Panama's future up to the people

THE real controversy in Panama is 2 million Panamanians vs. Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega and narco-militarism. To win, Panamanians erupted into Latin America's first truly nonviolent movement; they wanted to make the country ungovernable for General Noriega and his narco-military gang. Things were moving well. The movement created an umbrella organization that took over the streets for months; a number of people were shot, arrested, or tortured, but the movement persisted. Like all revolutions until now, the initiator was the middle class. The movement permeated upward and downward, creating a class solidarity never before seen. The international press covered the controversy extensively, exposing Noriega and his criminal enterprise to the world.

The Reagan administration was embarrassed to be connected to Noriega, especially since Washington's fingerprints could be found all over his military regime. To try for a quick fix, the administration produced a barrage of verbal attacks against Noriega; the effect was to bury the real controversy, between the Panamanian people and Noriega, inside a new controversy between President Reagan and Mr. Noriega.

The United States criticism disguised the lack of a clear policy; a last-ditch effort to negotiate the drug indictments against Noriega brought only more embarrassment. Noriega looks like the winner. The real controversy on the ground is unchanged. The US has been humbled and the struggle of the Panamanian people has been distorted. Today Panama is in a state of suspension; resentment against the US has intensified.

What next? Nonviolent movements aimed at dislodging violent narco-dictatorships require the heroism of both action and patience. For now, patience is in order. The horrible realization that no outside help can be expected must be allowed to sink in. The recriminations against the bumbling efforts by the US to oust Noriega must be exhausted. The people's movement must reorganize. Objectives must be reset and higher goals established. The goal can no longer be just a Noriega exit: It must include a total demilitarization of the political system. With the next crisis, the movement must again heroically take to the streets until Noriega's gang is gone and the military edifice has crumbled.

Is this too idealistic to be possible? Look at Costa Rica. Would we not have a better hemisphere if we had 21 demilitarized Costa Ricas?

And what should the US role be?

The US holds the most revolutionary of political ideas: legitimate democracy. The US should cease to be a power that supports the status quo, while permitting the bureaucratized Soviets to portray themselves as the revolutionaries of this hemisphere.

The US is constantly looking at short-term interests; it lacks vision. Looking only at day-to-day interests, while sacrificing values, is a mistake. The 15-year US alliance with Noriega is dramatic proof of this fact.

The US must get back to its values, back to its revolutionary political idea - back to truly supporting the people of Panama in their struggle for a demilitarized and truly democratic Panama.

The people of Panama in time will prevail. When that time comes, let us hope the US is on the right side.

I. Roberto Eisenmann Jr. is editorial director of La Prensa, a Panamanian daily now suspended by the Noriega regime.

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