Panama opposition loses leader - and hope for change

As Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega begins his sixth year at the helm of Panama's Defense Forces and the country, many Panamanians are discouraged about their prospects for ousting him. Two events of the past week have served to heighten their frustration. Arnulfo Arias, the charismatic opposition leader, died in exile in Miami last Wednesday - dashing many Panamanians' hopes that he might emerge as their next president in the May 1989 election. And, General Noriega celebrated his fifth year as head of Panama's Defense Forces on Friday.

There had been speculation that Noriega might use the occasion to announce his resignation from the armed forces and his candidacy for the presidency - though most Panamanians scoffed at the idea. But his defiant, nationalistic address made no reference to such a scenario.

Yesterday, thousands of Panamanians observed a national day of mourning for Arias. Political observers say his death will leave a tremendous void in Panama's political scene.

For decades, Arias dominated politics here. A perennial presidential candidate, he was deposed from the presidency three times by the military - in 1941, '51, and '68 - yet he remained Panama's most popular politician. He ran again for the presidency in 1984 but lost to a military candidate in elections the opposition said were fraudulent.

A nationalist and anticommunist, Arias backed legislation that gave women the vote and created Panama's social security system. He went into self-imposed exile in Miami in December.

As a Western diplomat put it, ``I don't see anyone out there who could command support the way Arnulfo could.''

Mourners on Saturday chanted anti-government slogans and waved banned opposition flags in honor of Arias. ``This is the first time in more than five months I've felt I could openly express my opinion,'' said Guillermo Lazo. ``We're demonstrating that we're not with the government, and this is one of the best opportunities we've had.''

The country's internal political crisis and US economic sanctions have left the economy in a shambles. The nation faces its worst recession in decades. Most economists say tougher times lie ahead, when the government must begin massive layoffs of public employees.

Opposition media remain closed, antigovernment protests are prohibited, and hundreds of families who fled Panama remain in exile. At the same time, schools have reopened and once-closed banks now allow limited transactions.

Many here have grown disillusioned with US efforts to force Noriega out. When news reached Panama last month of planned US covert actions, many felt the plans were aimed more at influencing US voters than at removing Noriega. The plan reportedly authorizes the CIA to support Panamanian opposition forces in overthrowing Noriega. But key opposition leaders here say they have not discussed such plans with the US and do not believe the US is seriously considering such secret moves.

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