This piece was a review of a small but incendiary book from the good folks at South End Press. It appeared 20 years ago in the Santa Cruz Sun.
Like the Persian Gulf war, the invasion of Panama was preceded by economic destabilization of the target country and demonization of the leader, a former ally. When the war finally came, it was characterized by relentless overkill in order to annihillate the target’s military capacity, and an indiscriminate use of firepower that resulted in massive civilian casualties.
Eyewitnesses cited in the Panama report provide a sobering contrast to the post-Gulf image of our boys and girls “just doing their job.” Tales are told of U.S. soldiers beating wounded prisoners, running over fallen bodies with their tanks, bulldozing corpses into mass graves, torching houses, machine-gunning unarmed students, even lifting watches and wallets. “They are savages,” wrote one Panamanian soldier to his family. “They have a sick fury. They have massacred our people like animals.”
Indeed, the numbers discussed here regarding civilians killed in Operation Just Cause range considerably higher than the 200 or so conceded to by the U.S. The Commission of Inquiry estimated between 1000 and 4000 Panamanian civilians were killed. A list of 14 mass grave sites was compiled, though the government attempts to prevent by any means possible a thorough accounting of civilian casualties. There are also allegations of a coverup of the number of U.S. soldiers killed in action, perhaps three times as many as the 23 officially listed.
The government of President Endara, who was sworn in on a U.S. military base as the invasion began, continues to be propped up by the occupation forces who patrol the streets of Panama City to this day. The Commission also uncovered a document which names the Pentagon and State Department officials assigned to run each of the Panamanian cabinet offices. Endara himself, who is regarded as something of a joke by his constituency, gives the lie to the U.S. pretext of combatting drug trafficking as one reason for the invasion. The Commission concludes that “the evidence suggests that the U.S. government and mass media have just as much, if not more information linking senior leaders in the Endara government to drugs as they did implicating Noriega.”
The net effect of installing Endara was to return to power the white minority (the country is roughly 85% people of color) who ruled Panama until 1968, when General Omar Torrijos overthrew the wealthy landowners, and placed blacks and Indians in positions of authority for the first time. Today the former residents of the neighborhoods demolished by U.S. forces are housed in what they invariably describe as “concentration camps.” They could be seen on a recent Frontline special, their lives divided into ten-foot-square cubicles inside a sweltering aircraft hangar. The refugees, who pass through the gates of the barbed wire-enclosed compound at the pleasure of U.S. soldiers, have yet to receive one dime of compensation for their property losses.
It was only in early April of 1991 that the Bush and Endara governments reached agreement on changes in Panama’s bank secrecy laws, thus freeing up a $420 million aid package promised in May 1990 (the U.S. invasion cost $2 billion). The $420 million, of course, is only a loan, and as such will be added to the national debt of Panama, eventually to be taken out of the hides of the country’s rapidly growing underclass. Some $348 million of the total will go either to “reactivate” Panama’s banking system, or to debt payments, thus helping to reactivate our own. Only $3 million is earmarked for housing projects.
Aside from removing from power an embarrassing former ally who boasted of holding extensive blackmail on George Bush, the invasion killed a number of other birds with one stone. It served to prepare both the U.S. public and its military forces for more spectacular military adventures to come, as well as testing the Pentagon’s new pool system for muzzling the press. A great deal of other testing took place as well, including the Stealth bomber, which apparently batted .500, dropping one of its two bombs on a civilian house. Many witnesses spoke of seeing laser weapons in action, and one saw a barracks burned by an incendiary device so hot it left ash outlines of the furniture standing until touched. “They were experimenting on us,” as one Panamanian put it.
The United States seems to have found the experiment successful enough to begin searching for further Just Causes, and this is the primary benefit of the operation for them. An extensive U.S. miltary presence is guaranteed for the forseeable future in this strategic region, which would not have been the case if a less pliable regime were overseeing implementation of the Carter-Torrijos Canal Treaties. Thus, thousands of rapidly-deployable troops will be available for upcoming conflicts in, say, Peru, El Salvador, and/or Cuba. Ramsey Clark, currently gathering the testimony of our Iraqi victims, will certainly have his work cut out for him forming future Commissions of Inquiry — if the lessons of this one are not soon taken to heed.