A funeral procession for a former president who was three times deposed by the army turned quickly into a peaceful protest against Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the country's de facto ruler.
Without their usual fear of repression by the general's soldiers and police, Noriega's opponents gathered in the plaza in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral on Monday for a requiem Mass for Arnulfo Arias Madrid.Arias Madrid, who would have been 87 on Monday, died of a heart attack last Wednesday.
As the service ended and Arias Madrid's coffin was placed atop a bright orange firetruck for the trip to the Garden of Peace cemetery, a great, seemingly spontaneous cry went up from the throng in the plaza.
"Justice," they shouted.
The crowd followed the cortege out of the plaza, through the narrow, brick streets of the old section of Panama City and onto the capital's main business artery. With each block, the procession grew until it filled the four-lane street for nearly a mile.
"Noriega must go," the marchers shouted. "Arnulfo president, Noriega delinquent."
The Panamanian government is dominated by Noriega, who commands the country's 15,000-member Defense Forces. He was indicted by two federal grand juries in the United States in February on charges of narcotics trafficking.
Noriega's soldiers and police, who have crushed dozens of protests in the past 14 months, did not interfere with the funeral.
Many in the procession waved white banners or the flags of political parties opposed to Noriega.
U.S. Ambassador Arthur Davis and his daughter, Susan, were among the mourners.
In death, Arias Madrid won praise even from government-controlled newspapers.
They referred in vague terms to his "errors" during 57 years in politics, but praised his nationalism and defiance of the United States. Elected to three four-year terms, the military allowed him to serve a total of only 21/2 years.