Nineteen months after the United States joined an effort to oust Manuel Antonio Noriega, Panama's defense chief remains in power, dominating a dispirited and divided opposition.
However, with Panama sinking deeper into economic crisis, both his supporters and opponents feel the nation must reach an accommodation with the new Bush administration."We have to talk to the gringos," said Tomas Altamirano Duque, a congressman and uncle of Carlos Duque, the Noriega-backed candidate in the May 7 presidential election.
"I think Bush is more intelligent (than Reagan) and can be more practical."
Jorge Richa, a government critic and former president of the Industrialists' Association, declared: "We cannot maintain an antagonistic relationship with the United States indefinitely."
But Secretary of State James A. Baker III has asserted that "it is difficult to make progress" on U.S.-Panamanian issues as long as Gen. Noriega remains in charge.
Washington says Noriega reneged on deals to leave the country last year.
Panama's opposition, which began an effort to oust Noriega with U.S. support in the summer of 1987, now finds itself weaker than ever.
The United States indicted Noriega in February 1988, alleging he protected drug-runners in Panama and conspired to distribute narcotics.
When President Eric Arturo Delvalle tried to fire Noriega later that month, Noriega had Panama's congress replace Delvalle.
The United States, which still recognizes Delvalle as president, then imposed economic sanctions on Panama in an attempt to force Noriega to resign.