The government Thursday began closing its offices for the Easter weekend with most of its employees unpaid and hopes fading for a mediated settlement to the crisis over strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.
As the government closed down until Monday, a few more shops and stores reopened their doors in Panama City, widening the cracks in an 11-day-old general strike aimed at forcing Noriega's ouster.The closure of government offices left thousands of public employees unpaid for the second time this month, despite a new infusion of an estimated $19 million in quarterly tax revenues.
About $5.5 million of that money reportedly came from taxes and fees paid by U.S. companies doing business in Panama, despite a number of official economic sanctions applied against Panama by the United States.
The United States has been trying to pressure Noriega to leave the country. As head of the 15,000-member Panama Defense Forces, he is the power behind the civilian government.
The government, its opposition and the nation's Roman Catholic leader all expressed doubt at prospects for negotiating an end to the crisis.
The reservations were voiced Wednesday just hours after the mediation initiative involving Archbishop Marcos McGrath was disclosed.
McGrath announced through a spokesman on Tuesday that he was willing to try to negotiate an end to 10 months of political turmoil that have in the past month deepened into acute crisis.
On Wednesday, he told journalists he remained willing to proceed, but added: "It is evident that for the government and for the military, this process could be somewhat difficult, because as far as they are concerned, the church is partial."
He said that "the church has had the moral duty to criticize those who have used force excessively" as the government has harshly suppressed anti-Noriega street protests.
Baltazar Renan Alzpurua, columnist for the daily newspaper Critica, which is run by the Defense Forces, expressed even greater doubts about the archbishop's suitability as a mediator.
Noreiga was indicted in the United States last month on federal charges of trafficking in Colombian cocaine, charges he denies.
"McGrath is from head to toe just another ugly American and he cannot be the mediator," Renan wrote in Wednesday's paper. "That would be like inviting a thief to eat at your table."
McGrath's parents were U.S. nationals, and the churchman still speaks Spanish with an American accent.
"I have not asked to be mediator, and if the mediation can be carried out by someone else or in another form, so be it," he said.
The archbishop's intervention was proposed Sunday by President Oscar Arias of Cost Rica and Felipe Gonzalez, the Spanish prime minister, who was visiting Costa Rica at the time.