PANAMA -- Panamanians say this country has a big problem: The president is in love.
President Guillermo Endara, 54, daydreams through important Cabinet sessions with a permanent smile on his face and is often late or doesn't show up at key meetings, according to news reports that have become the talk of Panama City.
The reason: first lady Ana Mae Diaz, the 23-year-old law student Mr. Endara married in June after a brief but intense romance. Critics charge that the president, who often appears in public hand-in-hand with his young wife, spends more time at home than at the office.
"Any man who falls in love after age 51 goes bananas," said a top government official, with a mixture of sympathy and compassion for his boss. "Endara is no exception."
Criticism of President Endara's alleged halfhearted dedication to his job has turned into a major political issue in Panama because of his failure to end the constant infighting of his U.S.-installed coalition government.
Panama's two vice presidents and 12 Cabinet members engage in nasty public fights with one another, projecting the image of a divided government. The president seems unable to stop the squabbles or give his government a clear sense of direction, critics say.
"Physically, he is there," one government official conceded. "But his mind is somewhere else."
Government spokesman Rene Hernandez and top Cabinet ministers vehemently rejected charges that Panama has a part-time president. On the contrary, Mr. Endara is among the first to arrive at Cabinet meetings, they say.
Part of the misunderstanding lies in the fact that, for the first time in many years, a Panamanian president lives and works in the presidential palace, they say. Mr. Endara and the first lady live on the third floor of the waterfront Las Garzas palace. The president's office is on the second floor.
Because of that, Mr. Endara is often seen with his wife during lunch, coffee breaks or dinner. And malicious gossipers say the head of state spends much of the day in his residential quarters.
"In Panama, we love gossip," said Guillermo Ford, the country's second vice president and planning minister. "When people don't have anything better to do, they make things up."
But, thanks to the press freedom in place since last year's U.S. invasion ousted Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, newspaper columnists and cartoonists are having a field day with the presidential love story.
A recent cartoon in the independent daily La Prensa shows an empty presidential chair, with an invisible president throwing daisy petals in the air and counting: "She loves me, she loves me not . . ." Outside the window, the scene is of a country in chaos.
Critics also complain that Mr. Endara is giving his wife an excessive role in government matters. A persistent rumor, denied by top government officials, says she even participates in Cabinet meetings.
"In the 11 months since we've been in office, I've only seen her once at a Cabinet meeting," Mr. Ford said. "It was late at night, and she showed up briefly to bring us a cake."
The first lady made headlines in early October when, clad in the colorful costume of Panama's Cuna Indians, she accompanied the president to the United Nations General Assembly.
The picture of the first lady dressed as an Indian at the United Nations created an uproar among Panama's elite.
A cartoon in La Prensa portrayed Mr. Endara, covered only by a loincloth, with a spear in his hand, telling his Indian-clad wife: "Hurry up, darling. We're late for the General Assembly."
In a letter to a newspaper Oct. 7, reader Beatriz E. Giron wrote: "Imagine if Mrs. Barbara Bush had attended the General Assembly dressed as a Sioux Indian!"
Criticism over the first lady's U.N. appearance intensified when Panamanian newspapers reported that Mr. Endara had refused to address the forum unless his wife was allowed to sit with Panama's delegation on the floor of the General Assembly. Most other spouses follow the speeches from a VIP balcony, critics charged.
Foreign Minister Julio Linares said he was unaware that the president had placed any such condition for delivering his speech. The first lady was seated next to the foreign minister on the assembly floor because she was a member of Panama's official delegation, he said.
Most aides to Mr. Endara and U.S. officials who follow his moves closely say the president's main problem is not love, but knowinghow to manage his time. He also doesn't pay enough attention to building his public image, they say.
When the president is interested in one issue, he often stays at a meeting and is late for the next one, they say.
"He has never been an executive; he ran a little law office," said a senior U.S. official. "He is a very astute, intelligent man who is learning how to govern."
Complicating matters, Mr. Endara governs without an assertive personal staff or a visible spokesman and is politically isolated within his coalition government.
His Panamenista Party controls only one post in the 12-member Cabinet and has six seats in the 58-member Congress.
Critics and friends alike concede that, even without a love affair, Mr. Endara would hardly be an authoritarian president.
A lawyer who graduated with honors from the University of Panama and a longtime spokesman for the late four-time President Arnulfo Arias, Mr. Endara spent his entire political career as an Arias aide.
A heavy, good-natured man, he has long been known by most Panamanians by the nickname "Pan de dulce" (sweet bread) -- a sugar and dried fruit-filled bread Panamanians love.
But Mr. Endara proved to be a courageous opposition leader during anti-Noriega street demonstrations of recent years. In May 1989 he was savagely beaten with iron rods by General Noriega's secret police and had to be hospitalized with a deep cut in his forehead.
It was during the anti-Noriega civic opposition struggle last year that Mr. Endara's first wife died after an illness.
The president met his current wife during a hunger strike he staged to call international attention to General Noriega's human rights abuses. He noticed Ana Mae among a crowd of well-wishers and invited her to chat with him. It was love at first sight, the two say.
General Noriega's political associates, jumping on the opportunity to discredit the president, are already demanding that he resign -- a suggestion the government rejects as outlandish.