Panama–After the Coup

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

Mike Fischer and Matt Schultz interview Eric Jackson

Eric Jackson is an attorney from Ypsilanti, Michigan, and grew up in the Panama Canal Zone. He visited Panama from Dee. 31, 1989 to Jan 19, 1990. Mike Fischer and Matt Schultz interviewed him for Against the Current on January 23. The accompanying background article was written by Jackson before he left for Panama.

ATC: The mainstream media has reported that 400 people were killed during the invasion and that everything was more or less orderly except for the Dignity Battalions. Yet Ramsey Chat and some Latin Americans claim that the casualty figures were much higher. Can you explain this disparity?

Eric Jackson: Having been down in El Chorrillo, I don’t believe this line of only a couple of hundred civilians being killed is possible. Tens of thousands lived in that neighborhood, which was just flattened. Moreover, the lies and coverups that the Southern Command has already been caught at undercut their credibility.

In the initial days of the invasion, there were Panamanian witnesses who went to various U.S. corporate media and said look, we saw six truckloads of victims being taken to a certain cemetery. That wasn’t covered by the media—until it turned out that they had buried two Americans there by mistake.

But I still haven’t seen any coverage about the mass graves in Mount Hope or Corozal cemeteries. I’ve been there. Investigative journalists could easily verify these things. I have sources of information, but these things could be figured out from the outside. They’re easily discernible but the media aren’t interested.

ATC: As it was portrayed here, everybody in Panama gave at least critical support to the invasion. How much of this was orchestrated for U.S. consumption? Given the Noriega factor, was there a significant degree of real support for the invasion among Panamanians?

EJ: Southcom has its Southern Command Network, which runs a lot of U.S. network coverage. I saw some of that, as well as the Panamanian television coverage, so I can comment on both.

Yes, when Noriega was taken out of the country, there was celebration across all sectors of Panamanian society. There was a feeling of relief that the crisis was over, that an unhappy era involving war, searches, and mass arrests would be over now that Noriega was gone.

The Endara landslide in the May 1989 election was a strong referendum indicating that most Panamanians wanted to see the end of the Noriega era. But those TV shots you saw of people waving the U.S. flag and teen-age girls kissing the soldiers—these were taken exclusively from the snottiest rabiblanco community [“white-tailed birds”–the lighter-skinned upper class—ed.].

They didn’t have anybody seeking out the refugees from El Chorrillo, or in San Miguelito or Colon. Did it strike anybody that most of these people you saw on TV are light-skinned? That’s not the reality of Panama.

As for the “Operation Just Cause” T-shirts that you probably saw so many Panamanians displaying, my educated guess is that these came out of the Southern Command graphics shop. They came out first in English, then later in Spanish—but with incorrect Spanish grammar. Where do you find Panamanians wearing these shirts? In Calle Cmquenta, frequented by the rich teenagers, not your average Panamanians.

As the promises made in the wake of the invasion are inevitably broken and as people realize that now there’s a yanqui military dictatorship with a weak figurehead as president, resentment will grow. And it won’t be long before Endara replaces Noriega as the most hated man in Panama.

ATC: Let’s talk about the opposition. What forms is it currently taking? We have heard a little bit about arrests of opposition figures and heavy-handed censorship.

EJ: There have been mass arrests and arrests of specific activists. Most of the papers allowed under Noriega were turned to their rightful owners, which means, really, new ownership. Papers of the oligarchic families that had been shut down were reopened. Ten radio stations and two or three television stations were seized on the pretext of investigating their finances.

So they took all anti-invasion news media off the air and out of print. Now you have this sensationalist propaganda media, even more gross than the way it was under Noriega.

They rounded up anybody in any significant position in the PRD [Democratic Revolutionary Party, founded by Torrijos after the military coup in 1968—ed.] or the major COLINA parties [National Liberation Coalition; grouping of pro-Noriega parties that ran in the 1989 elections—ed.]. A lot of them, facing various charges, have been released on bail. Of course they smashed up the PRD’s offices, and the party’s documents and voter-registration lists were taken away to the United States.

When you look at what happened to people’s jobs, 11,000 of the 16,000 member PDF force are part of the new “Public Force.” They got rid of the women, the medical corps and much of the officer corps, but your average guy whose job was to beat up demonstrators on Noriega’s behalf still has his job.

On the other hand, hundreds of people who worked for the country’s public electric utility, the post office, and the street vendors in the Colon free trade zone have been fired or lost their licenses. A lot of professors at the University of Panama are being fired because of their political connections or beliefs.

Some of the people arrested and not yet released are the labor leaders. There was major labor opposition to the invasion. I personally witnessed one act of repression against the labor movement the destruction of the retirement village of the Panamanian teachers’ union.

The teachers’ union had struck against Noriega. But they also denounced the invasion. Their retirement village is right near the air strip that was one of the major targets of the first phase of the invasion. Two hundred yards from the retirement village was a huge concentration of U.S. troops, and 50 yards away were the puppet regime’s cops. There was open looting of the village. The roofs and plumbing of the building are gone. Walls and floors are all that is left.

ATC: Given the weakness of the organized left, its poor showing in the 1985 election, its fragmentation—why is the United States going to so much trouble, rounding up so many people? Wouldn’t it be much easier to use co-optation rather than repression?

EJ: They may try that, too, at some point. One factor in the current arrangement is simply that the acting justice minister, Arias Calderon, is outrageously vindictive. He even threatens to jail Delvalle [appointed president and later fired by Noriega—ed.] for corruption if he returns from Miami.

But I think there’s a fear of allowing any significant opposition to be organized, even with the knowledge that the government would probably win an election if it held one tomorrow. For it isn’t tomorrow, but a few years down the road, that the Endara regime has some reason to be apprehensive about.

In the next eighteen months, most observers I’ve talked to expect some sort of act to create a new treaty for the U.S. military bases, abrogating the provisions in the Canal Treaties calling for the bases to be gone by the end of 1999.

The bases are the big issue. If there is any functioning organization of opposition when they try to push that new treaty through, there will be hell to pay. Every observer expects a lot of people to be killed in the fighting that would result from that.

As promises aren’t kept, and as the popularity of the government goes down, the Endara regime will be less able to push through a new treaty. They want to do it early and they don’t want any opposition around.

About the left and the opposition: The most prevalent anti-invasion spray painting, postering and visible expressions in the very poorest barrios, and around the campuses, comes from the November 29 Movement, which was formed this past November on the twentieth anniversary of the death of Floyd Britten, who led the burning of the United States Information Service office during the 1964 riots. Britten, a communist, died as a prisoner of the Torrijos government on a prison island in 1969.

You find spray-painting everywhere, which would be translated as “Neither the gringo invaders nor the oligarchic sellouts nor the repressive defense forces.” I think that a major question is whether anti-Torrijos elements of the Panamanian left will rise to the forefront in leading the resistance against the invasion and the puppet regime.

The November 29 Movement, which is semi-clandestine, arises from the Revolutionary Student Federation, also driven underground during the Noriega years. They may have been smashed to a lesser degree than others, because they were underground. The only Martyrs Day (commemorating the Panamanians killed in the anti-U.S. “flag riots” of 1964) activity I saw was theirs, with graffiti hailing the martyrs of 1964 along with the resisters killed in the 1989 invasion.

ATC: What about the Trotskyist formation, the PST? They have a track record of solid work, opposing (then President) Barletta’s IMP austerity measures from 1985 through their involvement in the Popular Civic Movement, for example. Could they, given their current size, play a significant role in the upcoming period?

EJ: The first admission in the newspapers that somebody was against the invasion came when La Estrella ran a Martyrs Day statement from the PST denouncing the invasion, calling for a new constituent assembly. I think it was allowed to appear because the government calculated that the PST is so small that it’s not a danger to allow it to speak out.

I expect that they will grow in numbers, and maybe in influence, but the Trotskyists—and there are also Maoist groups who were against Noriega all along—are unfortunately on the fringes. They don’t have a base in the unions like the Communists, or among students like the Revolutionary Student Federation, or throughout society like PALA (Panamanian Labor Party). Maybe they will grow into a significant force, but I don’t see them as one at the moment.

ATC: You mention the bases as a potential time bomb for the regime. What possibilities exist for the emergence of a concerted, coordinated opposition movement around the austerity measures that the government, confronted with one of the highest per capita external debts in the world, will surely have to impose? Given the already intolerable level of unemployment in Panama, does the appearance of something akin to the Popular Civic Movement seem likely in the near future?

EJ: Certainly, such resistance—and the layoffs that provoke it—are already happening. They let [liberal Connecticut Senator] Christopher Dodd go down and deliver the bad news that we don’t have enough money to pay for the damage we’ve done.

We’re talking about something on the order of $2 billion in damages from the invasion and ensuing looting, but that’s just a small part of the damages that U.S. economic sanctions caused even before the invasion. Prior to December 20, a third of the banks had left Panama City, the export of crops was cut off, the amount of amble land under production was way down, the fishing fleets weren’t maintained, a third of the people were unemployed. There’s also the breakdown of public health, environmental protection and cultural institutions.

Who is going to take over the retail sector of Panama, now that all the small merchants are ruined and the insurance companies won’t pay? First, you’ll get some multinationals coming in. Second, Panamanians with enough money to withstand the losses or move into business. The immediate effect of the looting is the devastation of the retail sector. In the long term, it is a great concentration at the expense of Jews, Arabs, Chinese and Hindus.

Basically, Vice President Guillermo Ford, promising sweeping privatization, has been put in charge of the new government’s economic policy. So we can expect the progressive labor code to be gutted. The housing code is likely to be abolished or changed, leading to massive rent increases and evictions. Prices of basic foodstuffs will be decontrolled.

We can expect a lot of the national wealth, like the Panama Railroad, the Port Authority and Air Panama, to be sold off. You’ll see this gold rush of rich Panamanians and foreign interests buying up what Panama still has, as well as a general offensive against the poor. The working class may not be in a position to adequately defend itself.

The unions are leading the protests now, and I expect we will see them at the core of opposition to the policies of the Chamber of Commerce regime, but I’m somewhat pessimistic in the short term about their ability to resist these setbacks. That’s probably going to be the center of struggle in the society, a class struggle, at least until the new bases proposal emerges—which will unite many Panamanians from all sectors of society against the regime.

ATC: Let’s talk a bit more about the regime and its prospects for survival. How do you read its main features and contradictions?

EJ: There are key political dynamics that aren’t being covered in our media at all. I hear second- and third hand rumors that the U.S. Southern Command is backing the Christian Democrats against Endara. Whether they will move to actually oust Endara or whether they will just leave him as a figurehead, the United States has never liked the “Arnulfistas” [the Panamenista movement of Arnulfo Arias from which Endara emerged—ed.].

In fact, during the anti-Noriega protests of 1987, [U.S. Ambassador] Arthur Davis invited Arias Calderon to the Embassy and snubbed Arnulfo Arias, who after all should have been elected president in 1985 if the votes had been counted honestly.

When the United States and the Church put together the coalition to run in the 1989 election, they had to have an Arnulflsta candidate in order to win. So Endara, who was a legislator but not all that well-known, was selected as the candidate In the campaign, when Endara suggested the treaties should be reviewed, Arias Calderon immediately said no, we can’t discuss that It wasn’t mentioned for the rest of the campaign.

After the invasion, by the way, they had this funny swearing-in ceremony in a nondescript room in Fort Clayton. They didn’t have a judge or anyone to swear them in, so they passed around a copy of the Constitution and each one swore himself in.

Endara said at one point that the Panamanian constitution prohibits extradition, to which Arias Calderon replied that Noriega must be extradited. Then when Noriega gave himself up, you have Arias Calderon and Guillermo Ford on Panamanian TV to talk about it; you have George Bush to talk about it–but no Endara.

The current political controversy concerns whether or not to have an army. Endara has called for the abolition of the army. Then you have General Cisneros from the U.S. Southern Command and Arias Calderon touring the country and claiming that we need to have an army because Fidel Castro might incite a civil war. In fact, the U.S. has created a new, 11,000-man Panamanian army. The first few days I was there they were just carrying nightsticks; in the last few days, I have seen them carrying M-16s.

So what Endara says doesn’t matter, although he got the votes for president in the May election. The United States is tilting toward the Christian Democrats and vetoing Endara at every turn.

Something else that’s never mentioned is that there are still some pockets of fighting north of the airport involving elements of Battalion 2000. I don’t know if there’s a social base to sustain a guerrilla war, but there might be enough of one so that pockets of fighters could get corn and beans to survive until more resistance develops.

And I’ve been told that what scares the Southern Command even more is the urban underground network, as exemplified by last Thursday’s (January 18) raid on the Bank of Commerce and the common sniping in and around the poorer barrios on the western edge of Panama City. These were the strongholds of the Dignity Battalions, who may have a reputation as out-and-out thugs—and there was that element—but who also included common Panamanian patriots, not just Noriega loyalists, who might fight on.

Panama has no history of rural or urban guerrilla war. Only time will tell whether this is the last gasp or the beginning of a resistance.

ATC: What are some of the significant instances of repression?

EJ: There are a couple of incidents that bear mentioning. Criminal charges were brought against the director and several other doctors of Santa Tomas hospital, who are facing 15-20 year prison terms on the charge of allowing the PDF and Dignity Battalions to turn the hospital into an “armed camp.” In fact, it was the only hospital in the first days of the invasion where wounded people could go. It’s really an effort to smash the patriotic doctors of Panama—a particularly nefarious piece of repression.

Another thing is the Cabinet’s decree taking on legislative functions. So without any legislative approval, for example, the Cabinet has appointed a new Supreme Court and ratified a new antidrug treaty with the U.S. which allows the United States to rewrite Panama’s banking laws.

They are going to selectively re-run the legislative assembly elections in the districts where the new government doesn’t like the people who got elected. The electoral tribunal made an announcement about which parties had gotten the 3 percent support needed to retain ballot status: They said all the ADO [1989 anti-Noriega coalition—ed.] parties retained ballot status, as well as all the COLINA parties except the PRD. That is blatantly fraudulent—so much fora new government that is above election fraud!

Regarding the universities, the school year typically ends at Christmas time; the vacation spans the dry season, which lasts until the beginning of March All the colleges and universities have been closed, officially because they have to restructure after the abuses of Noriega’s regime and to repair invasion damage It’s true, the invasion took over a number of schools for military outposts, including for example the junior high school in Colon.

The re-opening of schools has been indefinitely postponed. There’s been talk in the papers about “reforms,’ one of which would be that since students couldn’t take their finals, the grades will be based on performance before the finals were scheduled and everybody without aa6 average will flunk out That will get rid of a lot of students, but there will be an appeals process so they can reinstate the children of the rabiblancos.

The anti-Noriega left, particularly the Revolutionary Student Federation, had been waging a tuition strike before the invasion. Now here’s their reward for having fought Noriega: people who didn’t pay tuition will be thrown out of school. But at the same time, other students who had paid tuition are being told there are no payment records, so they’re out the money. In other words, they claim to have records of who didn’t pay, but no record of who did!

There are struggles going on for the autonomy of the university, which is a very important issue in Latin America. But it seems that the government is making noises about steps to purge the student body—and it will be the left that is thrown out.

March-April 1990, ATC 25

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