Civilians and military vie to fill year-old Panama power vacuum

The death of Panamanian strong man Omar Torrijos Herrera a year ago left a power vacuum so large that neither Panama's politicians nor the powerful National Guard have yet to fill it.

General Torrijos dominated Panamanian life for 13 years, leaving no obvious successor, and so far no one has emerged to fit his shoes.

But the Guard's ouster two week's ago of President Aristedes Royo, a civilian appointed by General Torrijos in 1978, marks a turning point in post-Torrijos Panama.

It was a fresh effort by Guard officers to exert their strong but somewhat disorganized influence -- clearing the way for someone from within the Guard to take charge of Panama.

Who that individual will be remains uncertain. The Guard is involved in a power struggle that began with General Torrijos's death in a plane crash July 31 , 1981. It centers on three officers:

* Brig. Gen. Ruben Dario Paredes, the new head of the 10,000-member National Guard, whose position would at first glance appear to give him an edge in the power struggle. But his actions during the Royo ouster and his obvious eagerness for the presidency have tarnished his image.

* Col. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the Guard's chief of staff, cannot be counted out. Perhaps the most hated and feared man in Panama because he has headed military intelligence for 12 years, he has little interest in the presidency, but wants to become head of the Guard and could become the power broker.

* Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera, the Guard's head of operations, is also a key figure in the equation. A cousin of General Torrijos, he became influential in the mid-1970s and has a strong power base among younger officers. He has expressed little desire for the presidency but has shown interest in Guard politicking.

Although Panama's new leadership will probably emerge from the Guard, civilians cannot be overlooked. Foremost among them is former President Arnulfo Arias Madrid. Hated by the Guard, he commands a strong following among the Panamanian populace and, at a vigorous 81, is ready to run for the presidency for the fourth time.

It was Mr. Arias whom General Torrijos ousted in coming to power in 1968 -- and the former president remained the main focus of opposition in Torrijos-dominated Panama. He remains in that role.

But there are other civilians with influence. They include Ricardo de la Espriella, who took over the presidency when Mr. Royo resigned. He is eager to lead Panama to civilian, democratic rule.

A banker, he has no craving to remain in the presidency. That factor, along with the harm done General Paredes' image in the Royo ouster, give Mr. de la Espriella a good deal of clout.

But whether Mr. de la Espriella can survive until elections, say in 1984 as originally scheduled by General Torrijos, remains to be seen. The Guard could move against him, as it did against Mr. Royo, but there are constraints on the Guard.

It must take into account public opinion. For example, in the wake of the Royo ouster, a Guard order closing all newspapers in Panama for a week had to be rescinded when a determined public hue and cry developed against the move.

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