Thursday, March 26, 2009

US Invasion of Panama - Ch.1

Why the Panamanian People are Fighting for National Dignity

“General Thurman, with the way things are going, don’t you think it’s optimistic to say US troops will be out of Panama in one month?”

Ted Koppel, ABC Nightline


“Well, you’ll recall when we went into Detroit. We said it would be for ten days and then it took us a while…”

Gen. Maxwell Thurman, 

Head of US Southern Command, Panama, 

December 22, 1989


Three days into the US invasion of Panama – Washington’s biggest military operation since the Vietnam War – Gen. Maxwell Thurman could think only of Detroit, where 4,700 US paratroopers and 8,000 National Guardsmen invaded in 1967 to crush a rebellion by Blacks against police brutality.

The US Army’s occupation of Detroit left 43 Blacks dead, 2,000 wounded, 5,000 arrested, and 5,000 homeless.

The invasion of Panama by 26,000 US troops has taken thousands of Panamanian lives and left thousands more homeless and wounded. Body bags of US GIs have arrived in the United States, along with hundreds of wounded US troops.

Washington says it has occupied this country of only 2.3 million people to “restore democracy.” But the bombing of working-class neighborhoods in Panama City, the refusal to permit Red Cross workers to evacuate the wounded, and the rounding up of thousands of Panamanian youth reveal the real target of this operation.

The invading troops have met resistance from the Dignity battalions. These are armed civilian units of Panamanian workers and peasants, many of them Black. The battalions have been branded “terrorists,” “thugs,” and “looters” by the likes of General Thurman. Cuban President Fidel Castro has praised them as “heroes of Our America who are fighting for the dignity, honor, and sovereignty of our peoples.”

Who are the men and women of the Dignity Battalions and why are they standing up to the most powerful military force on Earth?

The battle of the Panamanian people for freedom from US tyranny stretches back to the beginning of this century. In 1903 the United States intervened in Panama to gain for itself rights to build the Panama Canal. A treaty was drawn up giving the US government rights to the canal “in perpetuity,” including the right to administer the over-500-square-mile Canal Zone, to run the Panama Canal Co., and to use US soldiers to maintain “order” in other parts of Panama. Washington didn’t even bother to ask the Panamanian government, which it had just installed, to sign the document.

Tens of thousands of workers from the Caribbean, most of them Black and English-speaking, migrated to Panama to work on the canal. Thousands died from the slave-like working conditions or from disease. Of those who survived, many stayed in the Canal Zone working for the US Army or private US companies once the canal was completed.

The decades following completion of the canal were marked by repeated struggles of Panamanians against US domination of their economy and government and for an end to the occupation of the Canal Zone. Intertwined with the fight for Panamanian sovereignty was the struggle against the racist policies of the US government. In the Canal Zone, which was subject to US law, Washington had set up the same kind of Jim Crow system that existed at that time in the US South.

Whites shopped at “gold” commissaries and lived in “gold” neighborhoods, while Blacks went to “silver” commissaries, drank out of “silver” water fountains, and could only find housing in “silver” neighborhoods. One Black neighborhood was even called “Silver City.” US police were quick to stop any Panamanian who was Black from entering the zone’s white neighborhoods.

The struggle against this discriminatory system was waged partly through the trade unions that grew up along canal workers. Many of the labor leaders who fought to end segregation were expelled from the zone.

The “gold-silver” system, while not in force in Panama proper, nevertheless set the tone for racist policies throughout the country. Blacks, whether they spoke Spanish or English, suffered discrimination in jobs, schools, and housing.

The legal segregationist system in the zone began to fall apart, however, in the 1950s. With the first victories in the US civil rights movement against “separate but equal” facilities, certain US policies in the Canal Zone were no longer constitutional.

In 1959 the people of Cuba overthrew the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship, ending decades of US domination. Working people throughout Latin America were inspired by the new Cuban government’s resolute action to distribute land to poor peasants, nationalize US-owned companies, drive out the gambling and prostitution houses, and defend the revolution arms in hand.

Labor and youth struggles in Panama, as in many other Latin American countries, began to intensify following the Cuban victory. Sugar and banana workers in Panama spearheaded a battle for a minimum wage in the early 1960s. There were urban protests against high rents. Panamanian students organized demonstrations against the US occupation of the zone.

In 1964, US students and parents refused to allow Panama’s flag to be raised next to the US one at Balboa High School in the zone. When a group of Panamanian students attempted to do so, they were attacked and the Panamanian flag was desecrated. Zone police and US troops then opened fire on the crowd, setting off rebellions in the zone, Panama City, and Colon.

More than 20 Panamanians were shot dead and over 400 wounded. The bulk of the protesters were slain in Chorrillo, one of the poorest working-class neighborhoods in Panama City.

Twenty-five years later, when the US military invaded on December 20, 1989, Chorrillo was the first neighborhood to be destroyed as US bombers pounded the Defense Forces headquarters located in the heart of Chorrillo.

While most strongly rooted in the working class, the demand for the United States to get out of Panama had also won support among middle-class layers and from a section of Panamanian capitalists who resented the special privileges granted to US businesses in the Canal Zone.

In 1967 Washington offered the Panamanian government a new canal treaty aimed at maintaining the US presence with some cosmetic changes. Opposition to the treaty was so great that Panama’s National Assembly was unable to ratify it.

The political crisis deepened with the 1968 presidential elections. Arnulfo Arias declared himself the winner, but eleven days after taking office, he was overthrown by a group of young officers in the country’s National Guard led by Omar Torrijos, then a colonel.

The National Guard, made up overwhelmingly of peasant and working-class youth, many of them Black, had been affected by the anti-imperialist upsurge sweeping Latin America, as had some of its officers. The young troops had no desire to continue allowing their country to be a base for US military operations in the region.

Torrijos came increasingly into conflict with Washington, particularly as he pressed for control of the canal and an end to Panama’s colonial status.

“We will never be an associated state, a colony, or a protectorate,” Torrijos told the United Nations Security Council in 1973. “Nor will we add another star to the flag of the United States.”

In 1974 Torrijos recognized the government of Cuba, breaking with Washington’s long-standing policy barring relations with the revolutionary government of Fidel Castro. “Every minute of isolation suffered by the brother people of Cuba constitutes sixty minutes of hemispheric shame,” Torrijos said.

Big changes came to Panama’s countryside under the Torrijos regime, to the distress of the landowning families who had exploited the rural work force for decades without government interference.

The new government launched agro-industrial projects aimed at overcoming Panama’s dependence on US consumer goods. Torrijos also set up peasant cooperatives to increase production.

About 5 percent of the nation’s cultivable land was distributed to poor peasants. Torrijos opposed extensive nationalization of capitalist farms, however, arguing that a mixture of private, state-owned, and cooperative enterprises was the road to Panama’s development.

The government instituted social projects that benefited above all the impoverished rural population. From 1968 to 1986, for example, the number of public schools increased from 1,851 to 3,187. The infant mortality rate dropped from 40 to 19.4 per 1,000 live births, a lower rate than in Harlem today. Roads were built and electricity brought to remote parts of the countryside. Social security was extended to more than a million Panamanians who had never received it before.

Panama’s labor movement began demanding a new labor code that would permit greater organization of the working-class. Under the 1947 code, bosses had thirty different ways to legally fire a worker. The employers used this to crush organizing drives. Between 1947 and 1972 only twenty-nine new labor contracts were signed.

In 1972 the labor movement won a new code that permitted workers to join the union after just two weeks on the job. Unions were organized at many more work sites and nearly 200 contracts were signed the first year. Among those organized for the first time were the many public employees in the country.

The advances won by working people during these years opened the door to greater participation in society and the government by Panamanians who were Black. For the first time Panama’s Indian communities entered politics, bringing to national attention their demands for protection of their indigenous culture, languages, and territory.

In 1977 US President James Carter was forced to sign historic treaties promising to relinquish Washington’s control of the Panama Canal to Panama by the year 2000. The Torrijos-Carter treaties stipulated that total control of the canal and the administration of the zone would revert to Panama. The US military bases – which numbered fourteen at the time – would be dismantled. Between 1977 and 2000, control would be turned over step-by-step to the Panamanian government.

On October 1, 1979, a quarter of a million Panamanians demonstrated to celebrate the formal turning over of the Canal Zone to Panama. US Vice President Walter Mondale, who addressed the ceremony, was greeted by banners demanding “Yankees out of Panama!” and “Sovereignty or death!”

The victory for Panamanian self-determination was the product not only of decades of battle by the Panamanian people, but big struggles taking place around the world that had weakened Washington’s grip on the lives and destinies of working people.

In 1979 alone, the Iranian masses had overthrown the shah’s monarchy; the murderous Pol Pot regime was ousted in Cambodia; the people of the Caribbean island of Grenada had established a popular revolutionary governemtn; and in Nicaragua, the workers and peasants had toppled the Anastasio Somoza dictatorship, one of Washington’s strongest allies in the region. The Torrijos government had given considerable material aid to the Sandinista guerrilla forces, who led the revolution to bring down Somoza and place the toilers in power.

In 1981 Torrijos died in a mysterious airplane crash. Gen. Manual Noriega assumed control of the National Guard in 1983, changing its name to the Defense Forces.

By this time Washington’s contra war against Nicaragua was under way. The US Southern Command, based in the canal zone, directed the mercenaries. To Washington’s irritation, the Panamanian government called for a political settlement to the war and opposed the deepening US military intervention.

By 1985 the Sandinista army had begun to drive the contras back. The mercenaries were finished unless Washington could breathe new life into the war.

Then National Security Advisor John Poindexter paid a visit to Noriega in 1985. He demanded that Panama’s Defense Forces directly aid the contras in Nicaragua. Noriega refused.

Suddenly a campaign began in Congress denouncing Noriega as a double agent – said to be working for the CIA and the Cuban government at the same time. Charges of drug trafficking were leveled at Noriega a few months later.

Inside Panama, Washington turned to the very forces overthrown by Torrijos in 1968, popularly known as the rabiblancos (white asses) because of their light skins, wealth, and ties to the US government. These businessmen and landowners established a “Civic Crusade” in 1987 to demand that Noriega leave power. They sought to organize demonstrations and strikes to rally working people to their side.

The Panamanian labor movement had little sympathy for the rabiblancos, despite sharp clashes that had occurred a year earlier between the Panamanian government and the unions.

In 1985 and 1986, Presedent Nicolas Ardito Barletta sought to impose austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund. Barletta introduced new restrictions in the labor code, closed some of the state-owned enterprises set up by Torrijos, and tried to lay off 30,000 public employees. A series of general strikes protested the measures and Defense Forces troops were called out to break the strikes. The public employees union, however, was successful in blocking the layoffs of its members.

Whatever opinions workers had of the government and Defense Forces in 1987, virtually the entire labor movement opposed the Civic Crusade and what some jokingly called the “Mercedes Benz revolution,” because the well-do-do Civic Crusaders arrived at demonstrations in the latest-model sedans.

Working people did respond, however, to a call by the Panamanian government in 1988 to set up civilian defense units, which became known as the Dignity Battalions. These militias were trained by the Defense Forces to prepare for a possible US invasion.

Washington stepped up the pressure with stiff economic sanctions against Panama, aimed above all at making life miserable for its working people.

The US government froze $56 million of Panamanian funds in US banks. Panama’s quota for sugar exports to the United States was eliminated. All US aid to the country was ended, including funds for medical programs such as anti-malaria programs. US companies were prohibited from paying taxes to Panama and also stopped paying social security for their Panamanian employees.

The sanctions had a devastating effect. By 1989 unemployment had nearly doubled, to 17.5 percent officially. Some 50,000 workers were laid off. Among the hardest hit were construction workers. Their union, which had 20,000 people working in 1987, hand only 1,200 on the job by 1989.

By late 1989 the percentage of the population living under the official poverty line had jumped to 44 percent, up from 33 percent in 1987.

13 Heavens Note: According to the Merva-Fowles study, a 1 percent rise in unemployment results in:

  • a 6.7 percent increase in homicides
  • a 3.4 percent increase in violent crimes
  • a 2.4 percent increase in property crimes

Therefore, an 11 percent increase in unemployment in just 2 years time equates to:

  • a 73.7 percent increase in homicides
  • a 37.4 percent increase in violent crimes
  • a 26.4 percent increase in property crimes

How would any city, let alone an entire country, deal with this?

It was in this context that presidential elections took place in May 1989. Washington openly gave $10 million to the Democratic Alliance for Civil Opposition ticket (the old Civic Crusade), headed by presidential candidate Guillermo Endara.

Opposing Endara was the Coalition for National Liberation ticket, which united parties that favored implementation of the canal treaties and rejected Washington’s arrogant demand that Noriega resign.

The race itself was close, but before all the votes could be counted the results were annulled by the Panamanian government because of the provocative US interference. US President George Bush responded by sending 2,000 more troops to Panama.

In the fall of 1989 Washington made its last attempt to use Panamanians to overturn the legitimate government of Panama. On October 3, US troops provided backup for a coup attempt against Noriega by a group of officers in the Defense Forces. The coup was smashed within hours.

Two and a half months later, the biggest US invading force since Vietnam attacked a country whose working people have fought long and hard for national dignity and self-determination.

- pages 8-16

13 Heavens Note:  As a career soldier, Manuel Noreiga received additional military training in Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence at the School of the Americas at Fort Gulick and also in Psychological Operation (PsyOps) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. According to retired US Navy Admiral and former Director of the CIA, Stansfield Turner stated that Noriega became a CIA asset in the early 1970s. Sources suggest he was actually on the US government's payroll from the late 1950's to 1980's.

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