They're Voting in Panama -- With Noriega's Party Favored

May 08, 1994|By JOHN M. McCLINTOCK

At the height of Panama's post-invasion economic crisis, a chauffeur-driven limousine pulled up to an airport hangar housing hundreds of bombed-out refugees.

The chauffeur had been sent on a mission of mercy. On the front seat beside him were the classified ads from that morning's newspapers. They were the gift of Ana Mae Diaz de Endara, the 25-year-old wife of the nation's president. She hoped the ads would help the refugees find work. Instead, they angrily threw them away. The advertisements were for highly skilled jobs and were patronizing to people who never got beyond grammar school. And besides, Mrs. Endara had kept the lottery results and sports pages.

This anecdote may help explain today's presidential and legislative elections in Panama. The three reform parties -- installed at gunpoint by U.S. troops in the ouster of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega -- are going down to defeat.

Like the poor people in the airport hangar, Panamanians will be throwing the reformers and their useless words in the wastebasket. By some estimates, 20 percent of the work force is unemployed. Thousands more, including many professionals, are working in menial part-time jobs.

Today's likely winner will be Noriega's old party, the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD). A less likely victor is Ruben Blades, the salsa music star, who is running second in the polls to Ernesto "The Bull" Perez Balladares, the hulking millionaire presidential candidate of the PRD.

This is not what the reformers had in mind. Panama had been made safe for their investments, and their parties deserved to be re-elected. Under the sleepy leadership of President Guillermo Endara, powerful labor unions were tamed, tough environmental officials were sacked and, to paraphrase a recent State Department report, the nation had become the world's second largest center for laundering drug money after the United States.

Once in office, Mr. Endara's ruling coalition sought revenge against the PRD. Memories were fresh of beatings, jailings and extortion at the hands of Noriega's thugs. And so by the time they achieved power, the coalition threatened to try PRD legislators for treason and began a Stalinist-style campaign to purge the nation of the PRD's patron saint, the late Gen. Omar Torrijos.

Thanks to the anti-Torrijos hysteria, the late dictator's name appears nowhere in public. Torrijos International Airport is now called Tocumen. Schools were renamed, and his statues were removed. Even the general's cremated remains were stolen for a brief period.

What did the general do to warrant such treatment?

If ever there was a genuine political hero in Panama's short history, General Torrijos would be the man. He not only got the United States to hand over the Panama Canal and its military bases by the year 2000, he also did much for the ordinary citizen.

In 1968, when the military took over the government, Panama had 12,000 schoolteachers. But by the time General Torrijos died in a 1981 air crash, the number had grown to 27,000. Drinking water was piped to the smallest of jungle villages; health clinics and playing fields were constructed; the national university was made tuition-free; and he established a social security system whose benefits in some ways are more generous than those of the United States. He even made some of the millionaires multimillionaires.

And he got the Americans to pay for most of it by taking advantage of Washington's fear that Fidel Castro would find Panama susceptible to Communist nationalism.

Early in the Endara administration, it became clear that, despite the hated Noriega's ouster and the destruction of the military, the PRD was a separate organism whose good memories could not be erased. Too many people had benefited from General Torrijos and the party he created.

In 1991, in the first elections since the U.S. invasion, it was the PRD and not the U.S.-backed reform parties that won a majority of the municipal contests.

And in the current elections, "The Bull" Balladares is literally following in the footsteps of General Torrijos. On Wednesday he ended his formal campaign by retracing the late general's triumphant return to Panama City after a 1969 coup attempt.

"If Batman was Torrijos, then Balladares is Robin," says a political insider of the relationship between the two men.

The wealthy coffee planter claims Noriega blocked his presidential nomination in 1984 and 1989, and says the drug-dealing dictator disgraced the memory of his hero. Attempts to tar him with the brush of Noriega seem to have failed, if the polls are accurate.

"If elected president, you can be sure he'll be taking Torrijos out of the closet," said Hugo Torrijos, the general's nephew. "Torrijos never meant for the military to achieve such power. It was his wish that they return to their barracks and let the civilians run things. You can bet Balladares will never agree to bring the military back."

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