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 to visitors. Over the last year, the number of people convicted of crimes has more than doubled, and the country’s prisons have turned into teeming dungeons. The courts, meanwhile, have come to a virtual standstill, with more than 17,000 cases pending.
Manuel Noriega bears some of the blame for all this. In the weeks leading up to the invasion, he distributed thousands of guns to his supporters, and during the invasion he emptied the country’s prisons, allowing hundreds of hardened criminals to go free. But the ultimate responsibility rests with the government and its new police force. Ostensibly civilian in nature, the Public Force (PF), as it’s called, consists mostly of members of Noriega’s old Panamanian Defense Force, and many Panamanians continue to distrust it. Last December, when a group of officers rebelled against the government, the PF refused to act, and President Guillermo Endara had to call out American troops. The PF has displayed similar ineptitude in day-to-day police matters. Richard Millett, a professor at Southern Illinois University and an expert on Central American security forces, told Congress in April that
far from gaining control over crime, the new police seem increasingly to be involved in illegal activities. The PF has demonstrated no capacity to control the nation’s frontiers, maritime areas, or air space. This facilitates narcotics trafficking and has created a major security problem along the border with Colombia.
Drug trafficking remains a major concern in Panama. More cocaine is believed to be passing through the country today than ever before. Under Noriega, the government exercised some control over the industry while also cooperating with it. In the anarchy that prevails today all kinds of petty entrepreneurs are seeking a piece of the action. Official corruption remains widespread, especially among customs agents. As for money laundering by Panamanian banks, it “is still a major concern,” the State Department acknowledges in its annual drug-control report, released in March.
The drug trade is flourishing, in part, because the rest of the economy is not. Since the invasion, Panama has recovered some of the ground it lost between 1987 and 1989, when US sanctions and Noriega’s mismanagement combined to reduce the GDP by 30 percent. Most of the stores destroyed by looters during the invasion have reopened, and the construction industry is having a modest boom (financed, some believe, by drug money). Nonetheless, one in five Panamanians is out of work, and an equal number is thought to be only partly employed. Reducing this figure further would require a substantial public-works program, but the government—resolutely laissez-faire in outlook—has resisted the idea.
One result has been a sharp drop in the government’s popularity. President Guillermo Endara’s approval rating—80 percent a year ago—has dropped into the teens. His government, made up largely of white businessmen, is widely viewed as unsympathetic to the poor. Endara himself often seems disengaged from his job, interested less in affairs of state than in those of the heart. Married last June to the twenty-three-year-old Ana Mae Díaz, the portly fifty-four-year-old president spends long, leisurely hours in the residential quarters of the presidential mansion. Frequently late to meetings, he likes to begin speeches with loving remarks directed at his wife. A favorite subject of gossip among the Panamanian elite, Ana Mae caused an uproar last October when, accompanying her husband to the United Nations General Assembly, she appeared in the traditional dress of Panama’s Cuna Indians, consisting of a colorfully patterned blouse and a wraparound skirt. La Prensa ran a cartoon showing Endara, wearing a loincloth and carrying a spear, telling his costumed wife, “Hurry up, darling. We’re late for the General Assembly.”1
Far more damaging to the image of the government, however, has been the infighting that has crippled it. Until recently, Panama was governed by a coalition made up of three parties—the Arnulfistas, led by President Endara; the Christian Democrats, led by first vice-president Ricardo Arias Calderón; and Molirena, led by second vice-president Guillermo “Billy” Ford. During the Noriega years, these three men marched together, were attacked together, went to jail together. Today, they spend much of their time fighting one another. Late last year, for instance, it was revealed that Endara had set up a secret national security agency, allegedly with funds from the CIA. Convinced the agency was designed to spy on them, the Christian Democrats angrily demanded an investigation. Endara just as angrily refused. In April, the president struck back. Accusing the Christian Democrats of plotting against him, he summarily dismissed all of their representatives from his cabinet. As a result, the first vice-president and his party—the largest in the country—no longer take part in the government.
How did Panama reach such a pass? The answer requires a look back at the events surrounding the invasion. Appearing more than a year after the invasion, Panama: The Whole Story would seem to provide an ideal opportunity to build on the record established by two earlier books, Our Man in Panama by John Dinges, and Divorcing the Dictator by Frederick Kempe. Both of those accounts provided excellent material on Noriega’s regime and its tangled relations with Washington, but they appeared too soon after the invasion to make much sense of its consequences.
Kevin Buckley, a Newsweek bureau chief in Saigon in the early 1970s and former editor of Geo, covers the period from September 1985, when a leading member of the opposition, Hugo Spadafora, was murdered, to the end of 1990, a year after the invasion. Buckley’s clearly written book moves back and forth from Panama to Washington, providing a detailed account of events leading up to the invasion. There are some interesting episodes along the way. We learn, for instance, of President Bush’s decision in 1989 to dismiss General Fred Woerner, the circumspect commander of the US Southern Command in Panama, for being too soft on Manuel Noriega. General Maxwell Thurman, his successor, is shown to be a short-sighted egotist whose bumbling performance during the attempted coup of October 1989 sacrificed an excellent chance to dislodge Noriega with minimal bloodshed. Buckley gives a sharp account of Deborah DeMoss, the fervent aide to Senator Jesse Helms, who single-handedly tried to turn Washington against Noriega.
Buckley’s book, however, provides few revelations beyond those to be found in the earlier books by Kempe and Dinges. For instance, on the intriguing matter of what Noriega might have had on George Bush during the 1988 campaign, Buckley writes that the general’s “legendary archives” contained
old black and white movies, audio- and videotapes, photographs and documents from his lifetime as an intelligence agent…. Any meeting, any encounter, any tryst where he had access was recorded on video- or audio-cassette. Bush’s 1983 meeting with Noriega had probably been recorded. Oliver North’s request, in Noriega’s office, for help with the Contras was also doubtless on file.
But what exactly might be on those tapes we never learn. Buckley observes simply that “no one asked Noriega why he dangled the prospect of sensational information and then never revealed any. He might have answered that it was even better to have a president by the balls.” This is not very illuminating.
On another important subject—the number of Panamanians who died during the invasion—Buckley notes that “estimates of the civilian death toll ranged from 202 to 4,000. The only consensus was that most of the dead were civilian and poor and dark-skinned.” Noting various estimates, Buckley writes that “whatever number was accurate, Operation Just Cause was the single bloodiest episode in Panamanian history.” By this point, it should be possible to be more exact. Both Americas Watch and Physicians for Human Rights, for example, have concluded that about three hundred civilians died during the invasion. While some Panamanians continue to insist that thousands of bodies are buried in mass graves, journalists and human rights workers have been unable to find them.2
The allegations about mass graves have regrettably diverted attention from the troubling issue of the ratio of civilian to military deaths caused by the invasion. In all, about fifty Panamanian soldiers are thought to have died in the fighting. This means that about six times as many civilians as soldiers died during “Just Cause” hardly the “surgical operation” that US officials claimed.3
Most of the civilian deaths occurred in EI Chorrillo, a neighborhood of densely packed wooden tenements abutting the Comandancia, as Noriega’s military headquarters was known. EI Chorrillo caught fire when US warplanes shelled the Comandancia at the start of the invasion, and many residents burned to death. According to Buckley, Fred Woerner had drafted a military plan that imposed “extraordinary controls” on US fire-power, especially in EI Chorrillo, but General Thurman rejected it in favor of a full-scale attack. This is new information, but many questions remain. Did the US anticipate that its shelling of the Comandancia would cause so many civilian casualties? Was any thought given to warning neighborhood residents of the impending attack? More generally, how did the attack fit into the Pentagon’s overall invasion plan? Operation Just Cause marked a major test of the “over-whelming force” doctrine adopted by the military in the wake of Vietnam (and subsequently applied in the Gulf). Did US strategists see in the heavy civilian toll a flaw in the doctrine? Panama: The Whole Story does not say.
The book is similarly sketchy on the aftermath of the invasion. Buckley briefly refers to the ineffectuality of the Public Force, the moribund state of the Panamanian economy, and the president’s declining popularity. “Over time,” Buckley writes,
one of Noriega’s predictions came true. He had said that if he was thrown out the mostly white middle and upper classes…would reassert their power and once again exclude the poor and dark-skinned population from national life. The Endara government showed no sign of building a bridge between the mostly white elite, who did reassert their power, and the rest of the country.
Yes, but why did this occur? The Endara government came to power at a transforming moment in Panamanian history. Enjoying huge popular support, it had an unprecedented opportunity to unite the Panamanian people and to create a democratic system. But that opportunity was quickly squandered, and Panama today seems to be slipping slowly back into chaos. No doubt the contending egos and vaunting ambitions of the ruling triumverate have something to do with it. Still, there are deeper factors at work here, and they are related to how the government came to power. The American invasion, though extremely popular, was also deeply traumatic. That hundreds of civilians were killed during the fighting left a deep wound that continues to fester. More than 15,000 people lost their homes, and the government has had a hard time finding them shelter (people still live in a large American airplane hangar in Panama City). Then, too, the invasion caused an estimated $1.5 billion worth of economic damage, creating severe dislocations that continue to plague the country.
Operation Just Cause proved costly in another, less visible, way. At the time of the invasion, the opposition to Noriega was still tentative, lacking both strong leadership and organization. The Civic Crusade, the broad coalition that led the demonstrations against his regime, had come into being only in 1987. During the elections of May 1989, the Crusade performed admirably in getting out the vote, enabling Endara, Arias Calderón, and Ford to win. When Noriega subsequently cracked down, however, the opposition collapsed, and Panamanians began looking to the US for salvation. Within months, it arrived, and all of a sudden Panama was a democracy. But it was a very weak sort of democracy, with shallow roots. In a sense, the invasion cut short Panamanians’ apprenticeship in democratic practice, denying them the experience they needed to manage their own affairs. The current feuding among the government’s principals only reflects a broader immaturity in the body politic, and it casts a cloud over the country’s long-term political prospects.
In using force in Panama, the United States put a sudden end to the Noriega dictatorship. But did it also retard the country’s development toward democracy? That might make a good subject for another book.
June 13, 1991
Andres Oppenheimer, “Amor and Politics Mingle in Panama,” The Miami Herald (November 25, 1990). ↩
See, for example, Lee Hockstader, “In Panama, Civilian Deaths Remain an Issue,” The Washington Post (October 6, 1990); and Kenneth Freed, “Panama Tries To Bury Rumors of Mass Graves,” Los Angeles Times (October 27, 1990). ↩
Americas Watch, The Laws of War and the Conduct of the Panama Invasion (May 1990), p. 14. ↩