Panama - raising the ante

WHEN the going gets tough, sometimes the tough just get tougher. Unfortunately, this is the case with the Panamanian strong man, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega. Beset by growing public pressure to allow more democratic rule and investigate the myriad charges of shady dealings lodged against him, General Noriega has responded by raising the ante.

This week, as the latest general strike in Panama City got under way, Noriega suspended the publication of three opposition newspapers, placed all radio and TV stations under censorship, and arrested 46 Panamanians, including Col. Roberto D'iaz Herrara.

Colonel D'iaz, the general's leading critic, who recently retired as second in command of the Army, touched off the public protests two months ago; he renewed and backed up many of the long-rumored charges against General Noriega of election fraud, drug dealing, and murder of political opponents.

Whatever its show of force, Noriega's military dictatorship faces a situation of diminishing public support. Middle-class professionals, often the last to be involved in the transition to democracy, are in the forefront of Noriega's opposition; street demonstrations occur daily in Panama City.

At one point Noriega brought in Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega to help him whip up anti-American support; Noriega has charged that the United States is reluctant to turn over control of the Panama Canal and has fomented much of the current trouble. The demonstrations against the US Embassy June 30, in which government officials were among those throwing stones and pasting anti-American posters on the walls, bore the earmarks of Noriega's involvement.

Since the push for democracy in Panama has moved into the streets, the US has been acting responsibly in quietly encouraging the transition. The Reagan administration has condemned the suppression of individual rights and urged free elections. Recently the administration also wisely moved to suspend all military and economic aid, including requests for tear gas supplies, at least until Panama pays a promised $106,000 in embassy damages. The US should also repeat clearly its strong support for the canal treaty and its call for the transfer of the waterway to Panamanian control in 1999.

It is nonetheless sad that the United States, mindful of its heavy investments in Panama, acted so late in the game. Panama has served as headquarters of the US Southern Command and houses American military facilities. From past experience with authoritarian regimes with which the US has had close defense links, including those of the former Shah of Iran and former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Washington should have learned that a warm embrace and primary advocacy of the man at the helm need not be necessary accompaniments.

Most such regimes have an inherent instability over the long run, and by the time the democratic forces of change take hold, the situation may be tinged with anti-Americanism. A nation should not have to choose between its values and its assets. Military bases need not be endangered by supporting positive moves toward democracy.

General Noriega has proved so far that he is capable of holding his own by force of arms. But by their continued protests and strikes, the Panamanian people are sending an equally clear signal that they will settle for nothing less than a stronger voice in their own governance. Over time the people's message will win out.

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