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Strong man on the mat

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THE economic and political squeeze on Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega is tightening slowly, just as it should. Panama's strong man clearly gets the message: Most Panamanians, and much of the rest of the world, think he should go. That General Noriega declines to take the next plane out should surprise no one. He has resisted encouragement to leave from within his own country and from Washington for more than a year. The extensive reach of US extradition laws now makes it more difficult for him to find a haven from US drug trafficking charges. He still might negotiate a deal if he moved fast, however.

The bulk of the Panamanian Defense Force is still loyal to Noriega. He knows their support is key. They are sure to be paid, despite the current cash crisis; Noriega may not muster enough funds to pay government workers next week.

Yet opposition to his rule is growing:

Panama's reliance on the dollar as its currency has made Panama extraordinarily vulnerable to financial pressure. The freezing of Panamanian government assets in US banks and curbs by Panamanian banks on cash withdrawals have intensified the cash shortage. Noriega blames the United States; most Panamanians blame him.

After a successful general strike, the business-led Civic Crusade has joined major opposition parties to demand a new transitional government, leading to elections; its head would be Eric Arturo Delvalle, whom Noriega deposed as president but who is still recognized as such by the US and most other nations. That show of determination is encouraging.

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