PANAMA The Other Side of Midnight

September 25, 2007

I thought it was thunder. But the television set me straight. Channel 2, which belongs to the government, was announcing, "...attention, attention, Dignity Battalions: CODEPADI, emer- gency, emergency, Code Cutarra, get your guns, emergency." The U.S. Southern Command's Channel 8 was broadcasting Code Echo-the fifth and maximum level of alert. The die had been cast. The invasion was underway. The seismograph needle at the Uni- versity of Panama's Geosciences Insti- tute marked the first bomb precisely: 46 minutes and 40.3 seconds after mid- night, December 20, 1989. During the next four minutes it registered 67 more. The delicate instrument traced the suc- cession of explosions for another 13 hours before giving out: A total of 422 bombs fell on the city, some of them tremendously destructive. A bomb ev- ery two minutes. The seismograph did not register the bombardments in other parts of the country. Nor did it record the shooting. Nor the toll in human suffering. At the stroke of midnight Panama suffered the twentieth invasion of its territory at the hands of the United States. The first occurred 133 years ago when Jack Oliver, a traveler, refused to pay Jos6 Manuel Luna the price of a slice of watermelon. The slum rose up in insurrection and the United States sent troops to this small isthmus for the first time. How many died during the first days of the invasion? Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands? The numbers seem to rise weekly. The Church claims that 655 Panamanians died, most of them civil- ians, and more than 2,000 were injured. But the number of Panamanian dead could easily rise to several thousand. In many areas the bodies were buried in alleys and patios, and information has been intentionally withheld. Twenty- three U.S. soldiers were killed. In Chorrillo, a neighborhood of wooden barracks built to house the workers who dug the Canal at the be- ginning of this century, the invasion hit like a little Hiroshima. The Central Headquarters of the Defense Forces lay in the heart of the barrio; the inhabitants were awakened by bombs, tracer bul- lets and flares--night turned into day. The population was not prepared for war; there were no shelters, no civil defense to protect them. The invading troops were concerned only with mini- mizing their own losses. They made use of this opportunity to try out the supersecret Stealth bomber ($500 mil- lion apiece), the Apache AH-64 attack helicopter ($14 million apiece), the HMMWV jeeps, new vests and hel- mets, and even a new line of semi-dry rations. Some 200 bodies were pulled out of the area around the Headquarters. They were in pieces-many dressed only in underwear. U.S. soldiers paid $6 for each body recovered. "The gringos sent a lot of tanks into Chorrillo that night," recounted one resident. "There were about 80 of them. From where I stood I could count 16 bodies of civilians, burned and bullet- ridden: Porky Platero and his wife, Miguel Acosta Gabino, La Sorda..." A wounded man told of a bus on the Panama-Chorerra route which was at- tacked at one in the morning. A tank destroyed it-along with 26 people in- side. A resident of Huerta Sandoval, next- door to Chorrillo, recalled how U.S. troops turned a tank's machine-guns and bazookas on a group of young men drinking beer: "One of them, his last name was Villareal, died instantly. Three others were injured. One had his leg severed at the knee. He bled to death by the side of the road. His name was Turry Aguilar-the neighborhood mechanic. We took my brother to the Gorgas hospital where they operated on him in the parking lot." In the San Miguelito slums at the city's edge, a resident described the situation: "A helicopter bombarded three houses, destroying them all. One woman was wounded in the knee. The bomb entered the side of the house, blowing the gas tank through the roof. But worst of all was her daughter, only months old, who was left with her arm and head full of shrapnel..." "It was painful," he continued, "agonizing. But most painful of all was the euphoria [that followed]. Of course we agree with getting rid of a dictator who damaged our country. But the United States with all its power could have found a better way to re- move that one person from the city." 4 NACLA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS t Ci Sociologist and playwright Ra(d Leis is the director of the Panamanian Center for Research and Social Action (CEASPA). I _ 4 NACLA REPORT ON THE AMERICASRevolution from Outside Of the objectives the United States listed to justify the intervention, two were explicit and immediate: to protect the lives of U.S. residents, and to kill or capture Noriega. This was to be done so as to protect U.S. national security inter- ests (the Canal and U.S. military bases) and to create a Panama totally aligned with those interests. Underneath all this, the United States sought to make a revolution of sorts. Noriega's Defense Forces (FD) were the authoritarian axis of national politi- cal power. They ran into conflict with the political opposition, and later with the United States, insofar as they sought to monopolize control of the country. The U.S. goal was not solely to remove the top brass, but to make the institution disappear altogether-"To change its ideology," a Southern Command offi- cial declared on television. The new Public Force (FP) is to work as an aux- iliary to U.S. troops in defense of the Canal and to guarantee internal secu- rity. In civilian affairs it takes orders from the government (in turn aligned with the United States) and in military matters from the Southern Command. But transforming an army is not accomplished through sleight-of-hand nor an act of war. The surviving offi- cers-80% of whom are now in the FP-were not converted, but humili- ated and obliged, stripped of their au- thority and privileges. Beside the U.S soldiers with their state-of-the-art combat gear, the new FP troops move like shadows, in old ill-fitting me- chanic's overalls, carrying clubs or at most revolvers. A television commer- cial for a fast-food chain shows, ap- provingly, a U.S. soldier picking up a Panamanian girl. A local paper runs photos of dead U.S. soldiers under the headline: "They died for Panama." The Panamanian military is defeated and disliked. Those who resisted the in- vasion are not considered heroes or martyrs, but criminals who defended Noriega. "History repeats itself. Once again a small nation is born under the protec- tion of the United States..." wrote a columnist in the daily Panamd Amirica. The new government was the ace up the Bush Administration's sleeve. It de- rived legitimacy from its electoral "It will be difficult to convince them not to cross the street again" triumph in May 1989, even though it was bom with the original sin of having been imposed by foreign troops. Those who have assumed the reins of government with the support of U.S. forces are inspired by the worldview of the New Right: They perceive Pan- ama's crisis as one of political and moral authority, eroding the hegemony of the proper order of things. And they believe that reactivating entrepreneurial spirit will resolve it. They are not only anticommunist, they are against any policy which regulates or interferes with the free market. Theirs is a crusade, rooted in indivisible-under-God Ca- tholicism. The nation's economic powers-that- be would like to repair the falling out between business and the state that oc- curred after President Nicolds Ardita Barletta was ousted in 1985. They hope the invasion and occupation will give birth to anew unity of economic, politi- cal and military power, and a new ideo- logical hegemony under the protection of the United States. Six major actors collaborate in this process: the business lobby, National Council of Private Enterprise (CNEP); the "civic" Church, a sector of the hierarchy, clerics and lay, particularly in Panama City, that gave moral sup- port to the opposition and the invasion; and four political parties-the National VOLUME XXIII, NUMBER 6 (APRIL 1990) _E 0 Civic Crusade (CCN), the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), "Amul- fismo," and the Nationalist Republi- can Liberal Movement (MOLIRENA). The National Civic Crusade, led by middle-class businessmen, occupies the vacuum created by the lack of a grass- roots popular movement. CCN's vis- ible struggle against the dictatorial aspects of Noriega's government gave it legitimacy and appeal to a wide spec- trum of society. The Christian Demo- cratic Party, with its polished rhetoric and international support, is the best prepared of the parties in power. It re- ceived more votes than any other in the 1989 elections-though many of them were from supporters of the Pan- amefiista Party, which was kept off the ballot-and thus will have a majority in the new National Assembly. It controls the government and justice ministry, the education ministry and others. "Amulfismo," the political move- ment founded by the late legendary caudillo Arnulfo Arias Madrid, is cur- rently without a party, but that is un- doubtedly a question of time. It has the largest social base and the deepest po- litical appeal. President Guillermo Endara belongs to this movement. Fi- nally, MOLIRENA is the most conser- vative of the four, the product of an alliance of family-based oligarchic parties. It controls economic policy through the planning, labor and treas- ury ministries, and occupies the minis- tries of health and foreign relations. This New Right alliance, born out of shared opposition to Noriega, is not homogeneous, and some aspects of it are held together only by spit and a prayer. It is now enjoying a post-inva- sion honeymoon, but what will happen when the champagne goes flat? When the Endara government strengthens Panama's adherence to IMF structural adjustment and privatization policies (which Noriega never questioned) and living standards fail to improve, a new sort of opposition will likely emerge. Not from the ranks of Noriega support- ers, but out of new struggles on the horizon. More than ever before, the character of Panama's politics will be determined by the presence of U.S. military forces, which hangs like Damocles' sword over the nation, blocking the natural unfold- ing of Panamanian society. U.S. troops 5are the mentors of the new government and army. And they are belligerent forces in Panama's political process. Even when the occupying troops are withdrawn, half or more will remain stationed in the Southern Command. According to the Canal Treaties, they may stay "on the other side of the street" until the year 2000; and they have all the support they need to remain beyond that date, should they wish. It will be more difficult than ever to con- vince them not to cross the street again. The Other Invasion In the midst of the horror, people raised barricades and looted the busi- nesses where they work and shop. Then a wave of accusations and acts of venge- ance flooded the country. People ea- gerly turned in their neighbors-mili- tary and paramilitary personnel, as well as normally law-abiding citizens-to U.S. troops, acclaimed as the bearers of order. How things have changed since the 1970s, when the country was united and defiantly proud of Gen. Omar Torrijos for demanding that the Canal be returned to Panama! The 1980s be- came a decade of gradual decomposi- tion of consensual rule. Nationalism does not work when it is divorced from democracy, isolated from an organic program, and separated out from the concrete social and historical progress of the poor. Noriega's nationalism, which demobilized the majority and failed to offer a credible path to a better society, was nothing but empty rheto- ric. Its vitality was sapped by the lack of popular sovereignty and by illicit en- richment at the top-a clean flag in dirty hands. The process initiated by Torrijos and brought to a close by the invasion was characterized by a profound dis- trust of autonomous organizing by the poor. Demobilization, and the co-opta- tion and corruption of leaders were the result. This was nowhere more evident than in Noriega's plans for defense, the Dignity Battalions, which never con- templated grassroots participation. Noriega, with all the power in his hands, did not approve a single substan- tive law in favor of the poor who might have supported him. When university students finally achieved an anti-impe- rialist alliance, the Defense Forces inter- vened and murdered one of them, Luis Gonzales, in cold blood. Noriega not only feared the United States. He feared his own people even more. The opposition to Noriega took up people's legitimate democratic aspira- tions, and Panamanians' long history of nationalist sentiment was transcended by the dichotomy of democracy and dictatorship. Indeed, people came to live a reality in which democracy was irreconcilable with nationalism; the in- vading army became an army of libera- tion. On another level, people experi- enced the invasion as a catharsis. Ev- eryone projected their own guilt onto Noriega, washing their hands of any responsibility for the nation's crisis. Noriega became the evil doer, the occu- pying troops the avenging angel. Primi- tive instincts triumphed over the Chris- tian values of a believing people. It was not only in the wake of the invasion that all social classes partici- pated in the looting of their own cities. They had been doing it all along. The years of crisis were fertile ground for the yearning to "get what you can." The economy based on commerce and services spawned a Phoenician syn- drome. A country of consumers. A little Hong Kong. "Get out of my way." "If they do it, so will I." "I am what I have." Others, meanwhile (the United States) carried out the dirty work of bringing down the dictatorship. The old slogan, long used to slander Marxists,' '"The ends justify the means," was Panama's national motto. Amid all of this was the growing desire for foreign objects and foreign New Right crusaders in office: Vice President Ricardo Arias Calder6n, President Guillermo Endara, Vice President "Billy" Ford INIACLLA KrrkUK 1 UiN I1. AN In,It A culture. A Panamanian mother tells her son not to be afraid: "Say hello, touch it, it won't hurt you. Can't you see it's like a G.I. Joe?" And that was pre- cisely the most popular television se- ries and the best-selling toy in Panama. Father Te6filo Cabrestrero calls it "the drug from up there." It is the invasion that came long before the troops--creat- ing idols, and blocking consciousness. Today nationalists are suspect and dangerous. Democrats enshrine the paradigm of the United States. The Southern Command is no longer a hostile power, but a friendly army that ought to remain. Latin America's vote in the OAS to censure the invasion is viewed as treason. This is the logical outcome of military nationalism. The recent past is a tale of peoples who have struggled long and hard to throw off authoritarian regimes, using peaceful means as in Eastern Europe, Iran or the Philippines, or armed insur- rection as in Nicaragua. The paths were diverse, but there was only one actor: the people. No one should feel proud that some- one else pulls your chestnuts from the fire. We Panamanians had yet to use all our strength, nor had we exhausted all our possibilities. And the one who came to do the job for us did not come out of good will, but to defend his own inter- ests. A Kuna Indian summed up Pan- ama's plight: "It's as if we had a house full of mice eating our bread and rice. We use poison and traps. But we tire of that, so we get a cat. Now the cat doesn't want to leave, and throwing it out will not be easy: The mice will come back, and the cat has very sharp claws."

Tags: Panama, US invasion, Manuel Noriega, bombing

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