Sunday, February 22, 2009

Economic Hit Man - Ch.27

Panama: Another Presidential Death

I was stunned by Roldos's death, but perhaps I should not have been . I was anything but naive . I knew about Arbenz, Mossadegh, Allende — and about many other people whose names never made the newspapers or history books but whose lives were destroyed and sometimes cut short because they stood up to the corporatocracy . Nevertheless , I was shocked . It was just so very blatant.

I had concluded, after our phenomenal success in Saudi Arabia , that such wantonly overt actions were things of the past. I thought the jackals had been relegated to zoos . Now I saw that I was wrong. I had no doubt that Roldos's death had not been an accident . It had all the markings of a CIA-orchestrated assassination . I understood that it had been executed so blatantly in order to send a message. The new Reagan administration, complete with its fast-draw Hollywood cowboy image, was the ideal vehicle for delivering such a message. The jackals were back, and they wanted Omar Torrijos and everyone else who might consider joining an anti-corporatocracy crusade to know it.

But Torrijos was not buckling . Like Roldos, he refused to be intimidated. He, too, expelled the Summer Institute of Linguistics, and he adamantly refused to give in to the Reagan administration's demands to renegotiate the Canal Treaty.

Two months after Roldos's death, Omar Torrijos's nightmare came true ; he died in a plane crash . It was July 31, 1981.

Latin America and the world reeled. Torrijos was known across the globe ; he was respected as the man who had forced the United States to relinquish the Panama Canal to its rightful owners, and who continued to stand up to Ronald Reagan . He was a champion of human rights, the head of state who had opened his arms to refugees across the political spectrum, including the shah of Iran, a charismatic voice for social justice who, many believed, would be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize . Now he was dead . "CIA Assassination!" once again headlined articles and editorials .

Graham Greene began his book Getting to Know the General, the one that grew out of the trip when I met him at the Hotel Panama , with the following paragraph :

In August 1981, my bag was packed for my fifth visit to Panama when the news came to me over the telephone of the death of General Omar Torrijos Herrera, my friend and host. The small plane in which he was flying to a house which he owned at Coclesito in the mountains of Panama had crashed, and there were no survivors . A few days later the voice of his security guard, Sergeant Chuchu , alias Jose de Jesus Martinez, ex-professor of Marxist philosophy at Panama University, professor of mathematics and a poet, told me, "There was a bomb in that plane. I know there was a bomb in the plane, but I can't tell you why over the telephone ."1

People everywhere mourned the death of this man who had earned a reputation as defender of the poor and defenseless, and they clamored for Washington to open investigations into CIA activities. However, this was not about to happen . There were men who hated Torrijos, and the list included people with immense power. Before his death, he was openly loathed by President Reagan, Vice President Bush, Secretary of Defense Weinberger, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as by the CEOs of many powerful corporations .

The military chiefs were especially incensed by provisions in the Torrijos-Carter Treaty that forced them to close the School of the Americas and the U.S. Southern Command's tropical warfare center. The chiefs thus had a serious problem . Either they had to figure out

some way to get around the new treaty ; or they needed to find another country that would be willing to harbor these facilities — an unlikely prospect in the closing decades of the twentieth century . Of course, there was also another option : dispose of Torrijos and renegotiate the treaty with his successor.

Among Torrijos's corporate enemies were the huge multinationals . Most had close ties to U.S. politicians and were involved in exploiting Latin American labor forces and natural resources — oil, lumber , tin, copper, bauxite, and agricultural lands. They included manufacturing firms, communications companies, shipping and transportation conglomerates, and engineering and other technologically oriented corporations .

The Bechtel Group, Inc. was a prime example of the cozy relationship between private companies and the U.S. government. I knew Bechtel well; we at MAIN often worked closely with the company, and its chief architect became a close personal friend . Bechtel was the United States' most influential engineering and construction company . Its president and senior officers included George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger, who despised Torrijos because he brazenly courted a Japanese plan to replace Panama's existing canal with a new, more efficient one .2 Such a move not only would transfer ownership from the United States to Panama but also would exclude Bechtel from participating in the most exciting and potentially lucrative engineering project of the century.

Torrijos stood up to these men, and he did so with grace, charm , and a wonderful sense of humor . Now he was dead, and he had been replaced by a protege, Manuel Noriega, a man who lacked Torrijos's wit, charisma, and intelligence, and a man who many suspected had no chance against the Reagans, Bushes, and Bechtels of the world . 

I was personally devastated by the tragedy. I spent many hours reflecting on my conversations with Torrijos. Late one night, I sat for a long time staring at his photo in a magazine and recalling my first night in Panama, riding in a cab through the rain, stopping before his gigantic billboard picture . "Omar's ideal is freedom ; the missile is not invented that can kill an ideal!" The memory of that inscription sent a shudder through me, even as it had on that stormy night .

I could not have known back then that Torrijos would collaborate with Carter to return the Panama Canal to the people who rightfully deserved to own it, or that this victory, along with his attempts to reconcile differences between Latin American Socialists and the dictators, would so infuriate the Reagan-Bush administration that it would seek to assassinate him .3 I could not have known that on another dark night he would be killed during a routine flight in his Twin Otter, or that most of the world outside the United States would have no doubt that Torrijos's death at the age of fifty-two was just one more in a series of CIA assassinations .

Had Torrijos lived, he undoubtedly would have sought to quell the growing violence that has plagued so many Central and South American nations. Based on his record, we can assume that he would have tried to work out an arrangement to mitigate international oil company destruction of the Amazon regions of Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru . One result of such action would be the alleviation of the terrible conflicts that Washington refers to as terrorist and drug wars, but which Torrijos would have seen as actions taken by desperate people to protect their families and homes . Most importantly, I feel certain that he would have served as a role model for a new generation of leaders in the Americas, Africa, and Asia — something the CIA, the NSA, and the EHMs could not allow.

- pages 158-161

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