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  • The Struggle Against Noriega
  • Roberto Eisenmann (bio)

Over the past several years, the world has come to see the crisis in Panama mainly as a confrontation between the United States and Panama's military strongman, General Manuel Antonio Noriega. But this perception—reinforced lately by press reports on last October's failed coup attempt—is badly mistaken. Recent events in Panama cannot be reduced to fit the stock tale of the "Colossus of the North" facing off against the vicious-yet-buffoonish caudillo of one of Latin America's "banana republics." Noriega's viciousness is not in doubt, but Panama is not a banana republic, and the United States is not his only foe. The prevalence of these misperceptions is lamentable, for it prevents people unfamiliar with Panama from fully appreciating either the novel and truly sinister aspects of the Noriega regime, or the remarkable efforts of Panama's indigenous, nonviolent, democratic opposition.

More than any other country in its part of the world, Panama resists facile categorization. It belongs geographically to Central America, [End Page 41] historically to South America, and culturally to the Caribbean. Panama's history is very different from that of the stereotypical Central American polity lurching from one military coup to the next. From the time of its founding as an independent state in 1904 up until 1968, it was an imperfect but evolving democracy. Its first military coup in 1968 marred a record of civilian political control that was unique in its region.

Panama is a Third World country, to be sure, but it is an exceptional one. It has no landed gentry; its elites are basically commercial and liberal-minded. Nor is Panama beset by the kind of intense economic and ideological polarization that is so common i n the Third World. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty, the extreme right and the extreme left, are all largely absent. There has been considerable social mobility and a solid middle class. Indeed, most of the Republic of Panama's major historical achievements have been the work not of its urban elites, but of men of the rural middle classes.

Just as Panama is unique, so are the forces arrayed on both sides in the struggle between the people and the Noriega regime. The Panamanian opposition constitutes Latin America's first spontaneous, nonpartisan civic movement aimed at ousting a brutal dictatorial regime. In a region where political violence is endemic, Panama has produced a democratic opposition committed to nonviolence. As a result, its struggle is often misunderstood by foreign observers, who find it hard to believe that a Latin American opposition movement unwilling to resort to violence is really serious in its determination to end the dictatorship.

The Panamanian people have done a magnificent job of manifesting their discontent, skillfully adjusting their tactics to changing circumstances and the reactions of the Noriega regime. As many as 750,000 Panamanians—in a country of two million—have filled the streets in peaceful protests against Noriega's rule. When he has responded with harsh repression, they have retreated in order to avoid major loss of life and the kind of crushing defeat suffered by the Chinese prodemocracy movement in Tiananmen Square. But they have persisted in other ways in their efforts to make the country ungovernable and to undermine the regime.

The Panamanian opposition has maintained remarkable unity under the aegis of an alliance known as the National Civic Crusade (Cruzada Civilista Nacional). Founded in June 1987, the Crusade is dedicated to the restoration of democracy in Panama. It comprises some 125 nongovernmental organizations and institutions, ranging from workers', students', and women's groups to business and professional associations. Realizing that Panama's economic crisis will never be solved until its political problems have been dealt with, the business community has taken a very active role in the opposition, along with teachers, doctors, and other professionals.

Maintaining such a massive coalition, of course, requires flexibility [End Page 42] from all participants. The necessary willingness to compromise for the sake of unity comes from the conviction that the battle will be long and hard; whenever people become confident of quick and easy victory, their flexibility disappears. The Panamanian people...


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