to get out before everything collapses.”
Indeed, since the crisis sharpened after last Sunday’s election debacle, any semblance of a normal government has nearly disappeared. Most government offices have stopped operating in any normal capacity, and few Cabinet ministers appear at work.
The opposition itself says there is no longer any civilian government and says it will deal only with the military as the true ruling force here, an assessment largely agreed to by diplomats.
However, there are no concrete signs that Noriega has lost control or that he intends to give in to demands that he give up power.
But leaders of the Democratic Alliance of Civic Opposition expressed determination to confront Noriega and keep domestic and world attention focused on their effort to unseat him, even if it means provoking new violence.
Coincide With Meeting
They said that a 24-hour general strike will begin Tuesday at midnight to coincide with a special meeting Wednesday of the Organization of American States called in Washington to consider the Panamanian crisis.
In past anti-Noriega general strikes, businesses closed, workers stayed home and Panama resembled something hit by a neutron bomb--structures stood but the people disappeared.
However, the call issued Saturday was far more militant, urging people “to leave and protest in your street or in your neighborhood.”
But an earlier--and equally potentially dangerous--protest will come today when all supporters of the Democratic Alliance have been urged to attend morning Masses at Roman Catholic churches to protest Noriega’s nullification of presidential elections in which the regime is widely seen as having been overwhelmingly repudiated.
After the last Mass ends in early afternoon, opposition sources expect that their followers will take to the streets to show their rejection of a ban on demonstrations and to support the alliance leaders who were mauled by security forces during a protest march Wednesday.
Two of those who were beaten, Democratic Alliance vice presidential candidates Guillermo (Billy) Ford and Ricardo Arias Calderon, will attend services at two churches and then lead followers into the streets.
Guillermo Endara, the alliance presidential candidate, remains hospitalized from the beating he took Wednesday from army and paramilitary forces.
The last two opposition rallies were met with increasing levels of government force, including the use of tear gas, water cannon, birdshot and rifle fire. In addition to brutalizing Endara, Ford and Arias Calderon with steel pipes, the government forces killed one of Ford’s bodyguards, wounded others and arrested at least 200 people.
Many diplomats and other observers expect Noriega to meet today’s protest with more violence.
So does the opposition. “We have to show our people that their leaders are not in hiding. We are not going to hold back,” said Ford to reporters Saturday in his first public appearance since the regime arrested him during Wednesday’s demonstration.
“We are not going to ask our people to confront these animals,” he said of the government. “We are not going to take them (supporters) to the butcher shop. But we can’t control their emotions.”
Adding to the pressure on Noriega is the arrival of about 1,900 American combat troops to augment the 12,300-member military force already assigned here.
In addition to guarding the Panama Canal, President Bush said the troops would aggressively assert American rights, including the free movement of U.S. forces through Panama City and the rest of the country.
American military and diplomatic officials said the troops would be used to protect the lives and property of Americans threatened by Noriega’s 15,000-member Panama Defense Forces and the paramilitary units.