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Panama opposition sidelined. US policy and Noriega tactics undermine opponents

Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega blasted the United States over the weekend for its fruitless four-month campaign to wrest him from power. It seemed a typical meat-and-potatoes speech. But there was something missing: The general didn't waste a word chiding his internal opponents.

It wasn't necessary. For in the past month, the opposition has been reduced from a leading protagonist in the Panamanian drama to an almost inconsequential stage prop.

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Most leaders of the National Civic Crusade, a coalition of business and civic groups that spearheaded the movement to oust General Noriega, have left Panama - intimidated by the military. A few other government critics are in prison or in hiding. The few remaining anti-Noriega politicians have no committed popular following and cannot agree on a coherent strategy for change. As the US leapfrogs the Crusade to talk with Noriega, once-supportive opposition leaders blame their woes on the US.

The US's chief negotiator reportedly returned to Panama Monday morning to resume the private talks. Crusade members here say he hasn't bothered to consult the opposition since he began negotiations in April.

The US deputy assistant secretary of state for inter-american affairs, Michael Kozak, intending to speed up negotiations before President Reagan's departure tomorrow for the Moscow summit, apparently carries a proposal hammared out at two high-level Cabinet meetings in Washington over the weekend. Sunday, national security adviser Colin Powell indicated the US may be willing to drop two indictments against Noriega in exchange for his resignation as the Panamanian Defense Forces' commander in chief.

Neither the opposition nor much of official Washington wants to see the charges dropped. But analysts here say that Noriega, after emerging victorious from nearly four months of intense economic and diplomatic pressure, does not need to settle for anything less.

Noriega's strong negotiating position deeply disturbs his critics. After fighting the military for 20 years, these opposition leaders worry about a possible agreement that would remove Noriega but fail to restructure his defense forces, dismantle his military-run political machine, and guarantee an influx of dollars to resuscitate the economy.

``Businessmen would look at it as blackmail if the US ruined the economy only to get Noriega out,'' says a Crusade leader who wishes to remain anonymous.

Such harsh criticism seems unusual coming from a group that has received US counsel and support since last June, when unsavory revelations by an ex-Army colonel first sparked popular protest against Noriega.

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In early March, the US heeded a call by deposed President Eric Arturo Delvalle to freeze more than $50 million in Panamanian assets held in US banks and create a cash crunch. The move immediatedly froze the banking system and pushed Noriega's regime to the brink of bankruptcy. But the government managed to survive by collecting taxes, slashing spending, and intimidating its critics.

Most banks reopened May 9 for limited withdrawals, stirring a slight recuperation of the damaged economy and - more important, signaling Noriega's victory over economic sanctions.

``The US hasn't been able to get Noriega out, but it has managed to destroy the country,'' says Luis Alberto Arias, a former National Bank director. He resigned in July to become a quiet but influential member of the opposition. ``If the US has achieved anything, it has spawned a real anti-American sentiment in the opposition,'' he says. ``Their businesses are either destroyed or left with no possibility to develop.''

Mr. Arias is concerned the Reagan administration, embarrassed at being tweaked by a third-world ruler, is negotiating to ``save face rather than save Panama.''

Regardless of how the talks turn out, political analysts say, the opposition will likely remain weak, divided, and demoralized.

Using a mix of occasional threats, imprisonment, and punitive fines, Noriega has subdued the opposition without sparking strong international outcry. Even critics who have not sought exile in Miami are paying the government as much as $5,000 each for bail bonds to keep from being detained.

All critics agree the economic sanctions have hurt the private sector more than they hurt Noriega.

Political organization is easily stymied in the atmosphere of fear. Some opposition parties are now split on whether to negotiate with - and legitimize - handpicked President Manuel Solis Palma. This week, a moderate right-wing Molirena Party is expected to split over this issue.

``What more can we do?'' asks Guillermo C'ochez, vice-president of the Christian Democrat Party. ``Very little - the damage has already been done.''

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