PANAMA CITY, MARCH 3 -- U.S. moves to increase financial pressure on the regime of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega contributed today to a run on banks here and prompted Panama's central bank to stop delivering cash to private banks.
In response to the developments, the opposition National Civic Crusade announced tonight that it was calling off an indefinite general strike that started Monday and gradually brought economic activity in the capital to a standstill.
The anti-Noriega coalition of business and professional groups said that while the strike had been a "complete success," the country was facing "a de facto paralyzation of the national economic life" and that its members would now meet to tackle "this new crisis produced by the military dictatorship."
"We want to avoid a financial collapse in Panama . . . that will move the Panamanian people to violence," Civic Crusade leader Aurelio Barria told a news conference. He said the crusade approved of U.S. financial pressure on the Noriega-dominated government but did not want the private sector to suffer the consequences by being denied access to funds.
Private Panamanian banks decided not to open Friday because they lacked the cash to handle an expected upsurge of withdrawals, banking sources said. Crusade leaders said the local banks would stay closed until "political stability" had returned.
The few banks that opened today, the fourth day of a general strike called by Noriega opponents, had to limit withdrawals per customer as Panamanians formed long lines in front of the few tellers who showed up for work.
The strike appeared to ease somewhat by afternoon, with some shops reopening. Riot troops known as "Dobermans" guarded against new attempts by youths to set up burning street barricades.
The Panama Canal operated normally today, despite opposition efforts to drum up some strike activity, Panama Canal Commission Administrator Dennis P. McAuliffe said. He said there were no new bomb threats today, after five that were called in anonymously yesterday. No bombs were found.
Bankers attributed the run in part to the uncertainty caused by the announcement in the United States yesterday of moves to block the Noriega government's access to about $50 million held in U.S. banks and to place revenue from the Panama Canal in escrow. The moves are aimed at supporting President Eric Arturo Delvalle, who was deposed by Noriega last week and replaced by Education Minister Manuel Solis Palma after Delvalle tried to remove Noriega as commander of the Panama Defense Forces.
The Banco Nacional de Panama, the country's central bank, called the freezing of government funds "arbitrary and groundless" and complained that it had received no legal communication from U.S. authorities on the matter. In a statement, the bank advised the more than 100 financial institutions operating in Panama that until this "absurd action" is settled, it could not supply cash to the banking community.
Panama uses the U.S. dollar as its national currency, officially calling it the balboa. Some coins in use are minted especially for this country, but are the same size and shape as their U.S. counterparts. Since the government does not print its own bills, it cannot arbitrarily increase the money supply to deal with economic crises as other Latin American countries commonly do.
In another reaction to the U.S. measures, a government-owned airline, Air Panama, canceled a scheduled flight to Miami today for fear that its plane would be seized on arrival in the United States, airline sources said.
One of the few banks that opened for business today, Citibank, experienced a run as customers lined up to make withdrawals. At the main branch on Via Espana, customers were told to go to other branches because of a five-hour wait. One man emerged with a cloth bag that he said contained $5,000, the limit that the bank said he could withdraw.
Across the street, two policemen watched the bank run and complained about the country's economic situation to a Panamanian who stopped to chat with them. According to Panamanian sources, there has been increased grumbling lately in the Defense Forces, which include the police, about the rule of Gen. Noriega, who has been the real power behind the country's figurehead presidency since 1983.
In turn, the sources said, Noriega has shown signs of heightened suspicions toward a few of his subordinates. A major related to a leading Noriega critic, retired general Ruben Dario Paredes, was forced to resign Saturday, and there are reports that Noriega's nominal second-in-command, Col. Marcos Justines, is on his way out.
Justines was chosen by President Delvalle to replace Noriega hours before Noriega scuttled the deal by having Delvalle himself removed as president. Justines quickly rejected the offer, citing his loyalty to Noriega, but a Panamanian military source said the events nevertheless tainted Justines.
In another development, the government of new figurehead President Solis Palma has announced the appointment of veteran Panamanian diplomat Aquilino Boyd as its new ambassador to Washington to replace Delvalle's ambassador, Juan B. Sosa, whom the Reagan administration still recognizes.
Panamanian sources said the move appeared to reflect planning by Noriega for the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. They noted that Boyd is known as a friend of Vice President Bush.