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Panamanians Applaud Invasion

Many see the US action as the only viable solution for country's political and economic crises

JUAN ANTONIO GUILLEN seems an unlikely supporter of the United States invasion of Panama. The 66-year-old night watchman at the headquarters of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) here was sleeping early Dec. 20 when three US armored personnel carriers pulled up outside his window. An explosive device hit the wall and stunned him long enough for two US soldiers to haul him away.

Mr. Guillen, who worked for Rigoberto Paredes, a close ally of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, was held overnight on suspicion of being one of Mr. Noriega's armed civilian followers. After he was released, he found the PRD headquarters burned to the ground. Nevertheless, Guillen is neither bitter nor indignant about the US invasion.

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``I'm glad in a way, because there will be a complete change of people,'' he says. ``There was no civilian government before. The Defense Forces were running the country.''

He adds: ``Things had to change.''

His feelings appear typical of many here.

Even though several hundred Panamanian civilians have died as a result of the US invasion - compared with just a handful during General Noriega's reign - an overwhelming number of people here seem to back the invasion as the only real solution for Panama's political and economic crises.

In any other Latin American country, including such dependent US allies as El Salvador or Honduras, the idea of US intervention is anathema to the basic principle of Latin nationalism.

But Panama is different.

This tropical nation, ideally located between North and South America and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, was formed by the US in 1903 for the purpose of building the canal. And though the Panamanians created their own Constitution, their fate has since been intertwined with that of the US.

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The relationship provided Panama with a strong, modern economy. But it left the country with one of the most underdeveloped political cultures in the hemisphere, analysts say.

``Panama was born of the United States,'' says one former colleague of Noriega.

``Nationalism needs a crucible,'' he continues. ``But here there has not been sufficient heat to melt anything.''

Gen. Omar Torrijos inculcated a sense of pride and populism through his programs between 1968 and 1981. But aside from a brief flare-up of leftist activism in the early 1960s, the only political upheaval in Panama has revolved around Noriega, a former US Central Intelligence Agency informant wanted on drug-trafficking charges in Miami.

Some Panamanians have sought a US strike against Noriega since June 1987, when Col. Roberto D'iaz Hererra, his former second-in-command, revealed his involvement in drug trafficking, political fraud, and even murder.

When the US attack finally came after two years of sanctions and threats, it clearly surprised Noriega. And it deeply disturbed many Latin countries.

But despite the riotous looting that followed, the invasion has drawn praise from Panamanians.

Throughout the country, US troops have been greeted with cheers. On Christmas, Panamanians in Bermuda shorts and sunglasses offered food and gifts to troops blocking the road to the Vatican's embassy, where Noriega sought refuge Sunday. One bag of cookies carried a card that read: ``To - The Americans. From - A very grateful country.''

Even American journalists have been unable to escape the cascade of ``thank-yous.''

In the provincial capital of David, hundreds of civilians surrounded the military garrison last Friday, watching soldiers turn in their arms and waiting for US troops to come. When 16 mostly American journalists stumbled into town instead, the crowd applauded and chanted, as though hailing conquering heroes.

Later that same day, the wife of a politician invited her US visitors into a room where a note sat on the table. In English, she had written: ``God Bless America. Thank you all.'' -39-{et

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