Sunday, February 18, 2007

Foreward: The Enemy Within

The war in Panama at Christmastime, 1989 could be called “The U.S.A. versus General Manuel Antonio Noriega” except perhaps for the fact that the Americans couldn’t find him at the time. The U.S.A. labeled their military intervention “Just Cause” and the majority of Panamanians, freed from the tyranny of a corrupt military regime, considered the cause sufficiently just to greet the American troops on their streets as liberators.

Whatever the justifications, the means by which the U.S. decided to achieve their end was the massive storming of military and civilian targets in Panama in the darkness of the small hours of December 20 1989. The suddenness, ferocity and weight of forces and firepower was sufficient to ensure that the war was a quick one—probably the shortest in the history of armed conflict. As Panama picked up the pieces, and the U.S. forces changed from battle mode to “law and order mode” in the republic in which they have historically played the role of defenders and policemen, both sides paused to count the cost. Twenty three U.S. soldiers died and 324 were injured. Three U.S. civilians also died. The Panamanian death toll, as far as the Catholic Church could ascertain was 655, with over 2,000 injured. Many people believe the figure was much higher.

Polls in the U.S. indicated about 89 per cent of the American public agreed that, indeed, the cause was just. In Panama, foreign correspondents interviewing people among scenes of death and destruction, searched almost in vain for citizens who would condemn the U.S.A. for their invasion.

The Panamanian attitude towards the U.S. is ambivalent. They scrawl “Yanqui go home” on the walls and their daughters marry GIs and they dote on their Yanqui grandchildren. All Panamanians are staunchly nationalist. They love their country, its traditions and the things that make it different. Politically they want to be completely independent, masters of their own destine. But … there’s Uncle Sam on the other side of the fence. He has always been there, damn his hide, but … maybe it’s just as well.

The U.S. interest in Panama was, and still is, the Canal, which is also the reason for Panama’s existence as a sovereign nation. The Canal Zone, which in the original treaty signed just after Panama became independent from Colombia was U.S. sovereign territory “in perpetuity” and which cut the republic neatly in half, has always been a political bone of contention. With the Torrijos-Carter Treaty, implemented in 1979 and granting Panama sovereignty over the Canal and the Zone in the year 2000, it seemed Panama was achieving political maturity and sovereign independence.

President Jimmy Carter signed the Treaty to hand the Canal to Panama and to withdraw from military bases. The Canal in any case is not the monopoly it once was as pipelines and rail links provide alternatives; some ships are now too big for the Canal’s locks and there is even talk of superships which would just as soon speed round the Horn, so that on a “who needs it?” basis there is even less reason to believe that the U.S. would not abide by the treaty.

Also, in a world shrunk since the opening of the Canal by relatively instant air communication, the Isthmus of Panama cannot have the strategic importance it once had. Even less reason, then, to believe that the U.S.A. would back down on the Treaty.

But Noriega seemed to be convinced that they would. Inexplicably, with the course of treaty implementation going relatively well in the first few years, he decided to whip up anti-U.S. sentiment among elements of his followers and rail against imperialist aggression when all Panama had to do was work calmly toward the year 2000.

The problem, and the real reason for the bloody war, was a personal one. Noriega had been on the payroll of U.S. security agencies. He had indeed been “their man” in Panama, but he grabbed power they never anticipated and drugs became a critical political issue in the U.S. Noriega’s involvement in drugs, always a perk of the Panama Military and to which the U.S. turned a blind eye when he was useful to them, made him an acute embarrassment. The U.S.A. failed totally to find a policy for handling Noriega. The Reagan administration issued threats at which Noriega jeered. Indicting him on drug charges in Florida was crass, and served only to harden Noriega’s attitude and put his back to the wall, eliminating the possibility of getting him to step down without losing face.

Then came economic sanctions against Panama. Apparently advised by experts, including the Panamanian opposition whose efforts throughout were woefully inadequate and misguided, Reagan thought he could oust Noriega by undermining the Panamanian economy. Wrong again As they bit into the pockets of every strata of society, the sanctions served only to harden the attitude of many Panamanians against the U.S. Apparently the White House and the Pentagon could not agree on covert action, which, given the deviousness of U.S. policies in the past, would have seemed to be the answer.

Noriega’s personal antagonism towards the U.S., amounting now to a phobia, drove him to debase the national policy to the point at which the Panama Defense Forces were harassing Americans diplomats and military personnel. The list of incidents in the U.S. Army Southern Command headquarters became a bulky document. Some cases of serious beatings were recorded.

By this time President Bush was in charge and Panamanians, increasingly bitter against the U.S. over the sanctions, hoped for some positive action. All they got was another blunder. The last mistake which the Americans made was failing when the opportunity came to step in and help Panamanians settle their own affairs. A group of officers staged a coup, the second in just over a year, and held Noriega captive. The rebel officers requested assistance, but Bush and his advisers dithered, allowing the tough 2000 Battalion loyal to Noriega to come in from their garrison 25 miles east of the city to rescue him.

This was the last of a long line of failures which led the U.S. to take the only option left, and unfortunate one which would involve heavy loss of life. Also the violation of Panamanian sovereignty—but Panamanians are accustomed to that.

Jones, Kenneth J. The Enemy Within: Casting out Panama’s Demon. Copyright © 1990 Focus Publications (Int.), in the Republic of Panama.

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