Government goes on the offensive

``It's a battle, and unfortunately it is going to get worse before it gets better.'' That's how Ra'ul Mendez, vice-president of Panama's Chamber of Commerce, described this country's political crisis this past week.

The week saw the Panamanian government step up its offensive against opposition groups that are seeking to oust the country's de facto ruler, military commander Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.

The violent arrest of General Noriega's former second-in-command, Col. Roberto D'iaz Herrera, and the closure of three opposition newspapers July 27 were followed by daily demonstrations of support for General Noriega. The demonstrations were organized by the military's political arm, the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD). (Colonel D'iaz, whose accusations of corruption and political murder on the part of Noriega triggered the unrest eight weeks ago, has been charged with sedition.)

The Civic Crusade, a coalition of business and professional groups, fought back with a two-day business strike July 27 and 28. The strike closed down almost 90 percent of the nation's offices, factories, and shops.

``Noriega is extremely isolated,'' Mr. Mendez said. ``His only support is the Army. He has a strong grip on it. We don't think he will go unless somebody from the inside kicks him out.''

This view is shared by diplomats. ``The man is very entrenched. He won't leave until his peer group, the 19 other colonels, tell him to pack his bags,'' a Western political analyst said July 29. ``The opposition does not have the power to make the changes, and they know that.''

Noriega has attempted to make some political concessions. Two weeks ago, he turned over the management of three state bodies to civilians. And on July 29 the government approved a new hospital for one of the poorest suburbs here. The opposition dismisses these changes as ``cosmetic,'' however.

The progovernment rallies continued July 29 with flag-waving supporters taking over the main banking street. Scores of government employees were given time off to attend the demonstration, apparently on the understanding that turning up was important to keeping their jobs. The rally continued past midday, a time when the opposition normally takes to the streets.

The government strategy was underscored by a PRD member and businessman who refused to give his name. ``As long as the opposition has the streets, they felt very confident,'' he said. ``We are going to keep applying pressure like this. We can beat them on the streets.''

The rallies were expected to build up to the July 30 anniversary of the death of Omar Torrijos Herrara, the charismatic general who ruled Panama from 1968 until his death in a 1981 plane crash.

Students protesting July 29 against the killing of a colleague by a member of the National Guard the previous week were confronted by riot police on the campus of National University. Accounts of the shooting - the first confirmed death in eight weeks of unrest - say the student was with a group of friends at a village carnival when one of them shouted, ``Down with Noriega.'' A passing patrol opened fire.

There was no official word at mid-week on where ex-chief of staff D'iaz was being held after the Army took him from his home July 27.

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