FEARING, HE SAID, God's wrath and also having just been fired, the No. 2 man in Panama's defense forces, which have run the country for nearly 20 years, told all the other day. Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera said his boss, Gen. Manuel Noriega, had, as alleged, altered by fraud the outcome of presidential elections in 1984 and ordered the assassination of a gadfly critic. He put a number ($12 million) on the sum the shah of Iran was supposed to have paid the late dictator Omar Torrijos to take refuge in Panama, and charged -- this without proof -- that Gen. Noriegaamong others, including the CIA, had had a hand in the accident that took the life of Gen. Torrijos. Oh, yes, the colonel confessed he himself had made big money selling visas to Cubans.

All this hanging out of dirty linen was enough to galvanize a country accustomed to living easily with a high level of official corruption and military intrusiveness. All the political parties, the private sector, the church and plenty of individual citizens seem to have decided they'd had enough. Their protests were met by the armed forces of Gen. Noriega, who has now imposed something like military law, choked off the opposition press and undertaken arbitrary arrests. He is the kind of Latin strongman most people thought didn't exist anymore. Everything he is doing now -- calling out troops, blaming the CIA -- fits with what could be expected from someone who is trying to save his skin and protect his ill-gotten gains.

Panama is a country created by foreign intrigue, and it remains a country whose politics rotate on the pressures and wishes, real and presumed, of the United States. Traditionally, American policy has aimed at ensuring all the democracy deemed consistent with the stability demanded by the presence of the strategic Panama Canal. Panamanians habitually scan official American words -- including American press leaks -- for signs of what is on Washington's mind.

The signs Panama is reading these days -- the calls paid by the American ambassador, for instance -- tend toward the cautious and the ambiguous. This should not be. No Panamanian should have the slightest doubt that Washington favors prompt peaceful progress toward a situation in which fairly elected civilians run the country, the army stays in the barracks and duly convicted criminals sit in jail.