Panama, Not for Television

Against the Current, No. 25, March/April 1990

Eric Jackson

THE VILIFICATION OF Manuel Noriega predated his 1988 drug indictments by at least two years. One John Poindexter, himself reputed to have overseen a considerable cocaine operation in his supervision of contra aid, met with Noriega in 1985, demanding an end to the Panamanian-sponsored Contadora peace talks, overt Panamanian support for the U.S. war against Nicaragua and changes in Panama’s government Noriega’s refusal elicited threats of severe consequences.

Noriega was already in trouble. Though assuming the posture of heir to Torrijismo, Noriega had moved significantly to the right of positions taken by the late General Omar Torrijos [the nationalist-populist military leader wider whom Noriega served before Torrijos’ death—ed.] and pushed aside most key members of Torrijos’ entourage.

For the 1985 elections, Noriega tapped World Bank economist Nicolas Barletta as the government’s presidential candidate Barletta and his rightist policies led to tensions within the ruling coalition. The Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), which Torrijos had founded, produced a leftist Torrijos Lives faction with a number of adherents in the military.

Arnulfo Arias, who had served three incomplete presidential terms and been denied office through fraud at least once before, ran as an opposition standard bearer to the right of Barletta. Inspired by European fascism as a young diplomat under the 1930s administration of his brother Harmodio, Arias counted as his most noteworthy political accomplishment the 1940 Constitution, which stripped most Afro-Panamanians and all Asian-Panamanians of their citizenship. He was overthrown in Panama’s first military coup on the eve of World War II, largely because of his Nazi sympathies.

The Panamenista movement founded by Arnulfo Arias has been a principal political force. The social stratum from which the Arias brothers came, and the core of the Panamenista base of support, is the wealthy rural landowning class. Guillermo Endara rose to prominence from this faction.

Arnulfo Arias was defrauded of a narrow presidential election victory by Noriega’s regime—without U.S. protests on this occasion. Also on the 1985 opposition ticket was Professor Ricardo Arias (no relation to Arnulfo and Harmodio) of the Christian Democratic Party, whose main base of support is in the urban commercial elite centered near the canal, particularly in the capital.

The 1985 fraud was accomplished largely by nullifying vote totals in San Miguelito, a sprawling barrio on the eastern outskirts of Panama City, where Barletta needed to win big-but in fact lost by a small margin. Scattered protests followed, but the Reagan administration had little criticism and the crisis soon blew over.

Growing Alienation

In the face of the general debt crisis that gripped Panama along with the rest of Latin America, Barletta introduced policies of the sort recommended by the International Monetary Fund, further alienating labor and leftist elements of the ruling coalition. A proposal to gut the progressive labor code from the Torrijos era brought strong opposition, in the face of which Noriega and Barletta backed down.

Compounding Noriega’s troubles in late 1985 was the fate of Dr. Hugo Spadafora, who had served as health minister under Torrijos. A rival of Noriega since the two were young men, Spadafora had left his government job to fight with anti-Portuguese PAIGC guerrillas in Guinea-Bissau, then with the Sandinistas. He played a key role in getting Torrijos’ support for the Sandinistas in the final phases of their war against Somoza.

Spadafora became disillusioned and joined Eden Pastora’s ARDE contra force. After falling out with Pastors he worked with anti-Sandinista Miskito Indian forces. As the CIA sought to eliminate all contra forces not under its control, Spadafora announced his intention to return to Panama and lead a struggle against Noriega.

Returning incognito to Panama from Costa Rica in September 1985, Spadafora was hustled off a bus a few miles inside Panama. His headless carcass was found shortly thereafter, stuffed in a U.S. mailbag just inside Costa Rica. The grotesquely mutilated victim had the initials “1-8” carved in his back Noriega’s political security unit, which had put down protests after the election fraud, was known as F-7.

Costa Rican police blame the murder on Noriega. Alternative speculations suggested the murder was part of a violent dispute among contra factions, which included the bombing of Eden Pastora’s press conference in La Penca, Costa Rica.

In any case, Panamanians were horrified. “Justice for Hugo” was spray, painted on walls from one end of the country to the other. The opposition had found a new issue. Barletta promised an independent investigation. He was called into conference with Noriega and forced to resign.

Vice President Eric Arturo Delvalle, scion of a broadcasting fortune, was sworn in to become Panama’s first Jewish president Noriega said the change was over Barletta’s unpopular economic policies. There was no investigation of the Spadafora murder.

Falling Out with Washington

After Poindexter’s contentious visit, U.S. aid to Panama began to be scaled back The Reagan administration was divided between those intelligence, diplomatic and defense elements that had found Noriega a useful ally and those who wanted him out.

Noriega had allowed the training of contra forces by the U.S. Southern Command in Panama, had helped the Drug Enforcement Administration in tracking drug shipments through Panamanian waters and air space. [The history of Noriega’s dose involvement with DEA will be detailed in John Dirges’ forthcoming Our Man in Panama—ed.]

According to various accounts (which might possibly be CIA disinformation), Noriega had also been a CIA asset for many years, receiving $200,000 per year from the United States when he served under Torrijos as intelligence chief.

June 1987 brought the defection of Col Roberto Diaz, Noriega’s second in command in the armed forces, who accused Noriega of corruption and complicity in Spadafora’s murder, though not, interestingly, of drug trafficking. Diaz, the first cousin of Omar Torrijos; also accused Noriega of engineering the unexplained 1981 aircraft accident in which Torrijos died.

Diaz called upon the Panama Defense Forces (PDF) to oust Noriega, to no avail. But his split with Noriega brought large contingents of demonstrators organized by the Chamber of Commerce under the umbrella of the Civic Crusade onto the streets of Panama City’s wealthier neighborhoods. To avoid residence in a Panamanian prison, Diaz, prudently took refuge with the papal nuncio.

The Reagan administration, thinking Diaz a leftist, declined to throw him its support. However, Ambassador Arthur Davis did take advantage of the situation to show the first open U.S. opposition to Noriega’s rule, both by calling for the general’s resignation and by playing host to leaders of the Civic Crusade and Christian Democratic leader Ricardo Arias.

The cutoff of U.S. aid, building for several months, became official policy. The National Assembly denounced U.S. interference in Panama’s affairs and a crowd stoned the U.S. embassy. Riot police quelled anti-Noriega demonstrations. The battle lines had been drawn.

Economic Devastation

International bank loans became unavailable Panama’s sugar quota export to the U.S. was cut. Its commercial elite began leaving for Miami. The right wing of Noriega’s coalition began to fade away.

In fall 1987, Delvalle’s administration slowly hemorrhaged with the departure of the remaining vice president and the exit of many of Panama’s professionals. Many businesses closed and much money flowed out of the country with the growing stream of the rich.

Delvalle was shunned by the Jewish community. In one reported instance, the Delvalle family’s appearance at Panama City’s Union Club was met by an icy silence, prompting an outburst by Mrs. Delvalle. The president began to drink heavily and was seen intoxicated in public. His children pleaded with him to break with Noriega.

The U.S. news media, particularly the Miami Herald, featured story after story based on unattributed sources about Noriega’s links with the CIA and the activities of federal grand juries in Miami and Tampa that were looking into accusations against him. Given grand jury secrecy rules and the CIA’s usual protection of its assets, it may be surmised that the leaks were governmental acts rather than the loose lips of undisciplined persons.

Senator John Kerry held hearings in which various convicted drug offenders told of bribes to Noriega for marijuana-laden planes to use Panamanian airfields and for drug money to be secreted for laundering in Panama City- based international banks. Jose Isabel Blandon, a former Panamanian diplomat and Noriega insider, said Noriega and the CIA joined forces to murder General Torrijos—an allegation that went unexplored.

The crisis reached a turning point in February 1988, when Noriega was indicted by the grand juries in Florida. Delvalle consulted with then-undersecretary of state Elliott Abrams. Noriega and Delvalle demanded each other’s resignations. Panama’s National Assembly impeached Delvalle. An anti-Noriega coup failed. The Civic Crusade took to the streets and called general strikes, but failed from lack of working-class support.

The U.S. refused to recognize the impeachment of Delvalle, cutting off all payments to the government of Panama and freezing Panamanian assets in the United States. The refusal to pay income taxes deducted from the paychecks of Panama Canal employees and to remit Panama’s share of canal tolls were the first of many U.S. violations of the 1977 Panama Canal treaties.

Rich Panamanians and multinational corporations left Panama in droves. Unemployment shot up to 25 percent while government workers saw payless paydays.

Economic strikes by public employees—teachers, garbage collectors, treasury workers—indicated further erosion of the government’s working-class base. Government workers were paid in small denomination when the nation’s cash supply (in U.S. dollars, which Panama uses for its currency) dried up.

When electric utility technicians walked off the job, Noriega had to call upon Cuban aid to keep the lights on. When U.S.-based oil companies cut off Panama’s petroleum supplies, the country’s transportation was kept running only by emergency aid from Mexico.

A Regime in Disintegration

Noriega fought back, disrupting the opposition by careful doses of repression and tolerance, jailing or exiling effective adversaries and giving obnoxious ones free reign. He repeatedly purged the defense forces. He negotiated aid and trade agreements with Cuba and Eastern Europe, brought the left into the ruling coalition and most importantly created a new militia from Panama’s poorer classes, the Dignity Battalions.

Yet economic strangulation defeated all Noriega’s moves. Garbage went uncollected, roads unrepaired, the poor unfed. While he appealed to patriotism in the face of economic aggression, Noriega’s opponents were able to stick the blame for increased poverty on the government rather than the gringos. With a $10 million CIA slush fund and U.S.-operated illegal broadcasting stations, the oligarchy had unprecedented resources for a Panamanian opposition.

Noriega compounded the opposition’s strength by engineering a 1989 presidential ticket composed of Carlos Duque, scion of a broadcasting fortune, in the top spot, supported by Noriega’s brother-in-law and an old diplomat from a wealthy shipping industry family as vice presidential candidates. Though this COUNA (National Liberation Coalition) included left elements like the Peoples Party, Panama’s orthodox communist party, it was not a ticket that could mobilize popular resentment against the rabiblanco opposition.*

What Noriega hoped would be a referendum on U.S. intervention ended as a referendum on his rule. The rich voted for Endara with few exceptions, while the poor also backed the opposition by a substantial margin. Noriega’s nullification of the results stripped the last shreds of legitimacy from his rule. The oligarchy’s broad support, however, was not very deep. The cheated opposition was unable to sustain general strikes or large demonstrations. Instead they called on the U.S. army to act.

The End Game

Feeble opposition street demonstrations were put down by riot police and Dignity Battalions, but photographs of opposition vice president-elect Guillermo Ford being beaten up, his shirt covered with blood (his bodyguard’s), made potent international anti-Noriega propaganda. Though the Organization of American States objected to U.S. interference, it also called upon Noriega to respect the election results.

But if the weak internal opposition leadership gave Noriega cause for comfort, one aspect of the results was ominous: Several precincts in which many soldiers had voted went nearly unanimously for the opposition. In the privacy of the polling booth the troops were deserting their commander. Noriega increased his reliance on the militia as the regulars were now unreliable.

The Dignity Battalions grew, partly by recruiting criminals given parole in exchange for enlistment, a tactic much akin to practices in many parts of the United States during the Vietnam War. While this gave the militia an image to be exploited by U.S. propagandists, the units were actually composed in the main of working-class Panamanians eager to resist both U.S. aggression and oligarchic rule.

The Bush administration embarked upon a series of armed provocations: troop “maneuvers” in front of PDF barracks; helicopter buzzing of residential neighborhoods; U.S. soldiers taking over the water purification plant, Panama City’s courthouse and a Ministry of Health clinic. Noriega and other Panamanian officials claimed such acts amounted to a state of war.

Further divisions in the PDF led to the October coup attempt, which the Bush administration declined to support What U.S. interference there was with loyalist units seemed designed, as with other provocations, to create a shooting incident between U.S. and Panamanian soldiers that could serve as a pretext for a U.S. invasion.

George Bush’s manipulation of the events that led immediately to the invasion had many hallmarks of traditional lynch-mob incitement. Most notably, there was the vague rumor of threatened violation of a woman, that a Navy officer and his wife had been detained by the PDF, that the husband had been beaten and the woman “sexually threatened.”

Neither of the allegedly wronged parties was produced, no specifics given of what constituted a sexual threat. The death of a Marine officer and the disarming of several U.S. Army MPs added another sinister twist. The area around Noriega’s headquarters was notoriously an armed camp following the October coup. It is hard to believe that a carload of Marine officers would unintentionally drive into that area.

Also curious is the story that the MPs were summoned to Omar Torrijos Airport outside Panama City, which is far from any of the fourteen military bases of the United States Southern Military Command. The military police burst into the airport, where they were disarmed by the PDF.

Both Noriega’s headquarters and the airport were principal targets of the invasion form. It takes little imagination to figure out the purposes of these nearly simultaneous incidents: The carload of Marines and the MPs were almost certainly testing Panama’s defenses. The rash act of the Marines gave George Bush the death he needed as pretext to invade. (Of course, when a U.S. army lieutenant shot a Panamanian traffic cop the weekend before the invasion, this was justified because it “seemed” that the officer was reaching for his handgun.)

The Bombing, the Lynching

As racists discount the value of the lives of those they hate, The Bush administration counts Panamanian civilians for nothing. What else would one expect from a man who got into office through the racist Willie Horton hysteria?

The announced target of the invasion was one Manuel Antonio Noriega. U.S. forces went door to door through the remains of El Chorillo and San Miguelito, arresting all males of military age. Leftists were taken into custody. COUNA candidate Carlos Duque’s offices were destroyed by rocket fire. COUNA activists were arrested en masse.

Was this war? Not such that the invading forces felt obliged to give captured PDF members treatment complying with international standards for prisoners of war. Captured Panamanian soldiers were kept b1indfoIded and handcuffed on a high school football field, unsheltered from the hot dry-season sun. Their interrogation far surpassed questions about name, rank and serial number.

Southern Command press handlers allowed pictures of the prisoners being given water. U.S. corporate media never made any analysis or conclusions about their treatment.

While many PDF units gave up without much resistance, the Dignity Battalions put up fierce resistance. When it became clear that the U.S. forces would prevail, at least in the short run, the militia led the poor, many of them homeless due to U.S. bombardment, in the expropriation of the merchant class that had clamored for the invasion Thanks to the Dignity Battalions, kids in the barrios of Colon, a largely Black city near the Atlantic entrance to the Canal, got new running shoes and sweat suits for Christmas, leaving empty shipping containers on the docks.

On the other side of this class war, streets in the oligarchic neighborhoods were barricaded with BMWs. Light-skinned vigilantes arrested not only Dignity Battalion members, but any person who looked too poor or too dark to be a resident of the block.

In this country, the reaction in the rich neighborhoods was represented as the opinion of all Panamanians, while the Dignity Battalions were vilified as uncontrolled, undisciplined thugs. Surpassing this was the vilification of Noriega himself, with stones of sumptuous digs, massive cocaine stashes [subsequently identified as ingredients for tamales – ed.], occult practices, torture chambers, mistresses, prostitutes, pictures of Hitler and Khaddafi and red underwear, uncritically transmitted from the Southern Command’s publicity machine via U.S. corporate media.

In a normal criminal case, such public vilification of a defendant would be held to be improper conduct, denying the accused a fair trial. Such denial is an essential element of any lynching.

Under U.S. tutelage, the puppet Endara regime is slowly asserting control. It seems the forty families who once ran Panama are back in charge, which Omar Torrijos’ vision in which Panamanians of common birth could count for something has been set back.

Though Torrijos was no leftist, he strengthened the labor unions, improved housing for the poor, advanced public education and health care, and sought to build a modern, prosperous mixed economy. That legacy will surely be trashed by the Endara regime.

George Bush vows to honor the Panama Canal treaties. The treaties call for U.S. troops to withdraw by the end of this century; Defense Secretary Richard Cheney vows that U.S. military bases will remain in Panama for at least’ ten years.

More than the Canal itself, it is the bases of the Southern Command, the center of all U.S. operations in and against Latin America and the Caribbean—the contra war, the Grenada invasion, the intervention in El Salvador—that are important to U.S. strategic planners. Look for the final betrayal of the Torrijos legacy to come in the form of a new agreement, dictated by the United States to its puppet Endara, which abrogates the treaty provision and allows U.S. military occupation of Panama into the next century.

*The rural and urban elites who are the core of support for the former opposition and present puppet regime are popularly and collectively known as the rabiblancos, literally the “white tailed birds.” They tend to be light-skinned, whereas most Panamanians are darker-skinned, with several waves of African slaves and Caribbean Blacks mixed with indigenous peoples, Europeans and Asians. Only among the rabiblancos does one find notable prejudice against interracial marriage.

Therein lies the true motive for the lynching of Noriega, and of Panama.

© 2020 Against the Current

March-April 1990, ATC 25