Panama Struggles With Democracy a Year After Invasion

ONE year after United States invasion forces chased out Manuel Noriega and installed an affable labor lawyer as president, Panamanians are wondering what went wrong. President Guillermo Endara's arrival ended 21 years of military rule and made Panama freer. But despite high hopes, democracy has not brought prosperity or tranquillity.

Exuberance has been replaced by strikes and protests; a corrupt military converted to a largely ineffective police force; a cunning dictator cast out for a weak civilian government. And dependence on the US seems to be deepening. ``We're at a standstill and people are very frustrated,'' says analyst Marco Gandasegui. ``The government has been completely unable to do anything it promised. And people see the US is not a solution. But the problem is what to do?''

A police mutiny and quick US response this month brought Panama's vulnerability into sharp focus. After a year of US-lead efforts to reform Noriega's Army into a police force, the uprising showed the police force still cannot be trusted, analysts say. And Panama is still clearly dependent on the US to maintain order and prop up the government, they say.

On Dec. 4, retired Col. Eduardo Herrera forced his way into Panama's police headquarters. Colonel Herrera claimed he was not attempting a coup. But his men fired tear gas and minutes later US troops were called to the complex. Soon after, the rebels were rounded up. For the second time in a year, the US had intervened militarily.

Panama welcomed US forces as heroes after the Dec. 20 invasion. But GIs got a different reaction this time. As US troops chased down rebels and packed them into paddy wagons, bystanders jeered GIs with insults like ``Hussein, Hussein.'' Many felt angry that GIs were used to quell an internal rebellion.

``Panamanians are mortified by having to call in US troops'' says Archbishop Marcos McGrath. ``Every time it happens, we feel ourselves less a nation.''

Momentous as it was, the police drama was overshadowed by labor unrest last week. Hundreds of state workers stormed the National Assembly to protest a law that permits the government to fire workers. Mr. Endara called them ``traitors,'' tying them to Herrera's uprising. But unionists say the plot was a sham to justify layoffs and divert attention from policy failures.

Most observers blame Panama's instability on its soaring jobless rate, as high as 30 percent in some areas.

Armed robberies and barrio violence have heightened the sense of insecurity. Panamanians are peaceful easy-going people. But their security arrangements make Panama look like a war zone. Heavily armed private guards often outnumber shoppers on sidewalks.

Most also had high hopes the US would flood Panama with cash to help solve economic problems. That has not happened. Most funds from a $461 million recovery package are still not flowing because of bureaucratic delays.

``Expectations were too high and frustrations have boiled over,'' says Deane Hinton, US ambassador to Panama. ``Governing is not easy in the best of times and this government has not been blessed with the best of times. Remember how it was last year. Think about how far Panama has come.''

Another US official is more blunt. ``The only way we could have made them happy would have been to fly an airplane over and drop money out.''

But Panama's economic recovery, though sputtering, is not stalled. Shops ransacked by invasion looters have been open for months. Bank deposits are up. Newspapers are flourishing. The economy grew 5 percent this year.

Many, however, still feel tricked by US promises to repair damage done by the invasion and economic sanctions.

``They should have given us more support,'' says shop clerk Suzie Schwartz. ``Not just `goodbye and good luck.'''

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