Strong man on the mat

THE economic and political squeeze on Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega is tightening slowly, just as it should. Panama's strong man clearly gets the message: Most Panamanians, and much of the rest of the world, think he should go. That General Noriega declines to take the next plane out should surprise no one. He has resisted encouragement to leave from within his own country and from Washington for more than a year. The extensive reach of US extradition laws now makes it more difficult for him to find a haven from US drug trafficking charges. He still might negotiate a deal if he moved fast, however.

The bulk of the Panamanian Defense Force is still loyal to Noriega. He knows their support is key. They are sure to be paid, despite the current cash crisis; Noriega may not muster enough funds to pay government workers next week.

Yet opposition to his rule is growing:

Panama's reliance on the dollar as its currency has made Panama extraordinarily vulnerable to financial pressure. The freezing of Panamanian government assets in US banks and curbs by Panamanian banks on cash withdrawals have intensified the cash shortage. Noriega blames the United States; most Panamanians blame him.

After a successful general strike, the business-led Civic Crusade has joined major opposition parties to demand a new transitional government, leading to elections; its head would be Eric Arturo Delvalle, whom Noriega deposed as president but who is still recognized as such by the US and most other nations. That show of determination is encouraging.

Noriega insists that US economic pressure amounts to an act of war. He says US National Guard maneuvers under way in Panama this week are illegal and a prelude to a US military invasion. The US contends the exercises are routine and long scheduled, though it surely could have picked a better time and place for them.

For the moment Noriega's anti-American diatribe has found little reception. Yet the US should act prudently and cautiously in any further moves. A full-scale economic crisis would hurt Panamanians themselves and feed suspicions of overzealous US meddling. The Reagan administration is weighing a number of economic options beyond the US aid cutoff in effect since last summer. The administration correctly seeks now to do only what is most effective and supportive of popular opposition efforts.

Capitol Hill's threats of a full-scale trade and travel embargo and US cancellation of the Panama Canal treaties are more dramatic than practical; past trade embargoes have not worked well. Such talk suggests the same kind of impatience many feel the administration has shown in its inability to oust the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

The US should continue to state its clear preference for democracy, acting in concert with other nations as much as it can. Only Nicaragua, Cuba, and, to some extent, Paraguay support Noriega's new choice for president over Mr. Delvalle. Other small but encouraging signs continue: A nephew of Omar Torrijos, the late Panamanian leader, this week shifted his loyalty from Noriega to Delvalle; Panama's Roman Catholic Church has called for a clear subordination of military to civilian authority and restoration of human rights and press freedom.

In time Noriega himself must realize he has no choice than to leave.

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