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What drives Panama's economic elite to take to the streets in protest?

Throughout last week's unsuccessful uprising against Panamanian military strong man Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, middle-class leaders of the movement repeatedly referred to the way Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown last year. That example, they said, served as an inspiration: If sufficiently galvanized, professional and business people did have the strength to rise up and assert themselves politically.

But this time at least, it didn't work in Panama.

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General Noriega and the civilian government his Army remain in place. Charges against Noriega of murder and political fraud remain unanswered. And the organizers of the revolt have gone back to their businesses.

But the grievances borne by Panama's middle class - comprising perhaps an elite 15 percent of the population - continue to simmer, say the lawyers, engineers, doctors, and managers who were most vocally hostile to the government last week.

Discontent in Panama is not limited to the wealthier members of society; many residents of poorer neighborhoods expressed it clearly too.

But the leaders of the anti-Noriega ``National Civic Crusade,'' headquartered in the Panama City Chamber of Commerce building, rallied around two key issues they felt most deeply about - the level of corruption in government, and the lack of democracy.

Panama's professionals, though relatively few in number, ``are a strong force'' says one Latin American diplomat.

``They provide services in a country that depends on services,'' and they can make their demands felt, the diplomat said.

Some 10,000 bank employees staff the financial institutions that have flocked to Panama from all over the world. Scores of lawyers process the legal paperwork needed to set up a company here. (Around 300 offshore firms are created here each day, some just for the time it takes to conduct one transaction). Import-export operators flourish in Panama's free trade zone.

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A good many of these professional people have been educated abroad, especially in the United States, and they orient themselves heavily toward the outside world.

``Professionals here are used to competing with world class people,'' explains one employer. ``We don't see ourselves as businessmen in an underdeveloped country, we see ourselves as Phoenicians.''

But since 1968, when General Omar Torrijos launched a military coup, the middle class has lacked the political power to match such proud visions.

And while the recent unrest was focused on a demand for Noriega's ouster, the movement leaders expressed broader goals: fundamental changes in a system of government in which the military is generally perceived as all powerful.

Panama's business class, says Ramiro Vasquez, a leader of the official Democratic Revolutionary Party (DRP) ``has traditionally been profoundly antimilitarist'' and continues to resent the armed forces'' domination of Panamanian life.

For the DRP, the explanation of last week's business strike is simple. ``With the revolution [in 1968], the rich lost their political power, and now they want to recover it'' argues Argenia del Barrios, the National Assembly vice-president.

But Frank Tedman, an industrial engineer, says it is not so much power he is interested in as being able to cast a vote that counts.

``In my professonal life, I've never seen a free election in which the results were respected'' he said. ``Many of my generation feel our desires are frustrated, because we have no chance to express our political point of view.''

A Western diplomat points out that ``Panamanians were promised democracy 10 years ago,'' in the wake of the Carter-Torrejos canal treaty. ``And they want it now,'' he says.

DRP deputy leader Vasquez acknowledges the gripe. ``The middle class has lost its channels of political participation,'' he says, admitting that his party has ``ignored the business associations.''

``An abyss has opened up that the process has been unable to bridge,'' he adds.

Equally disturbing to the leaders of last week's protest is the corruption that by everyone's account has reached astounding proportions in Panama.

One well-informed inside source estimates Noriega's personal weath in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Colonel Roberto Diaz Herrera, the former army chief of staff who sparked last week's riots with his allegations against Noriega, admitted building his house with money he extorted from Cubans applying for Panamanian visas.

``You cannot overestimate the level of corruption in this country,'' says one foreign financier with extensive experience here. ``People are sick of seeing such dishonesty.''

Some opposition leaders expressed their disgust in moral terms. ``We are living in an unbreathable civic-moral atmosphere,'' charges Christian Democratic Party Chief Ricardo Arias Calderon. ``The oppositon to Noriega is based on ethical and civic repulsion.''

Other businessmen, however, point to what they claim are the harmful economic effects of corruption.

Kickbacks and bribes ``make doing business here more expensive, more inefficient, and more risky'' says one distributer of medical equipment. ``It's scary.''

Ramiro Vasquez of the PRD agreed that ``evidently our leaders must take corrective measures.'' He says his party will ``evaluate '' the corruption charges.

But at the same time, ``for the opposition, real democracy [at the next elections] in 1989 means only that we just give power to them. And that,'' he cautions, ``we are not going to do.''

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