Monday, March 2, 2009

Economic Hit Man - Ch.10

Panama's President and Hero

I landed at Panama's Tocumen International Airport late one April night in 1972, during a tropical deluge. As was common in those days, I shared a taxi with several other executives, and because I spoke Spanish, I ended up in the front seat beside the driver. I stared blankly out the taxi's windshield. Through the rain, the headlights illuminated a billboard portrait of a handsome man with a prominent brow and flashing eyes. One side of his wide-brimmed hat was hooked rakishly up. I recognized him as the hero of modern Panama, Omar Torrijos.

I had prepared for this trip in my customary fashion, by visiting the reference section of the Boston Public Library. I knew that one of the reasons for Torrijos's popularity among his people was that he was a firm defender of both Panama's right of self-rule and of its claims to sovereignty over the Panama Canal. He was determined that the country under his leadership would avoid the pitfalls of its ignominious history.

Panama was part of Colombia when the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, who directed construction of the Suez Canal, decided to build a canal through the Central American isthmus, to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Beginning in 1881, the French undertook a mammoth effort that met with one catastrophe after another. Finally, in 1889, the project ended in financial disaster—but it had inspired a dream in Theodore Roosevelt. During the first years of the twentieth century, the United States demanded that Colombia sign a treaty turning the isthmus over to a North American consortium. Colombia refused.

In 1903, President Roosevelt sent in the U.S. warship Nashville. U.S. soldiers landed, seized and killed a popular local militia commander, and declared Panama an independent nation . A puppet government was installed and the first Canal Treaty was signed; it established an American zone on both sides of the future waterway, legalized U.S. military intervention, and gave Washington virtual control over this newly formed "independent" nation.

Interestingly, the treaty was signed by U .S. Secretary of State Hay and a French engineer, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, who had been part of the original team, but it was not signed by a single Panamanian. In essence, Panama was forced to leave Colombia in order to serve the United States, in a deal struck by an American and a Frenchman — in retrospect, a prophetic beginning.'

For more than half a century, Panama was ruled by an oligarchy of wealthy families with strong connections to Washington. They were right-wing dictators who took whatever measures they deemed necessary to ensure that their country promoted U.S. interests. In the manner of most of the Latin American dictators who allied themselves with Washington, Panama's rulers interpreted U.S. interests to mean putting down any populist movement that smacked of socialism. They also supported the CIA and NSA in anti-Communist activities throughout the hemisphere, and they helped big American businesses like Rockefeller's Standard Oil and United Fruit Company (which was purchased by George H. W. Bush). These governments apparently did not feel that U.S. interests were promoted by improving the lives of people who lived in dire poverty or served as virtual slaves to the big plantations and corporations.

Panama's ruling families were well rewarded for their support; U.S. military forces intervened on their behalf a dozen times between the declaration of Panamanian independence and 1968. However, that year, while I was still a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador, the course of Panamanian history suddenly changed. A coup overthrew Arnulfo Arias, the latest in the parade of dictators, and Omar Torrijos emerged as the head of state, although he had not actively participated in the coup .2

Torrijos was highly regarded by the Panamanian middle and lower classes. He himself had grown up in the rural city of Santiago, where his parents taught school. He had risen quickly through the ranks of the National Guard, Panama's primary military unit and an institution that during the 1960s gained increasing support among the poor. Torrijos earned a reputation for listening to the dispossessed. He walked the streets of their shantytowns, held meetings in slums politicians didn't dare to enter, helped the unemployed find jobs, and often donated his own limited financial resources to families stricken by illness or tragedy-. 3

His love of life and his compassion for people reached even beyond Panama's borders. Torrijos was committed to turning his nation into a haven for fugitives from persecution, a place that would offer asylum to refugees from both sides of the political fence, from leftist opponents of Chile's Pinochet to right-wing anti-Castro guerrillas. Many people saw him as an agent of peace, a perception that earned him praise throughout the hemisphere. He also developed a reputation as a leader who was dedicated to resolving differences among the various factions that were tearing apart so many Latin American countries: Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Cuba, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay. His small nation of two million people served as a model of social reform and an inspiration for world leaders as diverse as the labor organizers who plotted the dismemberment of the Soviet Union and Islamic militants like Muammar Gadhafi of Libya .4

My first night in Panama, stopped at the traffic light, peering past the noisy windshield wipers, I was moved by this man smiling down at me from the billboard —handsome, charismatic, and courageous. I knew from my hours at the BPL that he stood behind his beliefs. For the first time in its history, Panama was not a puppet of Washington or of anyone else. Torrijos never succumbed to the temptations offered by Moscow or Beijing; he believed in social reform and in helping those born into poverty, but he did not advocate communism. Unlike Castro, Torrijos was determined to win freedom from the United States without forging alliances with the United States' enemies.

I had stumbled across an article in some obscure journal in the BPL racks that praised Torrijos as a man who would alter the history of the Americas, reversing a long-term trend toward U.S. domination. The author cited as his starting point Manifest Destiny—the doctrine, popular with many Americans during the 1840s, that the conquest of North America was divinely ordained; that God, not men, had ordered the destruction of Indians, forests, and buffalo, the draining of swamps and the channeling of rivers, and the development of an economy that depends on the continuing exploitation of labor and natural resources.

The article got me to thinking about my country's attitude toward the world. The Monroe Doctrine, originally enunciated by President James Monroe in 1823, was used to take Manifest Destiny a step further when, in the 1850s and 1860s, it was used to assert that the United States had special rights all over the hemisphere, including the right to invade any nation in Central or South America that refused to back U.S. policies. Teddy Roosevelt invoked the Monroe Doctrine to justify U.S. intervention in the Dominican Republic, in Venezuela, and during the "liberation" of Panama from Colombia. A string of subsequent U.S. presidents—most notably Taft, Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt — relied on it to expand Washington's Pan-American activities through the end of World War II . Finally, during the latter half of the twentieth century, the United States used the Communist threat to justify expansion of this concept to countries around the globe, including Vietnam and Indonesia.'

Now, it seemed, one man was standing in Washington's way. I knew that he was not the first — leaders like Castro and Allende had gone before him — but Torrijos alone was doing it outside the realm of Communist ideology and without claiming that his movement was a revolution. He was simply saying that Panama had its own rights — to sovereignty over its people, its lands, and a waterway that bisected it — and that these rights were as valid and as divinely bestowed as any enjoyed by the United States.

Torrijos also objected to the School of the Americas and to the U.S. Southern Command's tropical warfare training center, both located in the Canal Zone. For years, the United States armed forces had invited Latin American dictators and presidents to send their sons and military leaders to these facilities—the largest and best equipped outside North America. There, they learned interrogation and covert operational skills as well as military tactics that they would use to fight communism and to protect their own assets and those of the oil companies and other private corporations. They also had opportunities to bond with the United States' top brass.

These facilities were hated by Latin Americans — except for the few wealthy ones who benefited from them. They were known to provide schooling for right-wing death squads and the torturers who had turned so many nations into totalitarian regimes. Torrijos made it clear that he did not want training centers located in Panama — and that he considered the Canal Zone to be included within his borders .6 Seeing the handsome general on the billboard, and reading the caption beneath his face — "Omar's ideal is freedom ; the missile is not invented that can kill an ideal!"—I felt a shiver run down my spine. I had a premonition that the story of Panama in the twentieth century was far from over, and that Torrijos was in for a difficult and perhaps even tragic time.

The tropical storm battered against the windshield, the traffic light turned green, and the driver honked his horn at the car ahead of us. I thought about my own position. I had been sent to Panama to close the deal on what would become MAIN's first truly comprehensive master development plan. This plan would create a justification for World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and USAID investment of billions of dollars in the energy, transportation, and agricultural sectors of this tiny and very crucial country. It was, of course, a subterfuge, a means of making Panama forever indebted and thereby returning it to its puppet status.

As the taxi started to move through the night, a paroxysm of guilt flashed through me, but I suppressed it. What did I care? I had taken the plunge in Java, sold my soul, and now I could create my opportunity of a lifetime. I could become rich, famous, and powerful in one blow.


-pages 58-62

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