Thousands March to Demand Noriega’s Resignation
PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) _ Tens of thousands of protesters screaming for democracy forced the capital’s financial district to close down as they marched through the streets in an anti-government demonstration said to be the largest yet.
″Long live Panama 3/8 Down with Noriega 3/8″ they yelled in unison Thursday while waving white handkerchiefs and flags, a traditional form of protest in Panama.″
There was a party-like atmosphere as the protesters, who included both rich and poor, covered eight blocks of the Via Espana thoroughfare and surrounding streets. White rolls of paper and white confetti fluttered in the air, thrown from terraces of apartment buildings, banks and hotels.
″We want justice 3/8″ they cried.
″This is to show we don’t want the communists,″ said one woman who did not want to give her name. ″We want the gringos and the dollars.″
An elderly man standing nearby added, ″And the democracy.″
Many of the marchers carried posters reading ″paz,″ Spanish for peace, and wore white clothes as a symbol of the opposition National Civic Crusade, which has led the fight for the ouster of military strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.
Five business leaders, all members of the crusade, remained in hiding because of arrest warrants issued by the government.
Observers said the protest appeared to be the largest since opposition groups began an anti-government campaign two months ago following accusations by a former deputy that Noriega rigged elections and conspired to murder political opponents.
Noriega is head of the military and the real power behind the civilian government of President Eric Arturo Delvalle.
Mayor Jilma Noriega de Jurado originally banned Thursday’s march but reversed the decision at the last minute, citing ″an agreement between the president and the opposition″ to permit the protest. The opposition leaders had vowed to march even without approval.
Few police were in evidence, in contrast with a similar march July 10 during which scores of police and soldiers fired bullets and tear gas grenades. Several people were injured.
In issuing the arrest warrants Wednesday for crusade members, Attorney General Carlos Villalaz said documents seized from their offices showed they were ″conspiring to overthrow the government.″
Ricardo Arias Calderon, head of the opposition Christian Democratic Party and a Civic Crusade leader, called the charge ludicrous.
His office said warrants were issued for Aurelio Barria, president of the Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Agriculture; Gilberto Mallol, a former chamber president; Rafael Zuniga, the chamber’s legal adviser; Eduardo Villarino, president of the Association of Business Executives; and Roberto Brenes, the association’s vice president.
The opposition march Thursday forced scores of banks and businesses to close in the central financial district as a caravan of cars blocked the Via Espana.
Many store owners covered their windows with plywood in case of violence. Later, demonstrators jammed Via Brazil on the other side of the capital.
The Civic Crusade, a coalition of 107 business, union, political and other groups formed in June, called the rally the ″Second White Demonstration for Democracy.″
Riots and strikes began in June when retired Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera, Noriega’s former deputy commander, accused the general of corruption, election fraud and conspiracy to murder political opponents.
Similar charges had come previously from other quarters, but these were the first from inside the military.
Noriega denies the allegations and says the demonstrations are instigated by conservatives in the United States opposed to relinquishing control of the Panama Canal to Panama at the turn of the century.
Government critics recently have urged that the United States step in and set up a democracy.
″We need an invasion by the Americans,″ whispered one woman at the march, echoing comments by others during the past week.
Diaz Herrera and 45 other people were arrested last week. Most remain in custody. Over the weekend, the retired colonel retracted his charges in a deposition released by the government, but opposition leaders say the retraction was made under duress.