Panama gropes for leadership

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The Western Hemisphere has been reminded anew of the fragility of emerging Latin American democracies. This time the nation is Panama, where the first democratically elected President in 16 years has resigned after only 11 months in office; his first vice-president has succeeded him. Democracy is at its most tenuous in Panama: The real political strength continues to rest with the nation's military. Nicolas Ardito Barletta, under fire for several months, is believed to have resigned because the armed forces insisted.

Democracy appears free of challenge from the military in only a handful of governments in Latin America: Mexico, Costa Rica, Venezuela, and Colombia.

In most others that have recently shifted to civilian rule the armed forces also play a powerful, if less obtrusive, role. Should democracy appear to falter, or should unrest arise, the possibility exists that the military might again seize power.

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In a recent address at the United Nations, Brazilian President Jos'e Sarney alluded to this prospect, saying that the demands for stringent austerity the International Monetary Fund makes of Latin American debtor nations threaten the rule of democracy.

Mr. Sarney was implicitly raising the possibility that popular protests against austerity measures could reach such proportions that the military would seize power in his or other nations, justifying it as necessary to restore order.

Panama's foreign debt is a fraction of Brazil's: $3.6 billion compared with more than $100 billion. Yet Panama's is one of the world's highest per capita debts.

With a complex of economic and social problems demanding solution, Panama will likely be among those Latin American nations requiring a substantial easing of repayment schedules for foreign loans. If only because of the precedent, lending nations might not take kindly to the idea. Yet they might find the alternative less palatable: a return to government in which the military exerted full control.

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