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Harried Panamanian Consul to Be Back Monday

From United Press International

The office of the Panamanian Consul to the United States will reopen Monday, despite its sudden closure Friday under a blizzard of visa requests.

Rumors flew after Consul General Elizabeth Martinez closed her doors. One security guard said she feared mobs of protesters at the office, which is the only outlet for Panamanian visas in the country.

The State Department speculated it was Gen. Manuel A. Noriega’s revenge for President Bush’s order sending combat troops to Panama.

But the real reason the consulate in downtown Tampa was shuttered turned out to be less dramatic.

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“I was going crazy,” Martinez said. “You have no idea. I am the secretary. I am the messenger. I am the consul, everything. The problem is, everybody wants to go to Panama.”

American visitors used to simply fill out tourist cards. But last month, Noriega decided no one would be allowed into Panama without a visa issued from the Tampa consulate. Diplomats said that makes Martinez’s office the only one recognized by the U.S. government that also has dealings with the Noriega regime.

Martinez says she’s been receiving more than 100 visa requests a day; ABC News recently hit her with more than 30 applications. By Friday morning, she felt swamped. As the telephones rang and a small army of travelers packed the lobby, she just gave herself the day off.

“It’s not closed,” said the 46-year-old Panama City native, who took over the consulate three years ago. “I will continue until the United States tells me to get out or Panama throws me out.”

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