Inside push on Noriega. The military may be the key to removing Panama's leader; a former confidant says the general's power has already eroded

Few doubt that it will be Panamanian military officers who eventually remove Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega from power. Few also doubt, among the United States officials, Panamanian oppositionists, and Panama experts interviewed, that serious strains of discontent remain among the officers that can help lead to General Noriega's departure.

Despite Noriega's efforts to shore up his support within the Panamanian Defense Forces following the March 16 coup attempt, there remains a ``fifth column'' of mid-level officers who have much to lose and little to gain by Noriega's continued rule, these analysts say. According to a Pentagon official, the coup failed before many of those willing to go against the general jumped on the bandwagon, and they're still in the PDF.

Meanwhile, Noriega's former confidant Jos'e Blandon says the general's monopoly on power has eroded. The newly formed Strategic Military Council is ``almost running the show by now,'' Mr. Blandon said in a telephone interview. Noriega's closest cronies on the council ``now have more force than Noriega,'' he said, explaining that they control the more important PDF units.

Contrary to reports, Blandon said it was not Noriega who decided to set up the 20-man council, but the members themselves, in an effort to pressure Noriega. Although the council is made up of the younger loyalist officers to whom Noriega has for years delegated responsibility and consulted for advice bypassing the more senior general staff, Noriega can't even count on the council not to turn on him, a former PDF officer says.

``I would say that he has the support of only 75 percent of them,'' says Maj. Augusto Vill'alaz, a pilot who defected to the US shortly after the coup attempt.

Given that the leader of the coup, Col. Leonidas Macias, had been considered one of Noriega's closest supporters, ``loyalty'' appears to be a relative term in the PDF. Noriega seems well aware of this. Since the coup attempt, he has purged some 80 men from the PDF and reportedly surrounded himself with Cuban bodyguards.

Blandon described two factions in the Strategic Military Council:

The so-called ``gang of eight,'' men involved with Noriega in his drug trade. The leaders are Lt. Col. Nivaldo Madrin'an and Maj. Luis Cordoba. This is the more powerful faction, because it controls the troops.

The remaining 12, who are not involved in the drug trade and do not control the troops. They are influential by dint of their promotion by Noriega. The leaders of this faction are Maj. Felipe Camargo and Maj. Daniel Delgado, the ``public-relations faces'' of the council.

Blandon says that, contrary to the standard view, Noriega was negotiating in good faith with the US. In fact, he says, Noriega was set to accept the US offer, but the ``gang of eight'' vetoed the deal, because it did not provide for their future. The US State Department's negotiator, Michael Kozak, has also cited objections of Noriega loyalists as one reason for the collapse.

``After the negotiations failed, he [Noriega] called the US asking for more time,'' Blandon said, adding that it showed ``he needed time to work something out with his men.''

Blandon, fired by Noriega last fall after drafting a plan to ease the general from power, was a key witness in investigations that led to Noriega's two US drug indictments. Blandon has managed to weather challenges to his credibility, but interpreting the inner workings of the PDF from the US may be another matter. Even inside Panama, few people know what is happening within the PDF. Still, says a congressional aide involved in Panama, ``Blandon has good intelligence.''

For the various players outside the PDF trying to clean it up and head Panama toward national reconciliation, the main dilemma is this: how to exploit the weaknesses within the PDF, which Noriega has virtually sealed off from civilian society.

``The people in the PDF in a position to do something aren't looking beyond the day-to-day at this point,'' the congressional aide says. ``We need a mechanism that pushes them to think about the future.''

The first step was for the US to lower its profile. Aside from a renewed effort to keep US companies in Panama from paying taxes, the Reagan administration has gone silent on Panama.

``Keeping it quiet is a form of pressure,'' a State Department official says.

Tough economic sanctions remain. The US continues to hope that by deepening Panama's economic crisis, Panamanians (including PDF officers) will take drastic measures to remove at least Noriega. Within the PDF, the situation no doubt weighs especially heavily on those officers whose futures will not be provided for in a possible eventual arrangement that removes Noriega. Also, those officers not involved in the drug trade lack a financial cushion.

Another factor that analysts feel may inspire PDF action is fear of isolation - diplomatic isolation of Panama, isolation of the PDF from other Latin militaries, and further isolation of the PDF within its own society.

Since Panama has only recently opened a military academy, most PDF officers got their training abroad, where they formed bonds with their foreign peers. Some players in the Panama crisis have suggested that Latin military men may be able to apply private verbal pressure on their Panamanian friends, though tapped phone lines inhibit candid discussion. Furthermore, intense internal scrutiny within the PDF has put the force in a virtual state of terror, making men reluctant to do anything that might be construed as disloyal, says Eva Loser, a Panama specialist.

There are other internal Panamanian political factors that need to be resolved for the PDF to act, analysts say. Namely, the PDF needs to feel that the Panamanian people support a revamped PDF, not a destroyed one. And for the opposition to galvanize the populace, it needs to broaden its base of support.

Prof. Richard Millett, a Panama specialist at the University of Southern Illinois, says the PDF will oust Noriega only when it is sure there is a replacement it can live with. He adds that ``the PDF has to believe that any deal can't be squelched by the US.''

Blandon predicted that any eventual deal with Noriega will look like the one he almost had with the US, plus provisions for ``the gang of eight.''

Some ``Latin initiatives'' have resumed. At the behest of Guatemalan President Vinicio Cerezo, US mediation specialist Allen Weinstein has picked up his efforts to, as he puts it, ``get Panamanians talking to Panamanians.'' Mr. Weinstein had been quietly doing this before when, in mid-April, the State Department asked him to step aside to allow Mr. Kozak to begin bilateral negotiations.

Weinstein said Noriega phoned him recently to express interest in keeping communication going within Panama. Last week Weinstein was there, offering Guatemala as a venue for a Panamanian national dialogue. He met with the Strategic Military Council and members indicated an interest in talks in Guatemala. He said many expressed support for democracy.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.