FACED with soaring unemployment and increasing crime and drug use, Panamanians are expressing growing discontent over their government's ability to run the country.
Public support for Guillermo Endara, who was installed as president three years ago after the United States invasion that ousted dictator Manuel Noriega, has sunk to a record low.
Mr. Endara, the presumed winner of the May 1989 elections annulled by Mr. Noriega, enjoyed 90 percent approval among Panamanians shortly after the invasion. But a poll published in the influential daily La Prensa Dec. 29 shows the president's approval rating at a paltry 13.5 percent.
The dramatic loss of support for Endara, who is constitutionally ineligible to run for reelection in 1994, reflects widespread discontent with a continued high unemployment rate, a slow justice system, and a rising crime rate.
"There's discontent because the government has proven to be incapable of solving the country's major problems," says Julia Wolfschon, editor of the weekly news magazine Momento, which has been highly critical of Endara.
"The first year after the invasion was understandably difficult for the government since the economy and society had been weakened after years of crisis. But the second year there should have been noticeable progress, and there was none," she says.
Although the economy grew by 6 percent last year, unemployment is still more than 20 percent in addition to another 20 percent who are underemployed, business leaders and diplomats say.
Many Panamanians also complain that the justice system has been too slow with Noriega's former collaborators. So far only two of the deposed strongman's aides have been convicted, while another 40 former military aides await trial on charges ranging from torture and murder to corruption. Other suspected collaborators have not been charged.
Endara himself has criticized the slow pace of convictions, but blames the courts, which, he says, have full independence from his government. The courts and judges, in turn, blame insufficient resources to handle the cases.
Endara's loss of support is also due to the sharp increase in crime since the invasion, caused by increased drug trafficking and an ill-equipped police force, police officials and foreign diplomats say.
After the invasion, Noriega's 16,000-strong Panamanian Defense Forces, which also performed police duties, were dissolved and replaced by a 10,000-strong police force.
The new force has consistently complained of insufficient weapons, vehicles, and other equipment.
Last year Panamanian authorities seized more than 4.5 tons of cocaine, in addition to two tons of cocaine confiscated by a Panama-based US Navy ship off Panama's Caribbean coast in May. In 1990 authorities seized nearly five tons of cocaine - three times more than what was seized during Noriega's last year in power, according to police statistics.
Under Noriega, Panama became a transshipment point for drugs from neighboring Colombia to the US as the former strongman took millions of dollars in payoffs to give Colombian drug traffickers protection and cooperation, former drug traffickers and other witnesses have testified in his drug trial which resumes in Miami Feb. 3.
But Noriega permitted only a fraction of the drugs to remain in Panama after collecting his "toll," police and diplomats say. Since the invasion, however, there has been an unprecedented increase in drug consumption, especially among the poor and the young, police and anti-drug groups say. Increased consumption has led to increased crime as addicts, many unemployed, try to finance their habits and drug gangs fight over the local market.
In addition, the Endara government has been the target of violent attacks in the last month. Twenty people were detained last weekend in connection with the violence, which included a missile attack on a government ministry. The government announced yesterday that some of those detained had made plans to kill Endara and overthrow his government on Jan. 31.
Despite this and other alleged coup plots, the Panamanian leader is expected to sit through his presidential term, which ends in 1994. The presence of about 10,000 US troops along the Panama Canal makes it virtually impossible for any coup attempt to succeed, Panamanian politicians say.
According to the poll, the leading contender to succeed Endara is Ruben Blades, a Harvard-educated lawyer mostly known for his salsa songs and roles in several Hollywood movies.
Blades headed a list of seven possible presidential candidates, while his party, Papa Egoro ("Motherland" in the local Embera Indian dialect), received twice as much support as its nearest challenger, the La Prensa poll showed.
But Blades, who has lived in the US since 1974, is opposed by many Panamanians who say he has lived too long abroad and did not sufficiently criticize Noriega before his ouster.
Another leading contender to succeed Endara is Guillermo Ford, the second vice president and planning minister, who has been able to maintain high popularity the last two years despite his participation in the increasingly unpopular government.
But 46.1 percent of those polled said they were undecided or would not vote for any of the seven possible candidates.
Neither the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party (Noriega's old party) nor the Christian Democrats, who initially formed part of Endara's governing coalition but were expelled last April, have enough support to win the next elections, the poll showed.