PANAMA CITY, JUNE 19 -- "He controls two political parties and the majority of the seats in the National Assembly," said the Panamanian business executive, speaking in a frightened whisper even in the privacy of his own office.
"He controls the Supreme Court, and 10 out of 12 Cabinet ministers. No, wait." He counted on his fingers.
"Make that 11 out of 12 ministers," he concluded dejectedly.
Panamanians from many walks of life spoke this week with the same blend of awe and fear of the man who runs the 20,000-troop Panamanian Defense Forces and wields real power in this nation: Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, most often referred to simply as "the general."
Noriega, recently the target of a week of protests, is creating a dilemma for Washington in this nation of 2 million, site of the Panama Canal, the U.S. military's Latin American headquarters and the region's largest banking center. He cooperates closely with U.S. military and intelligence services, but his broad, allegedly corrupt behind-the-scenes rule is generating deep discontent.
No mere commander in chief, Noriega used his training in military intelligence and his ties to his popular predecessor, the late Gen. Omar Torrijos, to gain influence over all important government operations, according to politicians and military observers. He began his ascent soon after a 1968 coup that brought the armed forces to the center of power.
Noriega derives his power from his so far unquestioned leadership of the military, from his political savvy and growing personal wealth, and from Washington's general tolerance of his rule.
Panamanians who talked about Noriega, even some of his supporters, demanded to remain anonymous, and spoke in hushed tones as though they believed he could be listening in.
Noriega controls a television network, eight radio stations and three of the four newspapers still permitted to publish under a state of emergency that began June 11,. The newspapers are subsidized with $1 million in government funds a year, a Panamanian businessman familiar with the transactions said.
Noriega subsidizes several trade unions as well as a communist party, a former government official said.
The four presidents who have served since Noriega became top commander in 1983 are regarded by Panamanians as figureheads. One former president, banker Nicolas Ardito Barletta, went public for the first time last week to say Noriega forced him out in September 1985, after he had served less than a year, for pressing for an investigation of the murder of Hugo Spadafora, an opponent of Noriega.
A businessman who served in that brief administration recalled that Noriega once ordered the foreign minister to notify several South American presidents that the general would be traveling to meet with them. The astonished Ardito Barletta only learned of the general's plans from an official of another government who alerted him privately.
This week Noriega responded to protesters with a political counterattack that showed many of his hallmarks. In interviews, he hinted at details of a U.S.-backed conspiracy by a group of wealthy Panamanians to oust him and President Eric Arturo Delvalle.
On Monday night, under armed forces instructions, the government-controlled assembly approved a motion labeling nine business executives and politicians as conspirators and traitors.
Tuesday morning, assembly president Ovidio Diaz went to armed forces headquarters to read the motion to Noriega, who acted before television cameras as if he had never seen it before.
This week many individuals faced reprisals for criticizing Noriega's rule. On Sunday, authorities told Bosco Vallarino, a free-lance reporter for the Voice of America and local Channel 13 television, that his journalist's permit had expired, barring from him broadcasting until the government renews it. Vallarino narrated Channel 13's strong story about a police raid on its offices during rioting last week.
Manuel Burgos was abruptly fired from his Education Ministry job. A television newscast had shown him walking with an opposition demonstration.
Noriega's style and beliefs are eclectic. The general has said his favorite place is Paris, his favorite man is Pope John Paul II and his favorite military commander was World War II German Gen. Erwin Rommel, a spokesman recounted.
But he pleases his followers with nationalist rhetoric. He blamed the current crisis on a U.S. attempt to prevent Panama from taking over the Panama Canal in the year 2000, as treaties stipulate.
Panamanians are suspicious of U.S. power because of the history of U.S. interference in Panama and its long ownership of the Panama Canal.
His former second in command, retired colonel Roberto Diaz Herrera, accused Noriega of ordering the Spadafora murder and of plotting to kill Torrijos, who died in a 1981 plane crash. The accusations sparked the recent riots.
But so far Noriega has kept the loyalty of other officers.
"He is very successful at identifying every attack on him as an attack on the military institution," noted U.S. scholar Richard Millett.
However, one piece of vintage Noriega theater fell flat last night. He summoned his general staff to a meeting with Torrijos' sister and other relatives, and arranged for journalists to arrive to hear them clear him of any complicity in Torrijos' death.
But Torrijos' sister, Berta, seemed to hesitate as the cameras rolled. The general turned and walked out. Panama Seeks Indefinite Emergency Regulations Associated Press
PANAMA CITY, June 19 -- The government asked the National Assembly today to extend indefinitely the nationwide state of emergency declared during protests held to demand removal of the country's military leaders.
The 10-day state of emergency announced June 11 suspends eight articles of the constitution, including freedoms of speech and assembly.
President Eric Delvalle, in a letter to assembly President Ovidio Diaz, said the restrictions should remain in effect "until there is security that the public order will not be altered again by those conspiring in this sedition."
Street demonstrations broke out June 9 against the rule of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega. The National Civic Crusade, an organization of business, political and professional leaders, called a work slowdown and urged people not to pay taxes or utility bills.
Delvalle, in his letter, said the emergency should be extended because "those who called the civil disobedience, far from having desisted in their illegal proposals, have continued making a public defense of their crime and distributing clandestinely leaflets and communiques that contain clear incitements to maintain a climate of anxiety and a conduct of disobedience."