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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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)