Panama opposition tries new tack in anti-Noriega campaign. But government's intimidation limits impact

The young, middle-class woman slips into the downtown Chamber of Commerce building to pick up a pile of papers. She folds and stuffs them into her small leather purse, then nervously says she hopes the police will not catch her with them on the way home.

``Far from breaking our conviction and scaring off our capacity to fight, each act of violence carried out by the armed forces fortifies our spirit and swells our numbers [of backers],'' the papers read.

The woman is one of a growing number of Panamanians who support the National Civic Crusade, a citizens' coalition started in June by Panama's business leaders to push for democratic reforms.

Panama elected a civilian government in 1984, but its actions are effectively controlled by military strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the head of the 15,000-strong armed forces. Opposition to General Noriega's regime has increased dramatically since last June, when a former military officer accused him of helping to rig the 1984 elections, of involvement in a political assassination, and of laundering drug trafficking money.

The charges, made by former second-in-command Col. Roberto D'iaz Herrera, now in jail, were supported last month by former commander Gen. Ruben Dario Paredes, who said all of Mr. D'iaz Herrera's accusations ``appeared to be true.''

Unlike D'iaz Herrera's declarations, which spurred protests throughout this nation of 2.2 million, Mr. Paredes's comments, published in a US newspaper, received no attention in the press here.

The opposition news media was closed by the government last summer and thousands of troops have been called out to quell sporadic street protests - now forbidden by decree.

Given restrictions on freedom of expression and the right to assembly, the Crusade is increasing its campaign of passive resistance and civil disobedience, coalition coordinator Carlos Gonz'alez de la Lastra said in an interview. The campaign calls on Panamanians to stop paying utility bills and taxes and playing the popular state lottery; to bang pots and pans three times a week; to honk horns on the way to work; and to attend a series of Crusade masses in select churches.

But the government is making it harder for the Crusade to carry out this campaign. The government recently outlawed sounding automobile horns in the streets. And anyone caught waving a white handkerchief may be arrested.

The Civic Crusade informs and issues instructions through daily bulletins handed out on street corners throughout the capital. Although both government and military sources privately concede the Crusade has considerable support, the impact of its actions remains unclear. ``The intimidation [of the Crusade] has been pretty total and it has worked,'' a Western diplomat said. ``The military has all of the cards on its side.''

A Panamanian laborer agreed. ``This is not a political issue what is going on here. The people do not want the government, but what can we do? No one wants to protest and get hit over the head.''

Ricardo Arias Calder'on, head of the opposition Christian Democratic Party, says that since the protests began in June, some 1,600 Panamanians have been arbitrarily detained for periods ranging from hours to weeks - some without charge.

The military has shown signs it is open to dialogue with the opposition, and the civilian government has invited opposition leaders to participate in meetings to revise the country's electoral code in preparation for elections set for 1989.

But both Civic Crusade spokemen and opposition party leaders say they will not talk about change until Noriega is forced into retirement. ``The government is trying to divert the country's attention to elections,'' Mr. Arias Calder'on said, ``but as long as there are no changes, people will not have any faith in the elections.''

Meanwhile, the government is facing other pressures that political observers predict could alter the current stalemate.

``Noriega needs time to get out with dignity,'' one political analyst said. ``But the deciding factor will be what happens to the economy.'' Six months of protest have hurt Panama's economy. The government is trying to deal with a cash crunch, stemming from a lack of new loans from international lenders, who are concerned about the nation's stability.

Construction and other stimulation in the local economy have been seriously hampered by the exodus of an estimated $7 billion from Panama since June. Spokesmen for the government banking commission say most of that belongs to foreign banks who were planning to move the capital anyway. But they say only about $30 million, out of an estimated $500 million in domestic deposits, taken out of Panamanian banks has returned.

That means local lenders do not have the necessary reserves to back up loans for new economic growth. Because much of its economy is service-related and tied to its international banking center, Panama has little cash to fall back on.

A cutback in US aid this summer, from a planned $26 million to $12 million for the fiscal year ending in September, has contributed to the problem. On Nov. 19, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to impose a permanent ban on US aid to Panama unless sweeping reforms are made and civilian rule restored.

Panama ordered the US on Nov. 30 to close the operations of the Agency for International Development here.

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