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Latin America Data Base News Items [PeaceNet]
March 1987 -- June 1987
PANAMA: NOTES ON CONTROVERSY SURROUNDING RECENT U.S. CONGRESSIONAL ACTIONS
According to pro-government politicians and commentators in Panama, Gen.
Manuel Antonio Noriega, who is said to effectively run the country, may seek
the presidency in 1989.
Meanwhile, in Washington, the House passed a resolution that would halt
economic aid to Panama if the 1989 elections were not "conducted fairly."
Next, on March 26, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a separate
resolution under which Panama, Mexico and the Bahamas could be penalized if
President Reagan cannot provide evidence that these countries are cooperating
with the US anti-drug trafficking campaign.
As reported by the NEW YORK TIMES (03/28/87), Panamanian opposition leaders
have praised the congressional actions. Arnulfo Arias Madrid, the 85-year-old
former president described them as "the embodiment of democratic ideals."
The government in Panama City has condemned the actions by the
Congress, described as US interference in its domestic affairs. "It
is not up to American legislators to decide whether elections in
Panama are fair or not," the pro-government newspaper LA REPUBLICA asserted.
PANAMANIAN PRESIDENT THREATENS REMOVAL OF U.S. PERSONNEL FROM CANAL AREA
IF CONGRESS EXACTS ECONOMIC REPRISALS
Panamanian President Eric Arturo del Valle has warned the US
Congress if it reduces economic aid in reprisal for Panama's
insufficient cooperation in anti-drug trafficking actions, or for
other reasons, US civilian and military personnel will be obligated
to leave the Panama Canal area.
The president's comment was made in an interview last week with the CNN
television network. A transcript of the interview was made available to the
AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE on May 5.
A top government official confirmed the interview, and said that Del
Valle has asserted that US actions against Panama will have a very
negative impact on bilateral relations.
The US Congress is debating a bill to cut financial assistance to
Panama for its alleged inadequate collaboration in efforts to reduce
international drug trafficking.
Del Valle denounced certain members of the US Senate for not wishing to
continue good relations with Panama, seemingly for emotional reasons, rather
than based on facts.
PANAMA: RETIRED CHIEF OF STAFF CREATES POLITICAL CRISIS, LINKS NORIEGA TO
ELECTORAL FRAUD, DEATHS OF POLITICAL LEADERS
In statements to an opposition newspaper LA PRENSA on June 7, 8 and 9, former
Panamanian chief of general staff Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera accused armed
forces chief Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, of involvement in electoral fraud
and the ouster of President Nicolas Ardito Barletta in 1985. Diaz, who was
apparently forcibly retired on June 1, was also quoted as saying that Noriega
was involved in the death of government critic Hugo Spadafora in September
1985, and in the death of Panamanian leader Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera.
Noriega, said Diaz, "organized" the September 1985 assassination of
Spadafora, a former health minister who organized a guerrilla
brigade which first fought in Nicaragua against the late Anastasio
Somoza and later against the Sandinistas. Winston Spadafora, brother of Hugo,
whose beheaded body was dumped over the border in Costa Rica, also met with
Diaz on June 8. "He confirmed everything we have said," asserted Spadafora,
whose family had earlier accused the military of being behind the killing.
Diaz, a cousin and close associate of the former president, said the
Gen. Torrijos' death in a July 1981 plane accident had been planned.
Diaz said a top aide of Noriega, who was chief of military
intelligence at the time, was directly involved. The aide reportedly
planted a small bomb on the plane under Noriega's orders. Later,
said Diaz, Noriega "sent a message" to Vice President George Bush
about Torrijos' death.
Noriega has denied charges that he had a role in the Spadafora
killing and in stealing the last presidential election, in 1984. He
said that he would not "enter into polemics" because "the current
situation is the result of a conspiracy whose name is known." A
military spokesman, Maj. Eduardo Lopez, described Diaz as suffering
from "a serious state of paranoia." Captains and majors signed a
statement expressing their loyalty to Noriega.
In a June 8 interview with REUTERS, Diaz said he wanted to bring to
justice those responsible for illegal acts. "I have the
responsibility and I have already made confessions so that Noriega
will go to jail." He said he had acted for Noriega in rigging
presidential elections in 1984, which were won by Barletta. "I can
give all the details of the fraud because it took place in my own
The 1984 elections were widely believed to have been fraudulent.
Nicolas Ardito Barletta briefly became president, until Noriega
dethroned him less than a year later. Diaz said he also acted for
Noriega in persuading Barletta to step down later, after the
president fell from favor with the military. Barletta said at the
time of his resignation that the alternative could have been a coup.
The retired chief of staff said that Noriega had tried to bribe him
to keep quiet, and he expressed fears for the safety of himself and
Leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Party, Ricardo Arias
Calderon, said Diaz's allegations exposed the true nature of the
government. Romulo Escobar Bethancourt, leader of the ruling
Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD), denounced the accusations as
part of a conspiracy by certain domestic groups and US conservatives to
install reactionaries in power. Diaz's statements were referred to as
On Tuesday, Panama City witnessed violent street demonstrations in
reaction to Diaz's disclosures. About 2,000 rock-throwing
demonstrators calling for the resignation of President Eric Arturo
del Valle and changes in the military command clashed repeatedly on
the capital's main avenues with riot police, known as the Dobermans,
armed with clubs and shields. Some protesters were beaten severely, and police
fired tear gas to disperse the crowds.
"We've been using the word crisis in this country for years. But this has
brought on a more severe state of tension," said Archbishop Marcos McGrath,
the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Panama. A Catholic Church
communique called for an independent commission to investigate the charges.
Among other admissions by Diaz that did not involve Noriega
concerned Torrijos' receipt of a $12 million donation from the late
Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, who lived in Panama in exile.
Next, Diaz said he made enough money to build his own mansion and
purchase two others with money he made illegally selling Panamanian visas to
Cubans wishing to come through Panama en route to exile in the United States.
Diaz first appeared in the press on Saturday, criticizing a comment
by Noriega in Guatemala that he planned to remain as commander
general for at least another five years. He assumed the post in
1983. On Sunday, the opposition daily LA PRENSA carried part of a
rambling interview with Diaz that began with an announcement that
the colonel wished to "get closer to the Lord."
In a statement, the US Embassy noted the "tremendous impact" of
Diaz's statements and added: "The United States strongly supports
the efforts of Panamanians to get all the facts out in the open in a
manner that is fair to all. Panamanians can only resolve the
situation on the basis of the truth."
Since Sunday, Diaz has holed up in his elegant mansion on the Altos
del Golf neighborhood, surrounded by guards armed with automatic
weapons and molotov cocktails. (REUTERS, 06/08/87; WASHINGTON POST, 06/10/87;
PRENSA LATINA, 06/09/87; AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, 06/09/87)
PANAMA UNDER STATE OF EMERGENCY, RESULT OF CONTINUED VIOLENT PROTEST
AGAINST NORIEGA, GOVERNMENT
The following summarizes recent developments in Panama, resulting
from disclosures by former chief of staff Roberto Diaz Herrera
concerning the involvement of armed forces commander Gen. Manuel
Antonio Noriega in electoral fraud, and the deaths of two political
leaders. (See CAU 06/10/87 for details on Diaz's statements.)
June 9: Hundreds of riot police clashed with protesters
demonstrating in support of Diaz, and demanding the resignation of
The US, which maintains a major military headquarters in Panama,
issued a statement urging a full investigation of the allegations
made June 8 by Diaz Herrera who retired last week, largely at the
behest of Noriega.
In attempts to clear several major thoroughfares of makeshift
barriers erected by the demonstrators in the early morning hours,
the police said several people had been detained and an unknown
number wounded. They declined to be more specific.
Noriega, who has commanded Panama's armed forces since August 1983, accused
Diaz of participating in an anti-government conspiracy and said Diaz was
guilty of "high treason." The general has denied charges that he had a role in
the killing of political opponent Hugo Spadafora and in stealing the last
The Roman Catholic Church issued a statement Monday, saying Diaz's
charges should be investigated. "We believe that if the capital
points of this testimony are not explained, the anguish and lack of
confidence the nation is living through will continue," said the
statement signed by Archbishop Marcos McGrath.
Diaz told reporters that Noriega had ordered an assault team to
storm the house in a residential area of the capital where he has
been staying since the weekend with several bodyguards. Diaz's
allegations of fraud in the May 1984 presidential elections--the
country's first direct balloting for president in 16 years--have
provoked uproar among many Panamanians who voted for the opposition candidate
and loser of the race, former President Arnulfo Arias.
--US State Department spokesperson, Phyllis Oakley, said, "We
support the efforts of Panamanians to get all the facts out in a
manner that is fair to all. Panamanians can resolve this situation
only on the basis of the truth."
Similar accusations against Noriega have been made before. Diaz's
statements represent the first time a Panamanian official has openly accused
the general of complicity in criminal activities. Some US observers state that
his charges could trigger a split within the army, which seized power in 1968
and has imposed or deposed the last five presidents, or a move toward complete
military control of the country.
In the past, US officials have expressed concern over evidence that
Noriega was involved in drug smuggling, money laundering and spying
for Cuba. Noriega has always denied the charges, but the accusations
have led to speculation in Panama that the Reagan administration was trying to
In calling on Panama to investigate Diaz's charges, administration
officials said they wanted to send a clear signal of disapproval to
Noriega, but at the same time refrain from giving the impression of
US interference in Panama's internal affairs. "We stress that this
whole controversy is an internal Panamanian matter," said Oakley.
--In the evening, the Ministry of Education announced that schools
in the capital city and the San Miguelito district on the outskirts
of the city would be closed for the remainder of the week. This
decision followed several clashes between students and police anti-
riot squads. In response to a call by the opposition Christian
Democratic Party, on Monday and Tuesday university students blocked several
key avenues in the capital.
June 10: According to a statement issued by the government of
President Eric Arturo Del Valle, the government's political
opponents are seeking to regain power which they lost in 1968
through the "easy way" of foreign support. In exchange, opponents
are suspected of being willing to cooperate in permitting the US to
maintain control over the Panama Canal Zone into the year 2000.
--Violent street clashes between anti-government protesters and riot police
took place in Panama City and Colon. Business acticities were virtually
paralyzed. The most severe disturbances took place in Panama City, and were
the most serious since Gen. Noriega became commander of the armed forces. Most
Panamanians say that in practice Noriega controls the government.
The broad avenues of the downtown area became a battleground where riot
squads, known as the Dobermans, were pelted with rocks and debris. In many
incidents the police, carrying shields and rubber truncheons, were forced to
flee as protesters charged them and battered their vehicles with uprooted
lampposts. Lingering tear gas and smoke from burning cars turned the air gray
above the city of 400,000. Shooting could be heard throughout the afternoon,
as police fired buckshot and pepper-gas grenades at the crowds.
--The National Civil Crusade, a newly formed coalition of opposition
union and civic groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, declared
a nationwide general strike at noon. The five major opposition
parties formed a Patriotic Junta of National Resistance and ordered
their members to demonstrate in the streets, blocking traffic. The
junta called for Noriega to resign.
The strike call was supported by the "junta" of political parties.
In contrast, it was rejected by two labor organizations, the Workers
Confederation of the Republic of Panama (CTRP), and the Panamanian
Workers National Central (CNTP). The latter issued a statement
requesting that Panamanians not permit themselves to be dragged into
supporting the political interests of employer organizations. The
latter, it said, had never before concerned themselves with the
problems of the majority of Panamanians. Next, in a statement
published in LA PRENSA, the CNTP accused the US Embassy of
interfering in Panama's internal affairs.
--Riot police stormed a television station and clubbed the manager,
Bolivar Marques, and at least five employes. The station had been
broadcasting news about the riots.
Radio Continente, one of the few stations not directly controlled by
the government, went off the air at 9 a.m. when its electricity was
cut off and police hurled tear gas into its offices, according to
Mayin Correa, a national legislator whose family owns the station.
--Meanwhile, in an interview at his home, Col. Diaz called on
Washington to release damning information that he claims several US
agencies have about Noriega. "If the United States will open its
dossier on Noriega, everyone in Panama will have the courage to
speak out," Diaz said. He claimed that Noriega informed US officials
about his measures to maintain tight control over leftist movements
in Panama, and had permitted some violations of treaties governing
the Panama Canal in order to aid US military actions in Central
According to Diaz, these moves were Noriega's "insurance policy" to
dissuade US officials from revealing information about his
involvement in drugs and weapons traffic in the region.
June 11: After an early-morning meeting with his cabinet, President
Del Valle issued a statement declaring that the country was
henceforth under a state of siege. The statement condemned the
political opposition for attempting to seize power by force, and for
its plans to "extend the climate of subversion" throughout the
Among the suspended constitutional guarantees are privacy of postal
and telephone communications, press freedoms, freedom of movement,
liberty to hold meetings and outdoor demonstrations. Previous
authorization from the government is required for meetings and
demonstrations. Military and police personnel have sweeping search
and seizure powers.
The president's decision will require congressional approval if it
lasts over 10 days. The current unrest is considered the most
serious challenge faced by Del Valle since large-scale labor strikes
in March 1986.
--Six opposition parties requested that the administration resign so
that the parties could establish a provisional government.
--At a rally attended by thousands of cheering sympathizers, Gen.
Noriega said the armed forces will act with prudence and will not
fall into "the violence the opposition is seeking to provoke." He
accused the political opposition parties and business persons of
"calling for a democracy they do not practice, which they expect to
receive it from foreign hands."
As the crowd shouted "Not One Step Backwards," Noriega pledged that
the armed forces will defend the constitution, and Panama's rights
vis-a-vis a treaty signed with Washington in 1977 under which Panama
is to receive control over the canal zone on the last day of 1999.
(Various reports, Agence France Presse, Prensa Latina, Reuters,
Washington Post, New York Times)
NOTES ON POLITICAL TURMOIL IN PANAMA: JUNE 11-14
[Recent events in Panama's political turmoil are summarized below.
See CAU 06/10/87 and 06/12/87 for details on accusations against
military strongman Col. Manuel Noriega by former chief of staff Col.
June 11: The Panamanian government imposed a 10-day state of
emergency following three days of street battles that top military
commander Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega called the worst disturbances
in seven years. In an interview with reporters, including the
WASHINGTON POST, Noriega said the state of emergency was declared to
prevent even wider fighting which could have pitted progovernment
militants against opposition demonstrators. He also sought to dispel
speculation about his political ambitions by saying he will not be a
candidate for president in 1989 elections. He declined, however, to
place a limit on the time he intends to serve as chief commander of
the armed forces.
According to Noriega, at least 60 people were arrested and 12 riot
policemen were injured in 48 hours of street battles. More than 100
protesters were reported injured. The Christian Democrats, the
largest opposition party, said 50 of its members suffered beatings
or buckshot wounds.
Instead of the riot police who had been on the streets June 10
equipped with tear gas and rubber clubs, the streets were patrolled
on the following day by machine gun-carrying infantrymen, their
faces greased with black paint. Noriega said they could shoot, but
only on orders from their commanders. Military helicopters buzzed
low over downtown avenues.
By Noriega's account, the Cabinet acted after learning that
militants of the official government party intended to take to the
streets to "respond blow for blow" to the rioters. The general
denied, as he often has in the past, that he participated in the
civilian government's decision.
--Three blocks from the barracks, as reporters emerged from a midday
interview, working class housewives on their balconies joined a
citywide noise-making protest by banging on saucepans.
--In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Phyllis Oakley said,
"We...support the goal of free and untarnished elections, and the
full development of an apolitical professional military
--In response to a government order imposing prior censorship on the
opposition daily, LA PRENSA, news editor Winston Robles suspended
--About 9,500 US servicemen at the US Southern Command, the largest
military base in Latin America, were placed on alert and told to
stay off the streets. The State Department warned Americans to avoid
traveling to Panama.
--A general strike, called by an opposition coalition uniting
business and civic groups and the Roman Catholic Church, was broadly
effective in commercial districts of the capital. Panama is an
important offshore banking center, whose approximately 121
international banks hold assets valued at $39 billion. Most major
banks, including Chase Manhattan and the Bank of America, were
--Catholic priests keeping a vigil at the luxurious home of the
rebellious Col. Diaz removed all weapons this morning to avoid a
shootout. At midafternoon troops surrounded the house.
--US Ambassador, Arthur H. Davis, paid a visit to the head of the
Christian Democratic Party, Ricardo Arias Calderon, a leading
opposition figure who has called for General Noriega's resignation.
Asked if the Ambassador brought a message of support, Calderon
replied, "I think the visit itself was a message."
--In an interview with a radio station from neighboring Colombia,
Noriega said he would not resign his office because doing so would
not solve the country's problems. He blamed this week's turmoil on
"groups of businessmen stimulated by opposition politicians."
June 12: At midday, 6 p.m., and 9 p.m., middle-class Panamanians
banged saucepans, and drivers blared their horns in a peaceful
protest calling on the government to take action on the accusations
against Col. Noriega, and to force the colonel into retirement.
These activities were part of a civil disobedience campaign
initiated June 9 by the National Civic Crusade with the support of
five opposition parties.
--The government enforced a broad blackout on independent news
media, the second day of a general strike called to oppose the rule
of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.
The indefinite press clampdown, part of a state of emergency that
began June 11, was one of several measures to end four days of
protests and street fighting. The blackout took effect only after
the US Embassy had released its second statement in four days
stressing that "freedom of expression is key" to Panamanian
The main opposition daily, LA PRENSA, remained closed after halting
its presses late June 11 in response to a government censorship
order, editor Winston Robles said. The tabloid EXTRA, which is
affiliated with LA PRENSA, and a weekly, QUIUBO, also stopped
publishing rather than submit to censorship. Another opposition
newspaper, LA SIGLA, also failed to publish.
Two independent radio stations, Continente and Mundial, were shut
down. The remaining stations were broadcasting only news prepared by
the state-controlled radio and progovernment editorials. Managers of
all the television stations canceled their news programs on June 11
and June 12 after the government told them not to run stories about
Under Noriega's guidance, the government has gained control of
dozens of radio stations and at least four Panama City dailies. This
morning those papers carried banner headlines proclaiming, "Total
Calm Returned to the Capital" and page after page of pictures of
Panamanians going about their business as if nothing had happened.
--A spokesman for the Chamber of Commerce, Alfredo Castillero, said
the general strike, called by the opposition coalition Nationalist
Civic Crusade, was 65% effective in Panama City. Almost all banks
and most retail stores remained closed.
--At a morning mass attended by many opposition politicians, Roman
Catholic vicar the Rev. Fernando Guardia announced that the church
has adopted an activist role in the current conflict. The church has
joined the Nationalist Civic Crusade in what it calls an advisory
June 13: Political violence began to subside, but many stores
remained closed and police in riot gear were prepared for new
outbreaks of protest. Opposition newspapers and radio news programs
were still suspended under the provisions of a state of emergency
imposed June 11. The Education Ministry announced that public
schools in the capital and three other cities would not open next
--Col. Diaz said he would consider political asylum in Spain.
--Pro-government newspapers depicted the country as having virtually
returned to normal. Protesters pressing for Noriega's removal said
their movement had not yet run its course. At noon, people all over
the city began their daily cacophony, honking horns and beating pots
and pans to show their discontent.
At least half the businesses along the fashionable Via Espana, which
is lined with department stores, restaurants and boutiques, were
closed. Much of the debris from the week's protests had been
removed, but sheets of plywood covered broken windows in government
offices, including the headquarters of the telephone and telegraph
--US military personnel were directed to remain on their bases
unless traveling on military business. On the bases, activities from
sports events to scout meetings were canceled.
--Panamanians who have observed the week of protests estimated that
more than 1,000 people were detained. Foreign diplomats, Panamanian
journalists and opposition figures said they believe there have been
several deaths. "What has happened these last few days is
spectacular in Panamanian terms," said one former government
official. "This level of protest is absolutely unheard of. But
compared to other countries, it isn't much. For a Panamanian to pick
up a rock is the equivalent of a Nicaraguan or Salvadoran picking up
a machine gun."
June 14: Police officer Captain Heliodoro Villamil was attacked
during the evening hours while covering his normal beat in downtown
Panama City. He was listed in serious condition at the St. Thomas
Hospital in the capital.
--Pro-government parties, pertaining to the coalition National
Democratic Union (UNADE), staged a motorcade through the city's main
thoroughfares, waving flags and chanting slogans supporting the
government, the armed forces and Gen. Noriega. The motorcade stopped
outside the US Embassy, where several speakers condemned US
interference in Panama's domestic affairs.
--At a press conference in the city of David, 438 km. west of Panama
City, Gen. Noriega said the armed forces are trying to prevent
violence by prohibiting street demonstrations by supporters where
they would likely enter into conflict with opposition groups.
He said a conspiracy exists in which the armed forces and all
branches of the government would be overturned, and a provisional
government installed by rightwing forces opposing the government. He
suggested that these forces are supported by an unnamed "foreign
power," because they cannot win political power through normal
He claimed that Panama has become a target of foreign conservatives
because of its non-aligned policy, its position favoring a Central
American peace settlement through the Contadora Group and its
refusal to assist efforts to generalize the war in the region.
Noriega denounced US conservatives for their historical
unwillingness to face the reality that Panama is not a US colony.
Conservatives, he said, including several important senators and
congresspersons, have helped Panamanian opposition groups "wave
their colonialist banners."
Legislative assembly president, Ovidio Diaz, charged that US
Senators Jesse Helms and William Murphy are tied to business sectors
attacking the government. According to Diaz, businessmen associated
with the "anti-nationalist" aims are Gabriel Lewis Galindo (who has
fled to Costa Rica), Carlos and Fernando Oleta Alamaran, Roberto
Aleman (National Bank board of directors chairman), Alberto Motta
and Boyd Barcenas. (Various reports, PRENSA LATINA, NEW YORK TIMES,
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