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Opposition Rejects Noriega’s Offer to Resign

March 22, 1988

PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) _ Strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega offered to resign before the May 1989 presidential election if opponents agree to talks with his regime, but the opposition and the United States rejected the offer.

″The general has to go immediately - not eventually,″ said Aurelio Barria, head of the National Civic Crusade, an opposition umbrella group. ″There will be no dialogue with him.″

Barria said the general strike, which shut down over 90 percent of this nation’s commerce on Monday, would be even more complete today.

Indeed, most stores in the downtown area remained shuttered today.

″I say this to Noriega: Phooey,″ said one downtown Panama City merchant guarding his closed dry goods shop.

In Washington, the State Department also dismissed Noriega’s resignation offer as ″little more than ... a ploy″ to keep Noriega’s cronies in power and the general in control of the armed forces.

″Noreiga should go, and the sooner the better for Panama,″ said State Department spokeswoman Anita Stockman.

After Noriega was indicted on U.S. drug charges, the Reagan administration dried up the flow of money to Panama, which uses the U.S. dollar as its currency, in an effort to force him out, and the economy is near collapse.

Noriega’s offer to resign, announced Monday night in a national broadcast by civilian chief of state Manuel Solis Palma, was conditioned on a national dialogue with the opposition. But opposition leader Guillermo Cochez of the Christian Democratic Party said the proposed dialogue involved a hand-picked 33-member panel that would have 22 pro-Noriega members.

″This is not a dialogue,″ said Cochez. ″It’s just cynicism.″

Noriega, the chief of Panama’s 15,000-member Defense Forces and the power behind the civilian government, left the presidential palace after Solis Palma’s speech and hailed his proposal as a Panamanian solution, rather than one imposed by the United States. ″I have no reason to talk to the United States,″ Noriega told reporters. ″I talk to Panamanians.″

In his speech, Solis Palma said Noriega had given his word ″as an officer and a gentleman″ to step down before elections scheduled for May 1989.

Solis Palma, elevated to chief of state when Noriega ousted President Eric Arturo Delvalle on Feb. 26, said he would accept the general’s resignation only after the dialogue.

Opposition leaders derided the proposal.

″He said, ‘here I have a little piece of candy, and if you all behave, I’ll give it to you, okay?,’ said businessman Pierre Leignadier, a crusade member. Leignadier called the idea an insult to the Panamanian people.

Crusade leaders said they expected even stronger support today for the general strike despite Noriega’s offer.

On Monday, the strike almost totally shut down the capital of this nation of 2.5 million and, according to the crusade, outlying cities and towns as well.

″The paralyzation is total in industry, finance and commerce,″ said business leader Carlos Gonzalez de la Lastra.

About half of government employees - who were warned they would be suspended if they went on strike - failed to show up for work, he said.

The strike was called after the government decreed a state of emergency last week allowing authorities to suspend constitutional rights.

Solis Palma said on Monday the Reagan administration ″says they want a country without drug traffickers,″ but that continued U.S. control of the Panama Canal was the real motive behind the attack on Noriega.

Delvalle tried to fire Noriega on Feb. 25, after two U.S. drug trafficking indictments against Noriega were handed up in Florida.

After Noriega orchestrated Delvalle’s ouster on Feb. 26, the United States froze Panama’s international bank accounts, leaving the government and many private businesses without cash to pay employees.

Retirees were told Monday they will not be paid this week. The dockworkers union official, Gustavo Gonzalez, said Solis Palma told union leaders in a meeting at the presidential palace Sunday the country had no more money.

After the government was unable to give full paychecks to employees last week, several national police members tried and failed to stage a military coup, and thousands of anti-Noriega rioters took the streets.

One man hit by an army shotgun blast during last week’s violence died Monday of his wounds, becoming the first death in the latest wave of unrest.

Also Monday, the Panamanian Defense Forces announced a shakeup, kicking out 17 officers connected with the coup attempt and promoting 98 loyal officers.

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