PANAMA: Reagan's Last Stand

September 25, 2007

POLITICIANS SPECIALIZE IN TRANSFORM- ing complex world problems into symbolic bogey-
men to scare up the vote. In this year's presidential
campaign, no demon has proven more successful than
Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, commander-in-chief of
Panama's Defense Forces. From the relative obscurity
of being a staunch U.S. ally in a small Latin American
nation, he has been thrust into the limelight as the repre-
sentative sine qua non of a hitherto unidentified spe-
cies: "the drug-dealing Latin dictator."
Democrats take special pleasure in deploying the
Noriega demon because he also symbolizes the Reagan-
Bush Administration's major fiasco of 1988 and what
may well be "Reagan's Last Stand." John Weeks,
professor of international politics and economics at
Middlebury College, makes abundantly clear in "Of
Puppets and Heroes" that the Administration not only
failed to remove its unconditional ally, it effectively
consolidated the General's hold on the country and con-
verted him into a nationalist hero in the eyes of Latin
America. Along the way, Panama's relatively prosper-
ous economy was torn asunder, the civilian opposition
was outflanked and divided, and the contempt most
Panamanians feel toward the United States was dra-
matically reinforced. Weeks examines why the Ad-
ministration turned on its good friend and finds, as with
so much of Reagan's foreign policy, that its obsession
with Nicaragua was at the root.
Like other political bogeymen, the Noriega demon
was constructed from a partial and partisan reading of
the facts. In "General Coke?" John Dinges, foreign
editor at National Public Radio and author of a forth-
coming book on Noriega, shows that most of the Gen-
eral's involvement with drug-trafficking took place be-
tween 1981 and 1984. Since then, Noriega has cut back
Panama's role in the drug trade and stepped up coopera-
tion with the Drug Enforcement Agency.
UNTIL RECENTLY, THE PRESS PAID LITTLE
attention to Panama, despite the importance ac-
corded it by U.S. policy makers. It is the site of the
Southern Command, the largest permanent station of
U.S. troops and military equipment in Latin America.
From its bases there U.S. forces send supplies to the
contras, launch spy flights over El Salvador and Nicara-
gua and coordinate all military activities from the Rio
Grande to Tierra del Fuego. In addition, 12% of U.S.
trade goes through the canal, and 12% of the oil the
United States consumes travels by the transisthmic
pipeline.
O MAR TORRIJOS, WHO RULED PANAMA
from 1968 to 1978, liked to say about Panama's
independence that the United States behaved like the
midwife who kept the baby in payment for her services.
The fact is that, except for Puerto Rico, no other Latin
American country has been so dominated by the United
States, suffering 18 military interventions and the con-
tinuous occupation of the Canal Zone. Small wonder
nationalism colors Panama's politics so deeply.
Sociologist Ra6il Leis, director of the Panamanian
Center for Research and Social Action (CEASPA),
points out in "The Cousins' Republic" that U.S. vice-
royalty has given rise to a class of elite politicians who
specialize in bowing and scraping before Uncle Sam.
For them, nationalism is the opiate of an idealistic
people; realism demands obedience to the imperial
master.
Panamanian nationalism is also a reaction to the
extreme denationalization of the country's economy,
comprised of financial and related services to transna-
tional corporations and banks. Despite its dynamism,
six of every ten families cannot satisfy their basic ne-
cessities and most Panamanians live in mud and
straw shacks in the countryside, or in dilapidated slums
in the cities. In "Serving Foreigners," economist Char-
lotte Elton of CEASPA examines this superdependent
development in which a minority of Panamanians par-
ticipate and only a select few directly benefit.
The progeny of this boom, a new class of wealthy
young professionals, are at the forefront of opposition to
military rule. John Zindar, an analyst at the Center for
Defense Information and former instructor at the U.S.
Army School of the Americas in Panama, shows in
"Opposition Outflanked" that after the events of this
year even these prosperous businessmen have come to
hate the United States.
LL FACTS ASIDE, THE NORIEGA DEMON
makes for a powerful image, one that seems to
have built a nasty consensus in favor of a return to bald-
faced intervention as a proper tool of U.S. policy.
Rather than instill caution, Reagan's last stand in Pan-
ama, like Custer's at Little Big Hornm, seems to have
only fueled bipartisan yearning for cheap and easy vic-
tories.

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