Five weeks ago, opponents of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega slunk around town wearing conspiratorial smiles. With help from the United States, they had engineered an economic coup, freezing $50 million of government funds and pushing General Noriega's regime into virtual bankruptcy. Without money, they figured, Noriega would fall in days.
They figured wrong.
Today, the grins have turned to grimaces. As the strangulation of the Panamanian economy tightens the noose around the businessmen more than Noriega, frustrated opposition members are starting to grumble about what they see as the Reagan administration's all-talk, no-action policy toward Panama.
Many opposition leaders are now pleading for more direct US pressure - even military intervention.
``We're experiencing a widespread deterioration of our economy, but we haven't achieved what we thought we would,'' says a leading banker, noting Noriega won't be intimidated by the 1,300 US security forces dispatched to Panama Tuesday afternoon. ``The US has continued to threaten Noriega but it has done nothing more. The people are hurting, but Noriega is still there.''
The tenacious general did make a tentative step toward a negotiated exit Tuesday when he accepted Panamanian Archbishop Marcus McGrath's offer to act as a mediator. The archbishop said Wednesday morning he had yet to receive a written response from the government. He said he had to receive it by Thursday morning at the latest or else negotiations would be off.
Noriega's key demand seems to be that the talks have no conditions, not even his departure. His partial acceptance of a plan formulated last week by Spain's prime minister and Costa Rica's President put opposition leaders in the awkward position of saying ``no'' to negotiations.
Spearheaded by a coalition of civic and business groups known as the National Civic Crusade, the opposition refuses to negotiate with what it sees as an unconstitutional government until Noriega leaves. Indeed, many consider talk to be little more than a tool to give the behind-the-scenes ruler more time in power.
But the opposition seems stuck with a limited array of options and, despite its growing size, an inability to topple Noriega. The results: more plaintive calls for US help. ``We're feeling that even though we're putting all our effort into it, the country in general is going down the drain,'' says Luis Guillermo Casco Arias, secretary-general of the Nationalist Liberal Republican Movement, a conservative opposition party. The situation ``demands stronger measures [from the US], a direct appliance of pressure.''
There is no consensus about what that action should be. Mr. Casco Arias feels the US should encourage other Latin American armies and governments to increase the pressure on Noriega. Last week, Crusade leader Aurelio Barria Jr. said the US, which had long financed Noriega, should now carry out a commando raid to remove the stubborn military strong man. But Eric Arturo Delvalle, the President ousted for trying to depose Noriega on Feb. 25, has cautioned against further US action because it could create a backlash of anti-Americanism.
The majority of people seeking to oust Noriega do have one common goal: a quick solution to economic woes. Scores of small businesses have been forced to shut down. Forlorn bankers say the once-heralded banking system will never again be a haven for foreign deposits.
Even many of the businesses that opened after a two-week general strike are losing money because few people have extra cash to spend. The future is so bleak that late at night Panamanians form lines outside the passport office, hoping to get US visas.
Instead of ousting Noriega, this [economic freeze] has been a direct blow to the Panamanian people,'' says Luis Alberto Arias, former chief of the National Bank who left his post last July after a dispute with the government. ``That's not a complaint. We Panamanians have to accept the hardship as a price we have to pay.'' But any further economic sanctions would be ``unnecessary roughness.''
Like most people siding with the opposition, Mr. Arias thinks the current economic track could eventually bring Noriega down - but too slowly.
Indeed, even with popular discontent on the rise, the Defense Forces have easily intimidated the opposition. Tuesday, squadrons of riot police smothered two planned demonstrations before they even got started. The opposition, which planned another march for Wednesday afternoon, still seems rattled by last week's paramilitary raid on their headquarters at the Marriott Hotel.
Some Noriega opponents feel the US has left them in the lurch. ``People thought the US had done its homework well,'' says a prominent businessman who helps lead the Civic Crusade. ``They forced the banks to close easily. But when that was done, people expected that there would be other options to follow. But they've only created false expectations.''
The US national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Colin Powell, said Tuesday the US was considering a range of political, economic, and military options. But each option carries its risk. Further economic sanctions would pinch the population before punching the general. An unprovoked military intervention would be hard to justify to the world, especially Latin America.
Says opposition leader Casco Arias: ``We're all dancing around the fire, but nobody wants to get burned.''