Panama sizes up Uncle Sam. Most Panamanians cool to Noriega's efforts to fan anti-American sentiment

Gustavo Medina, a laid-off maintenance worker, complains bitterly about Panama's current cash crisis. But when asked if he blames his troubles on the United States' escalating economic war against Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the wiry Panamanian replies with a resounding ``No!''

``When the gringos come to take the man out,'' Mr. Medina says, ``we're going to take to the street and celebrate.''

In most Latin American countries, such US pressure would provide powder for an explosive anti-American reaction.

But not in Panama.

Despite recent warnings that cash-starved Panamanians might start turning anti-American, Medina's unabashedly pro-US views ran through Panama City yesterday.

Some 600 teachers spilled into the streets after being paid with unredeemable checks and bags of food worth $15. Their protests were aimed not at the US, but at General Noriega. For the first time since the crisis began last June, street protests - considered an omen for the next week - reached some of the poorest barrios of the steamy seaside capital, home to half of Panama's 2.2 million people.

From the dilapidated Caribbean-flavor slums to the luxurious American-style suburbs, most Panamanians are not responding to General Noriega's efforts to turn the crisis into a feverish anti-US campaign.

Noriega, an alleged drug smuggler who has dominated Panama's political life since becoming commander in chief of the Panama Defense Force in 1983, will likely see his popular appeal crumble even further today, diplomats and political analysts here say.

More than 100,000 government workers - the bulk of the general's support - are expected to experience delays both in receiving and cashing their bimonthly paychecks.

But growing support for the ``gringos'' by no means removes the risks and restraints that complicate US efforts to remove Noriega. In fact, if the current economic crisis deepens without clearly damaging Noriega, political analysts here warn that Panamanians could grow impatient and push the US to act more decisively.

There is already some frustration among those who feel the US is responsible for cleaning up the mess it helped create. During a recent rock-throwing skirmish with heavily armed riot police, a young woman gasped: ``We need Superman, Rambo, and the Exterminator to take him out of here.''

But if Uncle Sam were to use more muscle - whether with broader trade sanctions or even a military raid - it could undermine US relations with other Latin American countries that are highly sensitive to issues of sovereignty and intervention.

So far, the US has not been forced to use more than potent but passive economic measures. By supporting the opposition's call to freeze $50 million in Panamanian assets two weeks ago, and withholding a $6.5 million monthly Panama Canal payment last Friday, the US has helped choke the government financially.

The subsequent paralysis of the National Bank has immobilized the dollar-based economy, derailed the once-thriving banking and trade sectors, and deprived Panamanians of crinkly dollar bills, the country's currency.

There are signs that further measures might be unnecessary: Spain has offered asylum to Noriega, indicating behind-the-scenes negotiation for the general's departure.

Here in Panama, however, Noriega turned up the anti-Yankee heat. In a campaign that has intensified since President-in-hiding Eric Arturo Delvalle tried to fire him Feb. 25, Noriega portrayed his country as the victim of an aggressive US campaign to renege on the 1977 Panama Canal Treaties.

The US, Noriega says, wants to keep both the canal and its 10,000 Southern Command troops here beyond Dec. 31, 1999, the dates stipulated by the accord as the deadline for US withdrawal.

Last week, Foreign Minister Jorge Abad'ia Arias denounced a US military exercise taking place in the canal area as a ``prelude to invasion.'' The US Embassy here called the charges ``absurd.''

In recent days, foreign journalists have also been the target of public attacks, both with tear gas from riot police and with equally stinging warnings from the government-run newspapers. Through it all, Noriega has wrapped himself in the nationalist banner of Panama's revered military leader, the late Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera. While such populism has consolidated Noriega's support within the ranks of the Defense Force and his hard-core loyalists, it has been virtually ignored by most others.

A pro-government march organized by some of the most powerful government workers' unions last week attracted only 350 people.

``The nationalistic fervor simply is not showing itself,'' says a member of the military-controlled Democratic Revolutionary Party. This party leader says Torrijos's brand of nationalism lost its zing once the Panama Canal treaties were signed.

But others say Noriega, who received funds from the Central Intelligence Agency, has neither the nationalist credentials nor the charisma of Torrijos, who led Panama between 1968 and 1981.

``Noriega just doesn't have the magic touch of Torrijos,'' a Western diplomat says.

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