The Salvation of Panama?

Panama: The Whole Story

by Kevin Buckley
Simon and Schuster, 304 pp., $21.95

Compared to the Gulf war, the invasion of Panama was little more than a skirmish. Nonetheless, there are some similarities between the two conflicts. In both Iraq and Panama, the US government spent years indulging a ruthless dictator. Then, waking up to his perfidy, the White House expressed its dismay in highly personal terms, comparing the one tyrant to Hitler, calling the other a drug trafficker. In both cases, Washington chose to resolve its dispute through military rather than diplomatic means. Then, after winning the war, it had to win the peace. Today, in helping to rebuild Kuwait, the US claims to be drawing on its “nation-building” experience in Panama. Events in that Central American country, then, can offer insights into the problems we now face in the Gulf. Kevin Buckley’s book is the latest to examine our recent involvement there.

It has been nearly a year and a half since we invaded Panama, and the case of United States of America v. Manuel Antonio Noriega, et al. has yet to come to trial. Finding evidence of Noriega’s drug-trafficking activities has taken longer than the US prosecutors ever expected. The case is now scheduled to go to trial in July.

In Panama itself, meanwhile, US officials insist that all is well. “Today Panama is a functioning democracy which has experienced a substantial measure of economic recovery,” Michael Kozak, a deputy assistant secretary of state, told a House panel in mid-April. “Legal and constitutional rights have been restored. A free media flourishes.” Last year, Kozak noted, Panama’s GDP grew by 3.4 percent. Inflation had stabilized and unemployment dropped. What’s more, he said, Panama had made “positive” efforts to control drug trafficking and had “begun to establish a fundamentally new police force.”

Panamanians certainly feel much freer today than they did under General Noriega. The unions frequently exercise their right to strike, the Legislative Assembly regularly resounds with vigorous debate, and La Prensa, the country’s leading newspaper, criticizes the government with unrelenting energy. Coming after more than twenty years of dictatorship, such freedoms seem all the more exhilarating, and, according to the polls, most Panamanians continue to view the invasion as a genuine liberation. Yet this is only part of the story. For in almost every other respect—political, economic, administrative, judicial, and social—Panama is in a mess. And no one—Panamanian or American—seems to know what to do about it.

Take the basic matter of personal safety. Traditionally, Panama has had one of the lowest crime rates in the region, with streets no more dangerous than those in Des Moines or Sacramento. Since the invasion, muggings, rapes, and robberies have all become commonplace. In 1990 alone there were two dozen armed robberies of banks, compared to ten in the previous twenty years. In many neighborhoods, the only people on the streets at night are security guards carrying automatic rifles. The attorney general himself carries a gold-plated Uzi that he likes to show off …

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