Lying Our Way Into The Canal by John Lindsay-Poland The Big Lie loves silence lie the snai

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Lying Our Way Into The Canal by John Lindsay-Poland The Big Lie loves silence lie the snail loves its shell. So it is that the dearth of firsthand information about Panama has given rise to a series of falsehoods since the invasion of last December 20. First President Bush justified the invasion in part on grounds of clauses for defense of the Panama Canal contained in the Canal Treaties. He neglected to mention the 1977 Treaty's explicit prohibition against interference in Panama's internal affairs; nor did he or most of the press mention the treaty's schedule for the removal of all U.S. military bases and troops by the year 2000, together with reversion of control over the Canal to Panama. The, the U.S. press reported that soldiers found hundreds of pounds of cocaine in General Manuel Noriega's office. Only later on a back page revision that the substance discovered was really tamales. Over the summer, when Noriega's lawyers threatened to subpoena documents that might shed light on Noriega's multi- decade relationship with the CIA and with George Bush, a deal was struck. The U.S. would keep documents, and the lawyers would be paid for his defense up to $5 million from funds seized in Noriega's European bank accounts. Earlier rumors that more than 23 U.S. soldiers had died during the invasion were recently confirmed by interviews with soldiers in Panama, one of whom has to scrub the bodies of the dead coming into an air-conditioned bowling alley. He said that at least 60 bodies of U.S. soldiers came in during the first night of fighting. After that he got sick and couldn't continue. Evidence points to "friendly fire" from other U.S. soldiers as the cause of several dozen troops' deaths. The same sources said that an air assault in February on a rural region of Panama during which 11 U.S. servicemen died was disguised as a "training mission" in the Pentagon's public communications. The cover-up with possibly the greatest consequences involves the number of Panamanian victims from the invasion. Originally the Pentagon claimed there were 200 civilians killed and as many as 300 Panamanian military dead, presumably to indicate a resistance that would justify the use of 2000-pound bombs and Stealth fighter planes, the latter used for the first time in Panama. The Pentagon later acknowledged that only some 50 Panamanian soldiers were among the dead. Meanwhile, Panamanian groups ranging from the Association of Family Members of Military and Civilians Killed on December 20 to several Panamanian bishops estimated the number of Panamanians lost to be in the thousands. Panamanians may never know the human cost of the U.S. operation. Hundreds of bodies at a time were buried in common graves, only one of which has been exhumed so far. Others were burned by U.S. soldiers. In any case, how many victims would have been justified to catch one man(whose government was responsible for no more than 20 thousand killings)? Families of the victims and displaced have been stigmatized, and perhaps like the hibakusha in Japan after World War II, many have been accused of being norieguistas. While no members of the Panamanian Defense Forces have been tried in courts for corruption or human rights abuses, the Panamanian media still presents the invasion as a liberation, implicitly discrediting those who seek redress. During the invasion, Panamanian TV stations interviewed families of U.S. soldiers who had been killed but not Panamanian families. Similarly, U.S. soldiers who participated in "Just Cause" and were traumatized by it are offered counseling; no thought is given to such counseling for Panamanians. A Year Later:Ill Justice One year after the invasion, Operation Just Cause has done Panama's majority little good. After two years of economic sanctions and the invasion's destruction and ensuing looting, the amount of economic aid necessary for Panama's recovery was estimated at $2 billion, but the Bush administration promised only $1 billion. Congress in turn reduced the aid to $420 million, which only passed into law in May and began to trickle in over the summer. The U.S. has been more focused on Eastern Europe and China, whose markets provide more promise for investment of foreign aid than Panama or other Central American countries. The aid passed designates over $100 million for a loan fund for Panama's private sector, and $135 million toward Panama's more than half-billion dollars in over due debt payments. With the exception of $43 million in emergency funds granted early in the year for reconstruction of destroyed buildings, none of the aid will compensate the Panamanian victims of the invasion. Probably most significant have been the conditions placed of the aid by the U.S. Agency for International Development, which include the kind of structural adjustment schemes imposed by the International Monetary Fund, encouraging the export of beef at the expense of corn production and cutting spending on public services needed by the poor majority. In addition, not all of the $400 million in Panamanian bank deposits frozen by the U.S. since 1988 have be returned to Panama. Within President Endara's administration, the situation in not unlike that of UNO in Nicaragua, with jockeying for position taking precedence over serving the interests of the country.President Endara is the weak link in the government. One Panamanian activist who had a meeting with Endara early this year was accompanied by the President to a meeting room in the National Palace, only to find the door barred by U.S. Marines. The soldiers would not allow the President's party in, and they had to find another meeting room. Endara's political party has a very small base, and most cabinet positions are dominated by parties of his two vice- presidents, Ricardo Arias Calderon and Guillermo Ford, who are in a struggle with each other for the spoils of power.(The bodyguard of one was even shot at in the spring during the struggle.) All of those now in government are white-skinned, and many are from the class that governed Panama from its independence until 1968. Among the population at large, most Panamanians are dark-skinned and Caribbean in culture; many are descended from workers brought from the Caribbean islands to build the Canal. Liberation For Whom? The economic program of the Endara government is similar to that implemented by Grenada after the U.S. invasion there in 1983: heavily dependent on an infusion of U.S. capital as the panacea to the economy's ills. But with the aid slow in coming, unemployment has risen to more than 30%, up to 50% in the cities. The government has also made clear the plan to do away with the gains of organized labor of the last twenty years. One labor leader described the U.S. invasion as a "triumph of capital, not of democracy." High unemployment has led to an intense crime wave in the cities. A recent delegation sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Witness for Peace was urged not to walk the streets of Panama City even during the day and to take taxis for distances of a few blocks. One delegate's camera was grabbed by someone through a bus window. The drug trade has been maintained or even grown since Noriega's departure. "It's the same people, the same drugs, the same money," one dockworker told the New York Times in August. Other Central American observers have speculated that one of Noriega's biggest crimes was having a source of income independent of the U.S. and international banks-income now apparently in the hands of free enterprise, not the military state. The new police force has been drawn primarily from Noreiga's PDF, a decision whose rationale seems to be fear that unemployed soldiers could prove to be a source of political or military instability. One poll this year found that more than 50% of Panamanians fear a coup in the future. The Panamanian police are being trained by the U.S. and are often accompanies by U.S. soldiers on patrol. The Panamanians, however, carry sidearms, while U.S. troops have automatic weapons. The U.S. presence itself continues to provoke serious questions, both for Panama's identity as a nation and for the U.S. intentions in the hemisphere. Despite the fact that both the Endara and Bush administrations have claimed no intent to renegotiate the Canal Treaties, the Southern Command has admitted occupying three islands that formerly belonged to Panama and two military bases that had been turned over to Panama. A U.S. military officer and an European attache' both recently told visiting representatives of the American Friends Service Committee that they assumed the U.S. would try to retain the bases. This thesis is reenforced by the blueprint for foreign policy by the U.S. right called "Sante Fe II" written in 1986. The blueprint said of Panama "Once a democratic regime is in place...discussion should begin on realistic defense of the Canal after the year 2000. Those talks should include the United States' retention of limited facilities in Panama....for the proper force projection throughout the Western Hemisphere." Alternatives And Hope The possibilities offered by popular struggle and international solidarity were illustrated over the summer in relation to the question of the displaced in the Atlantic City of Colon. About 40 families had been displaced when U.S. soldiers destroyed their apartment building, saying they knew that Noreiga was inside. The families were homeless until August when they began to occupy housing situated on land that was due to be returned to the Panamanian government under the terms of the Canal Treaties. The FOR and Witness For Peace delegations was observing outside the house when Southern Command troops appeared, accompanied by armored personnel carriers and some Panamanian police. In order to speak with the provincial government to help negotiate the issue, the Southern Command had to give its permission. In this tense situation, the delegation outside and Servicio Paz y Justicia/Panama, which hosted the delegation, alerted their U.S. and European contacts to send telexes to President Endara urging a just resolution of the families' needs. Some of the families went on a hunger strike; some were imprisoned. In September, however, the keys to temporary housing were handed over to the families by the Archbishop, and they were promised permanent housing. This case points to two basic changes needed in U.S. policy towards Panama: victims of the invasion should be indemnified directly by the United States, and the U.S. should cease exercising sovereignty of any kind in Panama. The precedents for indemnification are clear: following the U.S. invasion of Lebanon in 1958, the Dominican Republic in 1965, and Grenada in 1983, victims and their families were indemnified directly by the Army. The Endara government may have felt that it could afford to find housing for a few families in Colon, But in the midst of the severest economic crisis in the country's history, it would be unable to meet the needs of the 18,000 made homeless by the invasion on its own, not to mention the claims of those who lost family members. Democracy in Panama will best be served by Panamanian initiatives for self-sufficiency and self-defense. Self- government is suffocated by the fact that the current government was only placed in power-and legitimatized-by the U.S. invasion, the memory of which will continue to have critical impact on Panamanian politics. Repairing the damage and becoming self- sufficient are not aided by the IMF-type economic schemes out of touch with the poor majority, but by development programs that allow Panamanians to participate fully in meeting their own needs. Finally, given that Panama's border in the south is almost uninhabited jungle and in the north is shared by Costa Rica, which has no Army, its defense needs would not seem great. The Canal, which was closed for the first time during the U.S. invasion, is indefensible against terrorism or air attacks. There is no excuse for the Southern Command continuing to occupy Panamanian territory or having any military presence beyond its scheduled departure at the end of 1999. The Panamanian popular movement is dealing with picking up the pieces and surviving from day to day, and the Endara government is too dependent and/or indifferent to stand up to U.S. dominance. That leave an informed U.S. citizenry to get our government to do the right thing. The first anniversary of the invasion on December 20 provides an important opportunity to keep history alive and point the way toward change by holding vigils, writing letters to the editor, contacting Congress during its recess, taking direct action at military recruitment facilities, ect. It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. (The Nonviolent Activist/December 1990)


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