FORT CIMARRON, PANAMA, AUG. 12 -- President Eric Arturo Delvalle and military strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, in a rare joint public appearance today, issued political challenges to one another that seemed to reflect continuing uneasiness between them.
Delvalle and Noriega reviewed about 3,000 of the Panamanian Defense Forces' most polished soldiers in a celebration said to be in honor of the president and Battalion 2000, which will defend the Panama Canal when Panama takes control of it in the year 2000. Fort Cimarron, the battalion's base, is about 40 miles east of Panama City.
But the troops and a small contingent of civilian backers of Noriega were aware that today also was the fourth anniversary of the general's ascent to Defense Forces commander-in-chief. Last year, Aug. 12 was marked with a tumultuous rally of the armed forces' political supporters that jammed dozens of blocks in the heart of the capital.
At today's military display Noriega seemed confident of the backing of his troops, whose numbers have swelled to 20,000 and whose military skills have improved under his command, according to military observers attending the ceremony.
In an uncharacteristic show of independence, Delvalle warned Noriega today, "You share with me the responsibility of finding a solution to the crisis threatening our country," and reminded the general that the armed forces had committed themselves to a "real democratic transition."
Delvalle was placed in power by Noriega in 1985 and is widely viewed as a figurehead. This was the first time Delvalle has spoken in public since he appeared to distance himself from Noriega in an interview last Saturday in the Los Angeles Times. In the interview, he criticized the recent silencing of the opposition press as well as a police raid on the offices of the Chamber of Commerce, which has led the anti-Noriega protests.
For his part, Noriega, whose colorful speech dominated the festivities, warned Delvalle to pay more attention to the poor and working classes in Panama.
The general made several jokes about Delvalle, saying the armed forces respect him because they know he won't "run away to Washington," as one prominent opponent of the government recently did, and encouraging him to take time to watch his horses run. Delvalle owns a stable of racehorses.
Noriega, displaying his unequaled power in Panama, indicated that he favors a pardon for former colonel Roberto Diaz Herrera, held incommunicado in jail since his arrest in a gunfight at his house July 27. Accusations by Diaz Herrera that Noriega was involved in electoral fraud, corruption and political murder ignited two months of protests.
Government officials said Diaz Herrera recanted his charges in prison.
During his speech, the general turned to Attorney General Carlos Villalaz and told him Panamanian investor Gabriel Lewis "must go to jail." Lewis, who was a key negotiator of the 1977 Panama Canal treaties, is in Washington, where he fled in June after his efforts to mediate between the opposition and the armed forces failed.
Noriega issued a warning to U.S. Ambassador Arthur Davis that Panama would continue to respect the 9,500 U.S. military personnel based here only if the United States shows "more respect for our men and our flag."