|Keesing's Record of World Events (formerly Keesing's Contemporary Archives),
Volume 34, April, 1988 Panama, Page 35815
© 1931-2006 Keesing's Worldwide, LLC - All Rights Reserved.
[+] Apr 1988 - Crisis in relations with USA and in internal affairs
US Senate resolution (June 26, 1987). Attack on US embassy (June 30, 1987). OAS resolution (July 2, 1987). Lifting of state of emergency (June 29, 1987). Suspension of US aid (July 24, 1987). Withdrawal of Liberal Party from government (Oct. 28, 1987). Indictment of Gen. Noriega by US grand juries (Feb. 4, 1988). Call for US troop withdrawal (Feb. 9, 1988). Attempted dismissal of Gen. Noriega (Feb. 25, 1988). Replacement of President Delvalle (Feb. 26, 1988). Freezing of Panamanian assets in USA (March 4, 1988). Suspension of US payments to Panama (March 11, 1988). Attempted coup (March 16, 1988). Reimposition of state of emergency (March 18, 1988). Amnesty International report (March 17, 1988).
From June 1987 onwards a newly formed middle-class organization of business and professional groups with opposition party and church support, known as the National Civic Crusade (Cruzada Civilista Nacional–CCN), spearheaded demonstrations and general strikes in an attempt to dislodge from control of the country the discredited Commander of the Panamanian Defence Forces, Gen. Noriega.
As the situation in Panama grew increasingly chaotic the nominal head of state, President Eric Arturo Delvalle, on Feb. 25, 1988, attempted unsuccessfully to dismiss Gen. Noriega who, however, used the Legislative Assembly (the legislative body), dominated by his own supporters, to remove the President and to replace him with Gen. Noriega's own appointee. The United States administration in March brought financial pressure to bear on the Panamanian regime, and the government's resulting inability to pay salaries brought it into sharp conflict with public employees and other sectors for the first time.
The troubles had begun with the enforced retirement on June 1, 1987, of the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera, who, after Gen. Noriega's announcement of his intention to remain Commander until 1992, had made serious allegations against Gen. Noriega concerning his involvement not only in drug smuggling and electoral fraud but also in the deaths of the opposition leader, Dr Hugo Spadafora, in 1985 and of Gen. Noriega's predecessor, Brig.- Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera, in 1981 [see 35189 A]. Three days of protests in support of the resignation of Gen. Noriega and the installation of a truly civilian government culminated in the imposition by President Delvalle on June 11 of a state of emergency and this was extended indefinitely on June 20 by vote of the Legislative Assembly. An opposition general strike nevertheless went ahead on June 11–17, during which the banks were closed on June 12–15, and the Church on June 14 condemned the methods used by the security forces during the protests.
The Legislative Assembly on June 15 approved a motion to lay treason and subversion charges against a former President, Sr Nicolas Ardito Barletta (in whose favour the 1984 elections were alleged to have been rigged by Gen. Noriega- A–but who was subsequently ousted by the General in 1985 in favour of President Delvalle-), and against the businessmen and politicians leading the CCN. Sr Barletta had said the previous week that Col. Diaz's charges were correct and that he himself had been forced to resign in 1985 after calling for an investigation into Dr Spadafora's murder.
The US Senate on June 26, 1987, passed a resolution (by 84 votes to two) calling on Gen. Noriega to step down until an independent inquiry had clarified the accusations against him, and urging a return to civilian democracy. This provoked the urgent recall of the Panamanian ambassador for consultations on June 27 and a Panamanian protest on June 27 at US interference in its internal affairs, the Panamanian Foreign Minister, Dr Victor Jorge Abadia Arias, asserting that an allusion in the resolution to the US troops stationed in Panama was intended as a reminder that Panama also faced an internal threat. The Legislative Assembly on June 30 passed a resolution accusing the United States of ‘interventionist aggression’ and calling for the expulsion of the US ambassador, Mr Arthur Davis; during anti-US demonstrations on the same day orchestrated by the dominant military-backed Democratic Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Democratico–PRD), in which 12 government ministers took part, stones and red paint were hurled at the US embassy. The USA, after issuing a protest against the damage to its embassy, demanded USdollars 100,000 in compensation and closed its consular section and its information library.
An extraordinary session of the Organization of American States (OAS), convened at Panama's request on July 2, approved by 17 votes to one (USA) a resolution expressing concern that certain activities reported in Panama constituted ‘unwarranted interference’ in Panama's domestic affairs [see also page 35767 for further details].
After four more weeks of protests and a second general strike, organized by the CCN on July 3–6, President Delvalle said in a broadcast on July 6 that he had urged the Attorney General to carry out an immediate investigation into the charges against Gen. Noriega, and he called on the military to withdraw to their ‘legitimate professional duties’. Having lifted the state of emergency on June 29, he subsequently (on July 8 banned all street demonstrations. In spite of the ban an opposition rally organized by the CCN to demand the dismissal of Gen. Noriega went ahead on July 10 and dozens of people were hurt as soldiers and riot police (apparently joined by civilian paramilitary squads) moved against the demonstrators. Several hundred participants were said by the opposition to have been arrested; 100 of them were later released. Gen. Noriega on July 13 again rejected calls for his resignation.
The United States confirmed on July 24 that it had suspended economic and military aid to Panama, worth respectively dollars 20,000,000 and dollars 6,000,000 in total in 1987; in addition it had halted routine maintenance and repair work for the Panamanian armed forces and had turned down an order for tear gas supplies.
A 48-hour general strike organized by the CCN on July 27–28 (counterbalanced by three days of pro-government demonstrations on July 27–29) was widely supported, with shops, offices and schools closed and no public transport in operation. The National University was closed by the university authorities for a week from July 27 after clashes between the Defence Forces and students protesting at the alleged shooting of a student by National Guardsmen. The government on July 27 closed down three opposition newspapers (La Prensa, El Siglo and Extra) for inciting subversion and disrupting public order as well as two weeklies printed on the same premises (Quiubo and La Gaceta Financier), and three radio stations (Mundial, Continente and Sonora) for ‘anti-government broadcasts’. The Star and Herald, Latin America's oldest English-language newspaper, was later closed by its publisher.
The Interior Ministry warned on July 29 that foreign reporters (who were now the only mouthpiece for a non-official view of events) risked imprisonment for ‘distorting the truth’, and an American correspondent for Reuters, Mr Tom Brown, was ordered to leave Panama on July 31 (as was a US Cable News correspondent on Sept. 16). The US State Department on Aug. 4 called for the reinstatement of full press freedom and for an end to all intimidation and censorship of the press.
Just before the strike began Col. Diaz was arrested with 44 others on July 27 during a five-hour attack on his home involving troops with helicopter support, in which between six and 14 people were said to have died (although the government claimed that the attack lasted only seven minutes and produced no casualties). The Minister of Justice, Sr Rodolfo Chiari de Leon, announced on July 29 that Col. Diaz was being charged with ‘crimes against the internal image of the state’, and although Col. Diaz's lawyer said on Aug. 2 that he had withdrawn his charges against Gen. Noriega he subsequently stated on Aug. 4 that this had been done under duress. Col. Diaz was sentenced in early December to five years’ imprisonment but was released on Dec. 24 and expelled to Venezuela to join his family.
The government claimed on Aug. 5 to have discovered an opposition plot to overthrow the government following raids on CCN premises, and issued arrest warrants for six of its leaders including Sr Aurelio Barria, the president of the Chamber of Commerce.
A large opposition demonstration went ahead on Aug. 6 and the CCN on Aug. 7 rejected a call from the PRD for dialogue even though President Delvalle said that he was prepared to negotiate on anything except the resignation of Gen. Noriega. On Aug. 19 President Delvalle called for electoral reform, urging all parties to begin discussions in preparation for the 1989 presidential and parliamentary elections. A 24-hour general strike convened for Aug. 18 was not widely followed but there were two days of student protests on Aug. 20–21 during which many were injured or temporarily detained. Low-level protests continued to be a regular occurrence over the next two months, symbolized by the hooting of car horns and with white being established as the colour of the protest movement.
On Sept. 29 four opposition leaders were evicted from the Vatican diplomatic mission where they had been in hiding for two months, and were expelled. The vice-president of the Popular Action Party (Partido Accion Popular–Papo), Prof. Miguel Antonio Bernal, was allowed to leave the country in early October after being sought by police for ‘promoting public disorder’, but about 20 Papo and PDC supporters were arrested on Oct. 20. On the same day two Panamanian journalists and three distributors of the newspaper Alternativa were arrested and were badly beaten in detention, as was Sr Roberto Arosemena, general secretary of Papo and a columnist on Alternativa.
In a move which led to a further deterioration in bilateral relations, the US Senate on Sept. 24 unanimously passed a resolution urging Panama to restore press freedom within 45 days (ie by Nov. 8 and to initiate a private investigation into the charges against Gen. Noriega, to set up a non-military transitional government and to take other steps towards democracy, failing which economic and military aid would be definitely cut and a ban would be imposed on the import of Panamanian sugar and its by-products. (The Senate then voted unanimously on Nov. 20 to cut aid and to suspend the sugar quota.)
Also on Sept. 24 more than 100 uniformed US troops stationed in the Panama Canal Zone arrived at the US embassy, violating the procedure laid down in the 1977 Panama Canal treaties for the movement of US troops, and a US military helicopter also violated Panamanian airspace. The Legislative Assembley on Sept. 29 condemned a US ‘destabilization’ campaign and accused the USA of interference in its domestic affairs and of attempting to overthrow the constitutional government.
On Sept. 13 a commercial attache at the US embassy, Mr David Miller, was arrested during an opposition demonstration (held to mark the second anniversary of Dr Spadafora's death) but was released several hours later, the USA registering a protest at the detention of a diplomat. (Six months later, on March 23, 1988, Mr Miller was given 48 hours to leave the country.) Panama had made a number of complaints to the United States since June, accusing US diplomats of being active in the political crisis, and on Oct. 27 the government opened an investigation into the conduct of the US ambassador, who had made no secret of his pro-opposition sentiments. A retired US officer living in Panama, Col. Richard Stone, was expelled on Oct. 16 for allegedly taking part in anti-government protests.
As relations with the USA worsened, the Panamanian regime maintained good relations with Cuba and Nicaragua, which were reluctant to align themselves with the USA on any issue. US hostility was increased by reports that Panama was seeking closer ties with Libya and the Soviet Union.
A major opposition demonstration and general strike, described by the CCN as ‘the beginning of the end’, was staged on Oct. 22, but although shops, businesses and schools were closed, public transport operated normally and 2,000 riot police were deployed in the streets, preventing any large-scale demonstrations. At least 100 people were arrested on Oct. 23, about 70 of them being released on Oct. 27 after being fined.
Sr Alberto Conte, the former president of the private employers’ organization, which had been active in the protests, was sentenced on Oct. 26 to one year's imprisonment for ‘rebellious activities’ and on Nov. 6 Sr Carlos González de la Lastra, the president of the Social Democratic Party (Partido Democrata Socialista– PDS), who was one of those sought by police since early August–was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for ‘subverting public order and promoting disrespect for the authorities’. (A pardon announced by President Delvalle on Dec. 22 for about 100 people allegedly involved in criminal activities since June 8, 1987, included Panamanians living in exile but excluded a few leading opposition politicians.)
On Oct. 28 the Vice-President, Sr Roderick Lorenzo Esquivel, who had been critical of the government and especially of press censorship, withdrew his Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Nacional–PLN) from the five-party ruling coalition, the National Democratic Union (Unión Nacional Democratico–Unade). He had been under strong pressure to resign since President Delvalle had closed his office and had dismissed his staff the previous week while he was out of the country. Sr Esquivel, who said that he wanted to join the struggle for democratic freedom and would remain Vice-President in an independent capacity, was replaced as PLN leader on Dec. 6 by the Justice Minister, Sr Chiari de León.
The president of the PRD, Sr Rómulo Escobar Bethancourt, was reported on Nov. 20 to have been removed from his post, but no replacement was announced.
On Dec. 29 the Legislative Assembly agreed to allow the opposition media to reopen on the basis of a new press law, and all the newspapers and radio stations closed in August reopened on Jan. 19–20, 1988.
The new law prohibited the publication of anything ‘offending the dignity’ of government leaders or of any references to their ‘physical defects’, ‘false, distorted or inaccurate news’, appeals for the replacement of the constitutional authorities, articles ‘which might justify interventionist’ action, and unattributed quotes. A requirement was also introduced for foreign journalists to register with the Interior Ministry every three days, and reporters from the Washington Post and the Miami Herald were later deported.
The CCN on Jan. 4 proposed the establishment of a provisional government junta comprising two CCN leaders and one opposition party appointee, which would respect the integrity and status of the armed forces once they had subordinated themselves to the powers of the state. The proposals foresaw the suspension of the existing Legislative Assembly and elections within 18 months; the replacement of judges by ‘able, upright and independent-thinking’ appointees; economic reactivation, taking into account people's urgent needs and aiming to reduce unemployment; and the replacement of the four Panamanian members of joint US-Panamanian board of administration of the Panama Canal. Similar proposals had been put forward by opposition leaders in July, advocating a ‘new democratic government’, and by the Christian Democratic Party (Partido Demócrata Cristiano–PDC) in September 1987, who proposed the appointment of a former President, Dr Arnulfo Arias Madrid, 86, the leader of the Authentic Panamenist Party (Partido Panamenista Autentico–PPA), who was widely believed by the opposition to have been the true winner of the 1984 elections.