Panamanians seek probe in murder of oppositionist

A wave of support for the investigation into the murder of a political opponent of Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega is sweeping Panama. Most analysts say that General Noriega's political ambition and his desire eventually to step in and rule Panama was the cause of Nicol'as Ardito Barletta's forced departure from the presidency on Sept. 28. But Barletta's ouster was hastened by indications that he favored the creation of an independent national commission to investigate the assassination of Hugo Spadafora, an antigovernment businessman, these analysts say.

Popular discontent with Noriega, who has ruled the country unofficially since the death of leader Omar Torrijos Herrara in 1981, has been channeled into a wave of demands for the appointment of such a commission to study the Sept. 13 murder.

The demand for an investigative commission is led by the Spadafora family. But it is supported by most of the major voluntary and professional organizations in the country -- from the Rotary Club to the teachers' unions to the association of nuns and priests.

On Monday, the family sent a letter to the foreign ministers of the Contadora Central American peace group now meeting in Panama City. Panama is not a fit place to discuss the establishment of democracy in other Central American countries, such as Nicaragua, when Panama itself is a represssive state, it said. The letter was signed by the Spadafora family and by a number of important voluntary and professional associations in the country.

This is particularly embarrassing for Noriega and his government, since Panama was a founding member of Contadora, and membership has been a keystone of Panamanian foreign policy and a source of great pride for the country since the mediating group was created in 1982.

The demand for an investigation into the death of Dr. Spadafora, an outspoken critic of Noriega, began before President Barletta's forced resignation.

Spadafora became known throughout Central America when he organized a brigade of Panamanians thatfought with the Sandinistas in the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution. He later turned against the Sandinistas and advised a group of anti-Sandinista Miskito Indians.

Spadafora's funeral caused a massive public turnout with tens of thousands of Panamanians attending. Prominent Panamanians such as Winston Robles, director of La Prensa, Panama's only independent newspaper, attributed the massive outpouring of support to ``years of mounting public frustration'' with direct and indirect military rule.

Mr. Robles and other observers point to public anger over reports of massive official corruption, alleged human rights violations, and, most of all, a deteriorating economy.

Panama, like other Latin American countries, has been staggering under a large debt. At $4 billion, the country's international debt is smaller than that of many other nations, but the figure is large for a country with a population of only 2 million.

To deal with the debt, Barletta, a former high World Bank official, attempted to impose a tight austerity program on the country. However, his program of wage controls and higher taxes proved almost universally unpopular. He soon retreated, but in such a way that many Panamanians thought of him as politically inept.

Meanwhile, the call for an investigatory commission has given a weapon to long-standing enemies of Noriega -- and they have apparently used it. At a meeting of Panama's military leadership after the Spadafora murder became known, some important officers led a move for Noriega's ouster as military strongman, according to well-informed Panamanian sources. But Noriega's supporters are reported to have beaten back the move.

The establishment of a commission to investigate Spadafora's death could be embarrassing for Noriega. Not only is it widely believed that he was behind the assassination, but Spadafora himself might have possessed information that could be damaging to Noriega -- information that Noriega fears might surface in such a probe, according to informed Panamanians. Allegations are widespread throughout Central America that Noriega is involved in illegal drug traffic. Spadafora had repeatedly accused Noriega of such activity.

Still, most observers believe that public outcry will force the government, now officially headed by Barletta's vice-president, Eric Arturo Delvalle, to appoint an investigatory commission.

The attitude of the United States is very important to Noriega's future influence. The US showed clear signs of displeasure at the Barletta ouster by withdrawing $5 million in US aid Sept. 30. The US ambassador has warned La Prensa that the Panamanian government intends to ban it because of its reporting of the Spadafora case.

However, as one well-placed Panamanian said, ``It is still too early to predict whether there has been a fundamental long-term change in US policy'' -- a policy that up to now has consisted of accepting the status quo, including Noriega.

But as public dissatisfaction mounts in Panama, it seems certain that his continued dominance of the country will become more difficult.

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