US. Troops occupied four towns on the Panamanian border with Costa Rica on January 14, a few days before death began to rain on Baghdad. They were apparently sent to keep an eye on the forty-odd Palestinian and Lebanese merchants who live in Concepción, Bugaba, Cerro Punta and Volcán. The merchants called the deployment "a joke in bad taste."
Latin America and the Caribbean have not escaped the shadow cast by the war against Iraq. One detects a sense of foreboding, the suspicion that the distance is illusory, that the world has taken a giant step backward, the fear that the Empire's fury will be unleashed on them next.
A rumor traveled with lightning speed in the first days of the war, from Colombia to Ecuador, Peru and Brazil: the Embassies were giving out green cards to anyone who would enlist. Anti-war rallies were soon dwarfed by lines of young men ready to offer their lives. Officials dismissed the rumor, but as Mexican leftist Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas pointed out, "Thousands of Mexicans are already in Saudi Arabia as members of an army and under a flag that are not our own." He added that the fate of humanity should not be left "in the hands and up to the morality of the murderers of Grenada and Panama."
Panama was the dress rehearsal. The first U.S. soldier to die there was Peruvian. The only U.S. soldier charged with murder -- singled out by the Pentagon to pay for the thousands of civilian deaths -- is Panamanian. Two of the first U.S. casualties in the Gulf were Puerto Rican. At the funeral of Ismael Cotto on February 2, Cong. José Serrano of the Bronx called the all-volunteer army "the compulsory military service of the poor." "Communities like mine pay a higher price," he continued. "To be against the war, is to be in favor of the troops."
Argentina's President Carlos Saúl Menem, second only to Canada's Brian Mulroney in displaying craven loyalty to the Empire, took the compulsory mercenary service of the poor to new levels. He leapt at the chance to send warships to the Gulf last summer, but refused to let them leave port until Kuwait had deposited millions in the central bank. The evident parallels between Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and Argentina's adventure in the Malvinas failed to dampen Menem's enthusiasm. If the islands had oil, perhaps Uruguay would have harbored a half million troops, while the bombs rained on Buenos Aires.
The specter of Iraqi terrorism is played up with glee by politicians and press, egged on by the obliging handful who hurl Molotov cocktails at embassy walls. But the reality of state-sponsored terrorism speaks louder. On January 15 the Bush Administration announced its intention to restore the $42.5 million in military aid to EI Salvador withheld by Congress. No matter that the Salvadoran high command continues to stymie prosecution of the officers accused of ordering the cold-blooded slaying of six Jesuit priests. A week later, a death squad slaughtered fifteen peasants in the town of Ayutuxtepeque.
And now it seems U.S. efforts to restructure the region for the new order do not preclude bacteriological warfare. Cholera, which hadn't been seen in this hemisphere in a century, began killing Peruvians by the dozen in early February. The collapse of the public health, water and sanitation systems and the nosedive in nutritional levels, all resulting from U.S.-sponsored and IMF-prescribed policies, are not mentioned as causes. The disease is said to have arrived by boat from Asia.
Jose de Jesus Martinez died suddenly at his home in Panama the first week of February. "Chuchú" was one of Central America's personalities: philosopher, math professor, writer, pilot, radical. His flamboyant character so captivated Graham Greene that he became the real protagonist of Greene's book on Omar Torrijos, Getting to Know the General.
Chuchú’s final column, which appeared in the Mexican paper El Día, described the crushing of the December 5 anti-U.S. uprising led by Col. Eduardo Herrera Hassán:
"The U.S. soldiers captured him in one of those makeshift slums that Panamanians call 'witches.' This one bears a name worthy of the bitter and bloody irony of the poor: Hollywood. On TV we see the soldiers throw the Colonel's people to the ground. They beat them, handcuff them and put them in trucks to be taken away. Suddenly two of them jump from the truck and race off.”
"They're running as fast as they can. The TV camera follows one of them. He's not used to running. He runs a few short and desperate steps, but he does it quickly, surprisingly quickly. It looks a bit like a face in a silent film. But this film is not silent. We hear someone chewing gum and talking in English.”
"Someone tells us that the U.S. soldier has kneeled down. Slowly, deliberately, and very precisely, he shoots the Panamanian in the back. The camera zooms in on the wound. He's soaked with blood and soon it's flowing out of his mouth. Three Yankee soldiers lift him up like a sack of laundry and throw him in the back of the truck. No ambulance for him. We see him raise his head, seeking a way out, or air, or something to grab onto to keep from dying, and once again the blood floods out of his mouth.”
"Every Panamanian saw this scene. The workers who the day before were demonstrating for the right to survival. The middle-class girl who was once photographed kissing one of the invading soldiers. The bishop, Marcos McGrath, who at a mass declared that the invasion of Panama should be considered 'a liberation.' President Endara must have seen it on TV too. Vice President Arias saw it, I'm absolutely certain. I saw it, and I wanted to cry and I felt like the smallest and most impotent human being on earth. Fortunately Gen. Omar Torrijos is dead, because if he had watched that scene he would have howled like a wild beast..."
We too are watching. We too feel impotent. So much for the fantasy that the end of the Cold War would bring some relief. The new order looks even worse.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Mark Fried is the editor of the NACLA Report