Noriega bids for region's support. But offer of `Panamanian solution' finds few takers in Latin America
Panama City — Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega's conditional offer to step down appears calculated to divide the opposition and win a measure of Latin American sympathy. The general's offer of a ``national dialogue'' to find a ``Panamanian solution'' was aimed at winning support from Latin American governments already uncomfortable about United States intervention in Panamanian affairs.
But so far no Latin American countries are coming to the embattled General Noriega's rescue with economic or political help.
``We judge facts, not words,'' said one Latin American diplomat whose country has withheld diplomatic support from Panama since Noriega engineered the Feb. 26 dismissal of President-in-hiding Eric Arturo Delvalle. ``Until they show the political facts of Noriega's departure, we will not change our position.''
So far, Noriega has received only scattered signs of moral support. Nicaragua and Cuba had already joined Panama in its battle against US economic ``aggression,'' which includes US support of an opposition call to freeze $50 million in Panamanian assets and the withholding of canal payments and special trade preferences.
One clear voice of concern for Panama's situation has come out of Mexico. President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado said Monday that ``the Panamanian people are being subjected to grave violations of international law'' because of US pressure.
But so far, this kind of morale boosting won't fill the empty coffers at the National Bank. Last week, the nearly bankrupt government could afford to pay its public-sector workers only a small portion of their paychecks.
On Tuesday, a national strike completely stalled economic activity here for the second straight day. And, with banks closed for transactions for more than three weeks, it was not even clear if the government could pay members of the Panamanian Defense Force, a unit already shaken by last week's attempted coup.
Panama has asked the Economic System of Latin America to convene a special session to discuss potential measures to counteract US economic sanctions.
``We hope to receive help in the initiatives that we are adopting, and that we must adopt in order to save the Panamanian economy,'' said Manuel Sol'is Palma, Noriega's handpicked President.
Despite the mounting US and domestic pressure for his surrender, however, Noriega does not seem poised to leave soon.
By hinging his departure on the results of a national dialogue, he hopes to lure some opposition groups into a dialogue, leaving the business-led Civic Crusade behind. In Monday's fervently anti-American speech delivered by by Mr. Sol'is Palma, Noriega indicated that he would not step down immediately, as the US and some Latin American countries desire, but at some point before the next presidential election, scheduled for May 1989.
The plan, which would keep the armed forces intact and in control of the civilian government, does not seem designed to influence the US, which immediately deemed it ``totally unacceptable.''
It is not clear whether Noriega can create a crack in the opposition, which formed a tentative coalition around Mr. Delvalle two weeks ago.
Opposition leaders reacted harshly to Noriega's overtures on Monday. ``When they talk about dialogue, what they want to do is get some air,'' says Guillermo Coch'ez. ``They don't believe in democracy, because they are supported by the military. You just cannot trust any offer of dialogue with this government.''
The government seems interested in sidelining the more right-wing political groups by encouraging the participation of populist leader Arnulfo Arias Madrid, an octogenarian.
Mr. Arias, currently in exile in Miami and leader of the Authentic Panamanian Party, still maintains that he won the 1984 presidential elections, which were awarded to a Noriega favorite, Nicolas Barletta. Many political analysts say Arias could be tempted by an offer at the presidency.
Meanwhile, Monitor correspondent Peter Osterlund reports from Washington that members of Congress and the Reagan administration have become alarmed over evidence of unexpectedly comprehensive Cuban efforts to help Noriega prop up his tottering regime.
At a Capitol Hill press conference yesterday, the recent defector, a Panamanian armed services major, Augusto Villalaz, said he had piloted a 727 aircraft to Havana three times to pick up a total of 94,000 pounds of Soviet-made weapons and ammunition.
Mr. Villalaz defected last week before undertaking 13 more scheduled trips that, he said, would have brought more than 300,000 pounds of weaponry and ammunition to Noriega's forces.
On his last trip to Havana, Villalaz said, his superiors in Panama told him to take delivery of $50 million in cash that had been routed from Libya through the Cuban Embassy there. He returned to Panama withut the cash, however, when Cuban offcials told him that the funds had not arrived.
``It didn't work in this case, but we don't know about other flights, other attempts,'' said Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, refusing to elaborate.
Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York added: ``This shows that the state of emergency is far greater than the administration has considered heretofore.''