If Panama were a television show, it would be a comic soap opera, a nutty blend of melodrama and farce, a sort of "As the World Turns" meets "Saturday Night Live."
It requires a near total suspension of disbelief to accept as reality that a president nicknamed "Honey Bun" fired a major coalition partner called the "Mad Nun" after the president's wife challenged her husband's manliness.
And where else but in the let's-pretend Panamanian world of "Twin Peaks" and "Dallas" would:
* A vice president be charged with spying on the government, then be searched for weapons before being allowed to meet with the president, whom he later dares: "Arrest me."
* A group of supporters of an ousted military dictator seek the impeachment of an elected president for seeking U.S. assistance in resisting a coup attempt by a former army officer, the latter himself once charged with treason by those same men.
* Another vice president try to offset rumors of his womanizing by inviting the entire national press corps to a seaside barbecue to see him sing salsa-style love songs to his wife.
* The president publicly tell his wife to keep her political opinions to herself, only to have her say that her critics should do unspeakable things to their mothers and that she intends to run for president herself.
But Panama is not just an international joke. All of these things, and many more, actually happened. And although the situation brings laughter and jeers from outsiders, Panamanians are weeping. For not only is the country wincing in shame, the buffoonery of its leaders threatens an already shattered economy with further ruin and has left its people with diminishing hope for political self-respect and a working democracy.
Panama has fallen into this bog just 15 months after 26,000 U.S. troops ended more than two decades of murderous and corrupt military rule by driving out dictator Manuel A. Noriega and replacing him with a three-party coalition government, which had earlier been kept out of office by election fraud.
That coalition was shattered April 8 when President Guillermo Endara, saying he had been "pushed beyond the limits of toleration" by his erstwhile partners, dismissed five members of the Christian Democratic Party from his Cabinet, including First Vice President Ricardo Arias Calderon, the minister of justice and government.
Endara dismissed the Christian Democrats, in part, because they failed to rally rapidly to his side in quashing an effort by a few dissident National Assembly deputies to impeach him on grounds that he was inaugurated on an American military base during the anti-Noriega invasion and that he had asked for U.S. military intervention to defeat a coup attempt last fall.
The dismissal, which "astonished" U.S. Ambassador Deane R. Hinton, puts the Christian Democrats, the largest, best-organized political party in Panama, in opposition and forces Endara to look to supporters of Noriega and the former military for partners, if he hopes to enact any meaningful legislation.
"That is not what we expected or wanted when the coalition was put together," said Roberto Eisenmann, editor of La Prensa, the country's largest newspaper, and a leader against past military rule.
Eisenmann's hopes and expectations, along with those of the majority of the 2.2 million Panamanians, seemed reasonable, at least at first glance, when Endara, Arias and Second Vice President Guillermo (Billy) Ford were installed in office as American troops moved against Noriega early on the morning of Dec. 20, 1989.
All three were longtime leaders of the anti-Noriega movement and had submerged their political differences to form a united ticket in elections of May, 1988. When Noriega nullified their victory after his massive voter fraud was exposed, the coalition grew even closer, forming a seemingly unbreakable bond when its three leaders were physically beaten by the dictator's thugs.
"I absolutely love that man," Ford once said of Arias, "and I know Ricardo and Guillermo feel that way about me and each other."
But that mutual love feast, even if sincerely felt, quickly gave way to bickering. Within weeks of their installation, followers of the three leaders started low-level fighting, with Arias becoming the object of much backbiting for insisting that his party be given the largest share of Cabinet ministries and government jobs as a reflection of its dominant position.
The battling soon grew to involve the three leaders themselves. Arias criticized Ford, who was put in charge of the nation's economy, for sacrificing social programs to pay off foreign debts. Ford retorted, saying that Arias' plans to build a police force out of Noriega's discredited Panama Defense Forces played into the hands of anti-democrats.
Infuriated by what he thought was an underhanded attempt to derail his economic plans, Ford at least twice threatened to punch out Arias, a former Roman Catholic seminarian mockingly known as the "Mad Nun" for his intense, humorless, supposedly prissy manner and his self-assumed role of arbiter of Panama's ethics.
The Christian Democrats never hid their disdain for the followers of Endara and Ford, suggesting that the latter not only lacked any comprehensive political program, but played fast and loose in business and government. There was no shortage of Christian Democratic-promoted rumors about ties between Endara and Ford to drug dealers, money launderers and Noriega followers.
In the early days, Endara served as a buffer between Ford and Arias, neither of whom hid their ambitions to eventually be elected president. It was a role that the 270-pound Endara had been chosen to fill from the beginning, when anti-Noriega forces picked him as a compromise presidential candidate. Known as "Honey Bun" for his evident love of sweets, often-goofy expression and his jovial nature, Endara moderated the coalition's strains, jollying the joke-telling Ford and assuring the astringent Arias of his appreciation.
And from time to time, Endara, encouraged by the behind-the-throne-power of Ambassador Hinton, would stiffen his spine and threaten his competing partners with dismissal from their ministries if they didn't behave.
For the first year, things seemed to work out, as Endara, who cannot run for reelection, kept the coalition together and functioning. But throughout that early period ran an undercurrent that, although not unique to Panama, has always been of great importance in this tiny country where gossip and personal relations, good and bad, are often more important than policies and programs.
The source of that undercurrent was sex.
Endara, 57, whose first wife died in 1989, met and married Ana Mae Diaz, 23, shortly after taking office, triggering a lot of what was, at first, mostly affectionate chatter. But the friendly joking about the president as love-slave quickly turned ugly, as Mrs. Endara, a one-time Christian Democratic youth activist, declined to stay in her husband's considerable shadow.
A tall, lean, striking woman, Ana Mae, as all call her, inserted herself into public life from the beginning, showing up for "a working honeymoon" at a meeting of Central American presidents and doing, in the words of her husband, "what people do on their honeymoon."
The gossip turned sharper, particularly when Ana Mae began wearing what can be described as unconventional attire at formal, even somber events. "She showed up at a funeral in a lime green pantsuit," one government official said, "and when she came in late, her stiletto heels sounded like tap-dancing. It was a disaster."
Then there was her attendance at the United Nations last year in a Panamanian Cuna Indian dress. Its hemline stopped about a foot above her knees, which led La Prensa to run a cartoon showing Endara carrying a spear and wearing only a loincloth.
Lurking behind the scandalized, probably jealous reaction was another dark part of Panamanian character. Unlike nearly everyone else in the country's ruling elite, Ana Mae is not white. Part black and Chinese and all working class, she is often scorned in private as "ChiChoChu," a disparaging nickname combining Panamanian slang for Chinese, black and crude.
Mrs. Endara fought back, picking out Christian Democrats and Arias in particular as targets. Sources say she told her husband that Endara was being laughed at and "emasculated" by his coalition partner. And when he hesitated to go public, she did. Arias is "arrogant," she said.
At this point, the Feminine Action movement of the Christian Democratic party, unofficially led by the aristocratic wife of Arias, weighed in, charging Mrs. Endara with inappropriate behavior. "Neither immaturity nor inexperience can or should be seen as excuses or explanations for conduct that damages the international image of the country," the movement asserted.
The return volley was a claim from Ana Mae that not only had the Christian Democrats "done absolutely nothing for the Panamanian People," but that Arias was plotting the overthrow of the government.
The vice president, calling for "mutual respect," asked for a meeting with Endara to calm things down. He was subjected to a body search by presidential guards.
In the midst of all this, Endara publicly told Ana Mae to refrain from making political statements. It didn't work. She again accused Arias of "betrayal," refused to retract her charges and said her critics should commit a series of crude acts.
Sources close to Endara say the president, increasingly offended by the personal attacks on his wife, began to believe her theories that the Christian Democrats were using her as a way to weaken him to a point that he would resign. This view was manipulated by members of his own political party who resented the positions held by the Christian Democrats and were hungry for a larger share of power and patronage.
"This was the turning point," a European diplomat said. "He was facing a rebellion in his own party," added Eisenmann. "All that, plus Ana Mae's constant carping that he was acting like a weak fool," brought on the crisis, explained a friend of Endara.
Whatever the reason, Endara publicly took up the anti-Arias fight, charging that the Christian Democrats had bugged his telephone, had sought to import arms and were running a private intelligence service.
As the crisis approached an explosive stage, Endara began to back off, following, one aide said, "his conciliatory nature. He decided enough was enough and it wasn't worth destroying the government."
In fact, less than 48 hours before he went on television to announce the firing of the Christian Democrats, Endara assured Hinton that a compromise had been found and the crisis was over.
The next day, though, "it all began to unravel," said one source, and although Hinton, who as a virtual proconsul here exercises great influence, "tried to find a compromise, (he) couldn't budge them."
What was the difference? Why did Endara suddenly give up on the compromise being urged by the powerful Hinton, who didn't hesitate to warn that important U.S. and international economic aid would be endangered by the instability that would result from the coalition's collapse?
"It was Ana Mae," said one source. "She told him that he had to prove he was the president, that he was a bigger man than Arias. . . . Yes, it was a matter of machismo. She doesn't want anyone calling him 'Honey Bun' again."
WHO'S WHO IN PANAMA'S POLITICS
In Panama's increasingly soap-opera style of politics, it's sometimes helpful to have a program, of sorts, to keep up with what has become a national tragicomedy. Its key players include:
HONEY BUN AND ANA MAE: Panamanian President Guillermo Endara, 57, jovial and rotund, has been nicknamed "Honey Bun" by some. He married Ana Mae Diaz, 23, shortly after taking office. Their relationship has generated considerable gossip.
THE MAD NUN: Ricardo Arias Calderon, a vice president and former Catholic seminarian, has fueled controversies with his intense, humorless and, some say, prissy style, which has included his self-assumed role as arbiter of his nation's ethics.
BATTLING BILLY: Guillermo (Billy) Ford, Panama's second vice president, got testy when the criticism grew over his economic initiatives to cut social programs to pay off foreign debts. He got so incensed that he threatened to punch out Arias.
THE PROCONSUL: U.S. Ambassador Deane R. Hinton was "astonished" when the factions split. But he has played a role in backing Endara, when he decided to try to get unruly rivals into line.