Following a week of protests and political violence in Panama, United States and Panamanian analysts say two conclusions are fast becoming inescapable. Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, Panama's top general and political leader, is in political trouble at home. Although he retains a strong grip on the reigns of power, opposition to Noriega's rule runs broader and deeper than ever before. (The opposition, Page 13).
The US, long ambivalent on the subject of what to do about Noriega, is growing weary of repeated charges of official corruption in Panama. The US is pressing harder and more openly for political reform. Panama is important to the US not only because of the Panama Canal but because of key US military bases and millions of dollars in private US assets deposited in banks there.
Whether Noriega can hold power indefinitely under these circumstances is unclear. But the strongest antigovernment demonstrations in years appear to suggest that he may be living on borrowed political time, say analysts.
The crisis was triggered 10 days ago when Col. Roberto D'iaz Herrera, formerly the country's second-ranking military officer, leveled a series of dramatic charges against Noriega. Mr. D'iaz was forced to retire from the military on June 1.
D'iaz told reporters that he and Noriega conspired to fix Panama's 1984 presidential election. He also said Noriega had organized the brutal slaying in 1985 of former Panamanian health minister Hugo Spadafora, who charged Noriega was involved in illegal drug operations.
D'iaz also accused Noriega of planning the death of Panama's popular former ``maximum leader'' Omar Torrijos Herrara in a plane crash in 1981.
The charges led to several days of civil unrest in Panama leading to dozens of arrests and injuries. The protest culminated in a general strike led by civic and business groups and the church. On Thursday the government imposed a 10-day state of emergency and a media blackout.
Noriega has denied D'iaz's charges.
Analysts say it is unlikely that last week's disturbances will be sufficient to topple Noriega. They point out that the 17,000-man Panama Defense Force (PDF) led by him is too strong and, until now at least, the domestic opposition too fragmented for that to happen soon.
Panamanian sources in the US also speculate the demonstrations have raised questions about Noriega in the PDF officer corps.
``Noriega will survive this one, but he's been weakened in many ways,'' says Richard Milette, a specialist on Central American affairs at Southern Illinois University. ``But important centrifugal forces were unleashed by [last] week's events.''
Noriega has been important to the US because he controls the military units that will defend the Panama Canal after Panama takes full control in the year 2000.
A staunch anticommunist, Noriega is also said to favor extending US rights to bases used by the US Southern Command, bases some allege have been used to gather intelligence and provide supplies for Nicaraguan contra forces. As a result, Noriega has largely been exempt from extensive public criticism by the Reagan administration despite repeated allegations of corruption and human rights abuses.
But last week Reagan officials were unusually demonstrative, calling for a free press and free elections in Panama. After backing off demands two years ago that Noriega conduct a thorough investigation of the Spadafora affair, a State Department spokesman also urged the government ``to get all the facts out'' concerning D'iaz's charges.
The US has also called for an ``apolitical, professional military institution,'' a reference to the PDF's control over a succession of civilian presidents. ``What we're saying is that the role of the PDF is up for discussion; that's very significant,'' says one administration official.
A State Department official last week disputed a recent news report that the US had sought to force Noriega to resign. ``We haven't asked him to step down; we've asked him to clean up his act,'' says this official. ``The problem in Panama is not Noriega - it's the PDF. If Noriega steps down, dozens of guys are waiting in the wings who will be just like him.''
Panamanian government spokesmen charged last week that the country's civil disorders have been instigated by groups interested in abrogating the 1977 Panama Canal treaties.
``Noriega says the riots are the result of a conspiracy from treacherous conservatives in Panama and the US'' to prevent the canal from passing to Panamanian control, says one informed Panamanian in Washington. ``In fact, the issue of the canal is totally irrelevant to the events in Panama. No one in Panama is interested in abrogating the treaties.''