THE CRISIS in Panama is moving into a new unstable phase in which popular unrest winds down at least temporarily but the outrage of military control goes on. Gen. Manuel Noriega, commander of the 20,000-man defense force, has had the legislature indefinitely renew his first 10-day suspension of constitutional guarantees. One of the rights suspended is the right to private property: citizens have been warned that for banging on a pot, a person can have his house confiscated. Panama's internationally oriented economy, based on transit, commercial and financial services, cannot run in that Mickey Mouse atmosphere. The general's refusal to let normality return is an economic absurdity and betrays a telling fear of the public temper.
At first, people were reacting to a disgruntled colonel's report on the corruption and chicanery marking Gen. Noriega's strong-man rule. Now the public seems a bit startled and even delighted by its own show of courage in the streets. By his harsh response to their peaceful protests, the general has confirmed a reputation for thuggishness. His recourse has been rude force and an attempt to mobilize the common people against the middle class and business elite whence his chief opposition comes. He has also played on the nationalistic theme that he is defanging an American plot to keep the Panama Canal.
It is clever of Gen. Noriega to let a streak of anti-American resentment show through. Head of intelligence before he took over the armed forces, he got where he is in part by cooperating with the American military and intelligence, whose regional activities are centered in Panama. In a country where the impression of American favor is negotiable political currency, he now finds it convenient to take up a certain distance and to present American remonstrances as evidence of Yankee intrusiveness.
He denounces steps that Washington has taken to get on the democratic side, such as having the American ambassador call on the hounded opposition, as intervention. But the whole huge multi-dimensional American presence in Panama over the decades has constituted an intervention -- with benevolent as well as harmful effects -- on the side of the Panamanian powers that be, including the armed forces. Washington has to find the essential and unmistakable ways to show it is stopping the long careless American intervening of that routine sort