For many Panamanians, economic struggle dictates


MEXICO CITY -- Yesterday's conviction of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega was an anti-climactic, distant event for many Panamanians who are still struggling to overcome the effects of the 1989 invasion that brought him to justice.

"Noriega is kind of past news here," said Alberto Conte, a Panama City advertising executive who was jailed three times by the dictator. "The pocketbook repercussions are still with us. I would say we are still trying to get back to where we were before the invasion."

Though 23 U.S. military men and about 700 Panamanians died in the invasion, for most Panamanians the enduring blow of the U.S. action was the destruction of their economy.

U.S. economic sanctions before Noriega's seizure, the fighting itself and widespread looting cost Panama an estimated $2 billion.

The bombing of Noriega's downtown headquarters also destroyed thousands of homes, most of which have yet to be replaced.

The crippling of the economy that began with the economic sanctions in 1988 also left a legacy of rickety schools, hospitals, roads and bridges.

Another victim was the nation's chronically underfunded judicial system. Now more than 80 percent of the system's 3,700 prisoners are still awaiting trial.

The United States and its allies have provided Panama with more than $1 billion in aid and credit guarantees since the invasion, pushing the economic growth rate to 9 percent last year, the highest in Latin America.

But the country is still trying to catch up, burdened with an official unemployment rate of 15.7 percent and an unofficial rate of 25 percent. In 1987, the unemployment rate was about 6 percent.

On the eve of Noriega's conviction in Miami, police were enduring a second night of confrontations with angry unemployed workers in the Caribbean port of Colon.

"Noriega is now a bad memory," said one of the general's strongest supporters, Nils Castro, now in exile in Mexico. "But there is more conflict now in Panama than when Noriega was around. There is more crime in a single day than in all of 1989."

Mr. Conte took issue with Mr. Castro's crime statement, saying that many crimes were not reported by Noriega's muzzled press. "I'd have to say that there are many conflicts here, but that's the way Panama has always been," he said.

Some Panamanians also wonder if the former strongman's conviction and the destruction of his corrupt military has put a major dent in the drug trade, a major goal of President Bush.

Panamanian yachtsmen say it is common to find packages of cocaine floating in the Gulf of Panama. There have been reports of drug boats unloading their cargo a few miles from the presidential palace.

U.S. Embassy officials have said it is impossible to determine if more drugs are coming into Panama since no one knows how much was entering the country under Noriega.

The country has been stunned to learn that a renovation of a major Panama hotel was undertaken by a Spanish hotelier linked to Colombian drug lords. Financing for the hotel came from a bank in which President Guillermo Endara had served as an officer.

The bank is now out of business, and Mr. Endara denies that he took an active role in its affairs.

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