``I've hated Noriega for 20 years. What took you so long?'' The Panamanian citizen lobbed the challenge to Ambassador Juan Sosa, who only a few days earlier was still faithfully representing Panamanian autocrat Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega here.
``And have you been working for the Civic Crusade?'' Mr. Sosa responded, referring to Panama's business-led opposition movement.
``Well, no,'' the man replied. End of discussion.
Word had gotten out that Sosa would be making his first visit to the Crusade's Washington office, and a small crowd had gathered to welcome him into the opposition camp, or chide him for taking so long to abandon General Noriega, or both.
The week before, when President Eric Arturo Delvalle was ousted following his bid to fire Noriega, Sosa cast his lot with the President. Sosa continues to occupy the Panamanian Embassy, having turned away Noriega's new appointee, and the US continues to recognize Sosa as ambassador. Sosa serves as one of the Washington contact points for Delvalle, who is in hiding in Panama.
Publicly, Sosa and Gabriel Lewis Galindo, the head of the Crusade effort here, try to present a united front. But their cooperation only reinforces the Crusade's image as a tactical alignment whose only purpose is to get Noriega out and Panama headed down a democratic path. Panamanian politics is highly factionalized, and the founding of the Civic Crusade last June was an effort to sidestep political differences for the time being. The Crusade-in-exile reflects that.
``We support Delvalle for his actions, but we don't support him politically,'' says Fernando, a young lawyer who works in the Crusade office.
The Crusade had been actively anti-Delvalle until his surprise move against Noriega Feb. 25. It was Delvalle, at Noriega's direction, who put the state of emergency into effect last June - suspending press freedoms and calling out troops - when Panama's latest political crisis erupted.
``The Crusade was caught off guard by events (at the end of February), so it took them a while to recover and grant recognition to Delvalle,'' says Eva Loser, a Panama specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Still, the addition of Ambassador Sosa to the Washington cause boosts what has already been an effective lobbying force, especially on Capitol Hill. Mr. Lewis, a leading Panamanian businessman who started the Crusade office here last June after his own falling out with Noriega, has a knack for finding television cameras and microphones. And, having served as ambassador here during the period when the Panama Canal treaties were signed and ratified (1977-78), he knows how to work Washington and Washington knows him.
Lewis's Crusade office has also developed into a well-oiled Panamanian samizdat operation, whose flow of underground information into Panama has become especially vital since Noriega closed down all opposition media.
It might be called ``people power meets desk-top publishing.''
Sitting at one MacIntosh Plus is Lewis's son Jos'e, who pounds out hourly news bulletins and electronically lays out the latest edition of El Siglo, an opposition daily now being produced in exile in one-page flyers. In the next room, Luis Estrib'i, El Siglo's editor composes his latest opus on another Mac. Articles from other exiled Panamanian writers living outside Washington come buzzing in over the phone lines via modem.
Jos'e prints out El Siglo for inspection. ``General Collapse'' screams the headline (in Spanish) for a story calling on Panamanians to strike. A pineapple with a slash through the middle provides art for the page. (Noriega's foes often refer to him as ``the pineapple'' because of his rough complexion.) Another cartoon reads ``Just say No ... riega to drugs!''
The point man in the operation is Jos'e (Pepe) Pretto, who runs the facsimile machines that transmit the bulletins, newspapers, and clippings from American papers into Panama.
``I send 50 sheets down a day,'' says Pepe. ``About 15,000 or 20,000 copies of each are made and passed around.'' The facsimile/copying network in Panama includes banks, lawyers' offices, and doctors' offices, say Crusade members, which also feed information back to the Crusade office here.
Pepe also does nightly broadcasts for radio stations in Colombia and Costa Rica, which are beamed into Panama.
Enthusiasm is high at the office, and predictions of when Noriega will fall are given in days rather than weeks or months, despite reports that the Panamanian people aren't fighting as hard as they could be to end military rule.
And who will lead Panama to democracy once Noriega is out? the Crusaders are asked. That's not the issue right now, they say. For now, they're just saying no to Noriega.