The nation's three largest supermarket chains reopened their stores Wednesday, signaling a major rupture in a 10-day general strike aimed at toppling strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.
The government announced that the nation's banks, closed since March 3 because of a cash shortage brought on by U.S. economic sanctions, would reopen Thursday with limited service. It announced tight restrictions on withdrawals from savings and checking accounts.The Gago, Rey and Super 99 markets in the capital were doing brisk business after Panamanians rushed to buy food and essentials that have been virtually unattainable.
The weakening of the strike came two days after a harsh crackdown on leaders of the National Civic Crusade, which is leading the anti-Noriega fight. More than 20 crusade directors were arrested Monday in a raid by soldiers and state security agents. Most were detained overnight, then released.
The Roman Catholic church Tuesday joined opposition leaders in calling for Noriega's resignation. But Noriega, leader of the 15,000-member Defense Forces and the power behind the civilian government, said Tuesday night he had no intention of stepping down.
"Here, it is not one man who is the problem," said Noriega, who blames his problems on what he considers a U.S. slander campaign against him. "This is a matter of dignity and conviction involving the entire hemisphere."
In a speech to delegates of a Solidarity With Panama conference in the capital, Noriega condemned the presence of the U.S. helicopter carrier Okinawa on the Pacific end of the Panama Canal. It passed through the canal Tuesday on its way to its home port, San Diego.