Opposition Outflanked

September 25, 2007

"THE ONE THING I HAVE LEARNED FROM all of this is how much I have come to hate the United States."' This remark was uttered almost a year ago by a leader of Panama's National Civic Crusade, the umbrella group of nearly 200, mostly professional organizations at the forefront of Panama's opposition. The speaker was typical of Crusade leadership. Young, highly educated, smartly dressed, and smoking an ex- pensive cigar, he sat in the board room of the Panama- nian Chamber of Commerce, headquarters of the Cru- sade. He believed then, as did many Panamanians, that since the United States helped create the problem, it should help solve it. Today the opposition's frustration and the young man's hatred have deepened. When the Administration finally moved reluctantly against Noriega last fall, local opposition forces were left almost entirely out of the picture and not one U.S. initiative since then has fa- vored the Crusade. As Virgilio Ramirez of the Crusade quipped, "When the United States got involved...it be- came strictly an argument between Noriega and the United States, between husband and wife." 2 A SMALL CIRCLE OF WEALTHY BUSINESS- men opposed to military rule founded the Civic Crusade on June 8, 1987 to capitalize on the spontane- ous anti-government demonstrations sweeping Pan- ama's major cities. These were sparked by accusations against Noriega made by Col. Roberto Dfaz Herrera two days before, which appeared to confirm government crimes long suspected by Panamanians. 3 From the be- ginning the Crusade embraced two vital principles: non- violence and nonpartisanship, both of which would be seriously tested in the months that followed. The Cru- sade jumped into the fray calling nationwide strikes to demand Noriega's removal; their success established the Crusade as the voice of a new opposition. Noriega was reportedly depressed and feeling vul- nerable as his unpopularity was revealed to the world, and was unsure how to react to the most widespread JUL I/nV UU I o00 1 "' "'*"~""' '^"" Z 31PANAMA display of opposition since the inception of military rule in 1968.' His first instinct was to negotiate with Pan- ama's powerful banking interests, who had always been supportive of the military government-creator of the offshore banking center and guarantor of social stabil- ity. However, a month before the crisis hit, Operation Pisces-a joint U.S.-Noriega investigation into drug money laundering-shook investors' confidence in the nation's secret banking laws, and rattled the bankers' confidence in the General.' When Panama reached the verge of chaos following Diaz's declarations, they too wanted Noriega out. Noriega's colonels held at least three secret meetings during the summer with a group of bankers headed by Frederico Humbert Jr., president of Banco General, Panama's largest bank. 6 A written agreement was drawn up which even included a retirement date for the General, but the "Banker's Plan" fell through. Noriega realized his advocates within the Reagan Administra- tion were still influential and felt encouraged by Wash- ington's apparent indecisiveness. In particular, he un- derstood that the Department of Defense still valued close ties with the Panama Defense Forces, as regular consultations between the U.S. Southern Command and the Defense Forces continued uninterrupted. 7 Equally important, the opposition had grown cocky. Overesti- mating its own strength, the Crusade adopted a hardline "mango" stance (Manuel Go), refusing to bargain with the government until Noriega left the country. U.S. Ambassador Arthur Davis at a Crusade fundraiser A S NORIEGA RETRENCHED, THE WEAK- nesses of the Crusade began to emerge. Pan- ama's former vice president Roderick Esquivel, the first official to publicly criticize his government and Nori- ega, observed, "There is a free-floating disgust in Pan- ama, which the opposition will never be able to con- trol.'" This was due in great part to the Crusade's incapacity to rid itself of its privileged, rabiblanco (white tail) image, the term used to describe the wealthy oligarchy whose political control of Panama was broken by the 1968 military coup.' The Crusade also failed to bridge a broader social gap. Panama is really two countries: one traditional and rural; the other modern and urban, grouped around the canal transit zone. The two areas almost evenly divide the population with about a million Panamanians in each. Since the urban elite long ago asserted its domi- nance through the rising economic importance of the transit zone, a subtle animosity has permeated the rest of the country. This polarization of Panamanian society provided Noriega with a base of support that proved costly to the opposition. Although influential, the rabiblancos do not actu- ally run the Crusade. The leaders are instead a new gen- eration of elite young professionals, many of whom emerged prosperous from the economic boom which began in the 1960s and lasted into the middle years of the Torrijos regime. They are the progeny of the dy- namic service economy promoted by Torrijos. A tacit deal existed between these new young tech- nocrats and the Torrijos government. Allowed to enjoy and preside over a basically laissez-faire economy, they refrained from criticizing the more progressive aspects of Torrijos' program, which included long overdue so- cial reforms and the inclusion of the poor in the political process. This arrangement broke down under Noriega. He played favorites among businessmen more than Tor- rijos, and greatly expanded the economic interests of the Defense Forces, sowing bitter divisions within the busi- ness class.'" The core leaders of the Crusade had never partici- pated in politics before, and their immaturity debilitated opposition efforts. When the crisis began, Crusade founder Roberto Brenes and others flew off to Yale University to attend seminars in nonviolent resistence. Brenes acknowledges their "lack of political finesse," and worries about their ability to control the old-time politicians. I Aware that most Panamanians dislike and distrust both pro and anti-government politicians, the Crusade made nonpartisanship a founding principle, along with nonviolence, and excluded parties and party leaders from joining. By remaining nonpartisan the Crusade felt it could become a truly national movement capable of rising above politics in its quest for a return to civil- ian rule. The three major opposition parties accepted this logic. REPORT ON THE AMER S n The most charismatic opposition politician, Arnulfo "Fufo" Arias, offered the Crusade only passive sup- port. His health would not allow him to do more. Even so, as one of Latin America's last classic caudillos, his backing gave the opposition an important drawing card. Yet Arias' death on August 10 may prove to be a greater boon to the anti-Noriega forces, since it makes way for a more unifying leader to emerge. As a Crusade leader remarked, "He will do more for Panama dead than he did when he was alive." 12 With his passing, the Au- thentic Panamanian Party, having been built on his per- sonalistic politics, should rapidly deteriorate. The other two major opposition parties are not nearly as significant, but have worked much more closely with the Crusade. MOLIRENA, a right-wing conglomera- U.S. INTERVENTIONS IN PANAMA Sept. 19-22, 1856: "To protect U.S. interests during an insurrection."* Sept. 27-Oct.8, 1865: "To protect U.S. interests during a revolution." April 1868: "To protect the property and lives of U.S. residents during a revolution." May 7-22 and Sept.23-Oct.9, 1873: "To protect U.S. interests during hostilities caused by the inauguration of the government of Panama." January 18-19, 1885: "To protect objects of value being moved by Panama's railroad, as well as the Company's safes and vaults during revolutionary activity." March and April 1885: "To re-establish free transit during revolutionary activity."' March 8-9, 1895: "To protect U.S. interests during an attack on the town of Bocas del Toro by a bandit leader." Nov.20-Dec.4, 1901: "To protect U.S. property in the Isthmus and maintain transit lines open during serious revolutionary distur- bances." April 16-23, 1902: "To protect U.S. lives and property in Bocas del Toro during a civil war." Sept. 17-Nov.18, 1902: "To place armed guards in all crossing trains and maintain the railway open." 1903-1914: "To protect U.S. interests and lives during and fol- lowing the revolution of independence from Colom- bia, due to the construction of the canal in the Isthmus. With short interruptions, the Marines were stationed in tion of splinter parties, is largely responsible for the Crusade's rabiblanco image. The newspaper La Prensa, shut down by Noriega, represents this wing of the opposition. The Christian Democratic Party, led by the energetic and high profile Ricardo Arias Calder6n, a philosophy professor turned politician, has become Washington's favorite within the opposition. His sanc- timonious style and lack of charisma gained him the nickname "the holy nun." Tomas "Tommy" Herrera, a lawyer, is considered the principal advocate of the Crusade's hardline "mango" stance. His views, similar to Arias Calder6n's, imbued the Crusade with an annoying self- righteousness, posing the battle with Noriega as one of good versus evil. the Isthmus from Nov. 4, 1903 until Jan. 21, 1914 to safeguard U.S. interests." Nov. 17-24, 1904: "To protect U.S. lives and property in Anc6n, at the time of insurrectionary threat." 1912: "At the request of the political parties, U.S. troops supervised elections outside the Canal Zone." 1918-1920: "For police duties, according to treaty stipulations, during electoral disturbances and subsequent agita- tion." April, 1921: "A U.S. Navy squadron held maneuvers on both sides of the Isthmus to prevent war between the two countries [Panama and Costa Rica] over a border dispute." Oct. 12-23, 1925: "Strikes and riots by tenants obliged some 600 U.S. soldiers to disembark to maintain order and protect U.S. interests." Jan. 9, 1964: To stop Panamanian students who sought to raise the Panamanian flag in the Canal Zone, U.S. soldiers killed 21 and wounded more than 500. March and April 1988: To overthrow the government, the United States im- posed devastating economic sanctions. "* Quotes extracted from a longer list of U.S. interventions in the hemisphere presented in Senate testimony by Secre- tary of State Dean Rusk in 1962 to justify the option of direct intervention in Cuba. Source: Este Pais #2, July 1986, CEASPA, Panama. 3-1 JULY/AUGUST 1988ReporA N4 Amre4s PANAMA Noriega understood the weakness of such an ap- proach. While almost every Crusade leader has been exiled at one time or another, Noriega allowed Herrera to remain and be a source of tension within the Crusade leadership. His stance against negotiations increasingly alienated Panama's poor who would prefer a quick reso- lution of the crisis. Brenes and others began question- ing Herrera's unwillingness to negotiate and by July of this year he had resigned from the Crusade leadership. But in the summer of 1987, Herrera's views held sway. The Crusade shunned negotiations and instead pursued economic warfare by closing the doors of their businesses. Convinced of an eventual U.S. bailout, the privileged middle and upper class leadership believed they could survive the potential destruction of the Pana- manian economy. There were others who would suffer deep and immediate consequences. T HE OMNIPRESENT SLOGAN AT PANAMA'S national university, "neither the rabiblancos nor the dictatorship" describes the poor majority's dis- pleasure at the choices they are being offered. There is a general dislike of the current regime and many feel betrayed by Noriega's derailment of the Torrijos revolu- tion." The Crusade doesn't appear to be a viable option either. A laid-off construction worker echoed numerous Hanging Noriega in effigy others: "Noriega is no good but my family needs to eat...leave him alone until the election in [19]89...let's see what happens then." A more ominous warning came from a day laborer in the countryside, "We are getting tired of all these politicians...we have waited many years for a better life...maybe soon we must take our machetes and cut the biggest branches from the tree.'"" Unable to bridge class divisions, and with its eco- nomic warfare hurting those whose support it needed most, the Crusade arrived at an impasse last fall. It still had one more hope, or so some of its leaders thought: Uncle Sam. Ever since independence, Panama has been domi- nated by the United States like no other country in Latin America, except perhaps for Puerto Rico. " Panamani- ans, regardless of class or race, admire as well as resent the dominant power. Faced with the onslaught of U.S. popular culture, Panama is not merely fascinated, it is obsessed. U.S. baseball teams are followed closely in the local papers or, from the middle class upwards, on Cable News Network (until Noriega shut it down this year). This conflict of emotions, mirroring a divided national soul, helps explain how, despite the historical record, Panama's opposition expected the United States would do what was "right" and support their struggle for democracy. Ultimately, they were to be disap- pointed. Although Crusade leaders now claim that all they wanted was "solidarity," their pleas to Washington for help amounted to much more. The opposition's most influential representative, Gabriel Lewis Galindo, an extremely wealthy businessman and Panama's Ambas- sador to the United States during the Canal Treaty nego- tiations, used his money and contacts to establish a Washington office for the Crusade. Although never a Crusade member, Lewis lobbied for strong U.S. in- volvement. By focusing international attention on Panama, the Crusade helped force a resolution of the fierce policy debate which raged within the Reagan Administration all summer and into the fall. By late October, one White House official signalled its end: "You can now assume that backdoor channel things [to get Noriega out] are going on.'"' However, none of the "backdoor things" that followed were supported by the Crusade, nor did they help its cause. The first was the "Bland6n Plan." With Noriega's approval, government official Jos6 Bland6n began secret negotiations with the State De- partment in January, 1988. But when Bland6n's son was imprisoned for opposition activity, he switched sides, testifying before Congress in an attempt to shame Noriega from office. Then in early February, federal indictments were handed down accusing Noriega of drug trafficking. Although independent of the State Department policy REPORT ON THE AMER SThe "Pifia busters" proved to be no threat to Noriega process, this obliged the Reagan Administration to move faster against Noriega because of its high profile anti-drug campaign. A few weeks later, the United States pushed President Delvalle into a bold attempt at firing Noriega.' 7 Twelve hours later Delvalle himself was deposed. The February coup greatly complicated the efforts of the Crusade. After nine months of presiding over Nori- ega's repression of the opposition, Delvalle suddenly became the anti-Noriega force the United States recog- nized as legitimate.'" At this point Gabriel Lewis' ef- forts dovetailed with those of Delvalle, whose daughter is married to Lewis's son, and the Crusade lost the support of the person who should have been its best Washington connection. The White House coordinated its actions closely with Delvalle's representatives, the law firm of Arnold & Porter, which was retained 24 hours after Delvalle's ouster. A partner in the firm is former Assistant Secre- tary of State for Inter-American Affairs, William D. Rodgers. Although nominally a private citizen regis- tered as the agent of a foreign government, Rodgers became a principal architect of the latest phase of U.S. policy." This included severe U.S. economic sanctions coupled with direct negotiations using the drug indict- ments as bargaining chips. The Crusade was unable to reach a consensus on whether to follow Reagan's lead and support Delvalle, or on whether to support U.S. sanctions. Most Crusade JULY/AUGUST 1988 leaders denounced the sanctions, yet were inevitably identified with them. When all negotiations finally col- lapsed in May, the Crusade was left frustrated and baffled. Although the organization has had a strong presence in Washington, in the words of Crusade repre- sentative Virgilio Ramirez, they "have had some access to policy makers, but very little influence.''2 THE MOST VISIBLE STRUGGLE FOR POWER in Panama is between a civilian elite based on old wealth, and a military elite based on wealth and power accumulated over the last twenty years. In this conflict the Crusade's most serious of many miscalculations was that the Reagan Administration would support their vision for the future, not the military's. Preoccupied with the security of the canal and turmoil in the region, the United States made its choice long ago; all they want is a change at the top. Today the Crusade is at a crossroads, uncertain whether to participate in next year's elections or to pursue their goals by some other means. Its members are questioning, above all, their adherence to nonvi- olence. Any attempt to build a political movement which channels Panama's nationalism against military rule will face difficulties and setbacks. The Crusade has lacked patience and skill for the endeavor. Its members have learned, however, that the United States can have even less patience and less skill, and is not an ally to be trusted. Opposition Outflanked 1. Author's interview, Panama City, Sept. 8, 1987. 2. Author's interview, Washington, Aug. 18, 1988. 3. Diaz, cousin of the popular Omar Torrijos (chief of state 1968-78) and the number two military man, had been sacked by Noriega just a month before he was to assume command of the Panamanian Defense Forces. After his ouster, he accused Noriega of personally ordering the deaths of Torrijos and Hugo Spadafora (Torrijos confidante and long-time Noriega rival and critic), of fix- ing the 1984 presidential elections, and of widespread corruption in the government. Interestingly, he never said a word about drug trafficking. In accordance with the "Torrijos Plan," drawn up after the death of Torrijos by Col. Ruben Ddrio Paredes and signed on March 8, 1982, Paredes and Lt. Cols. Armando Contreras, Noriega, and Diaz Herrera agreed on an orderly succession of power for each of them. It indicated that as each was replaced the retiree would become active in the official Democratic Revolutionary Party to ensure its control by the military. This document was one of hundreds that Diaz Herrera made public. 4. Author's interview with Omaera "Mayin" Correa, former Torrijos press secretary, a popular broadcast journalist, and the only Legislative Assembly representative from a military-con- trolled party who immediately denounced Noriega, Panama City, Sept. 22, 1987. 5. Author's interviews with various Panama bankers, Panama City, Sept.-Oct. 1987. 6. Operation Pisces was one of many cooperative gestures made by Noriega to control illicit hemispheric activity. Working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, some bank books were selectively examined for evidence of money laundering. This occurred in May, 1987, just one month before the crisis. Since 1982, Noriega received a half-dozen letters of appreciation from various U.S. law enforcement agencies for his efforts with Pisces and other drug fighting operations. (New York Times, Aug. 18, 1988). 7. Author's interview with journalist Mayin Correa, Panama City, Sept. 23, 1988. 8. Author's interview with Vice President Roderick Esquivel, Panama City, Oct. 6, 1987. President Delvalle ordered Esquivel's office closed on Oct. 23, 1987. 9. The term has been in the Panamanian language since at least the turn of the century. It refers to a tropical bird with a white tail and was orginally applied to the white oligarchic class. There are also rabiprfetos (mestizos), and rabicolorados (blacks). 10. Mayin Correa has compiled a list of 5,000 people whose business interests were damaged or taken over by the military. 11. Author's interview, Washington, November 10, 1987. 12. Author's interview with Virgilio Ramirez, Washington, Aug. 18, 1988. 13. Noriega also aggressively purged torrijistas from the PRD as soon as he took power in 1983. He began by removing Torrijos' sister Bertha from the PRD leadership. One of the few remaining PRD officials close to Torrijos, radical firebrand R6mulo Escobar Bethancourt, was removed as PRD president in July of this year. 14. First quote: interview, Panama City, Sept. 30, 1987. Second quote: interview, Santiago, Panama, Sept. 11, 1987. 15. Panama has been invaded by the U.S. military twelve times, second only to China. See Herbert K. Tillema, Appeal To Force (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1973); other sources claim 18 U.S. interventions (see Box. p. 34-35). 16. Telephone interview, Washington, Oct. 23, 1987. 17. Elliott Abrams met with the Panamanian president on Feb. 17 in Miami where Delvalle had traveled to see his dentist. (Am- bler Moss, Testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, May 4, 1988.) 18. Delvalle is perhaps the most hated man in Panama. Noriega could at least be admired for his machismo and cunning, but Del- valle became known as simply la gallina (the hen). Instead of traveling through Latin America to press for regional support, as many in the Crusade hoped, Delvalle has remained in hiding (most likely on a U.S. installation) only to be ferried out occasionaly to Miami or New York on personal business. His most recent trip, on Aug. 27, infuriated the opposition. While Panama endures the pain of U.S. economic sanctions, Delvalle went to Miami to purchase throrougbred horses. 19. Washington Office on Latin America, Latin America Up- date, March-May 1988 and James Chace, The New York Review of Books, April 28, 1988. 20. Author's interview, Washington, Aug. 18, 1988. In an earlier interview, Brenes had complained about the problems he and other Crusade leaders in Washington had with the Department of State over the status of their visas.

Tags: Panama, Manuel Noriega, US involvement, political elite, opposition

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.