America’s Backyard: Panama

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In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt declared that the United States had the right to intervene in the internal affairs of Latin America. In his own words: "if any South American country misbehaves it should be spanked." The separation of Panama from Colombia and its creation as a pseudo-independent republic happened because of the United States’ interest to build a canal across Panama to safeguard its interests across all oceans. In 1968 Omar Torrijos, a Lieutenant Colonel of Panama’s National Guard, staged a coup d’etat and imposed an autocratic but progressive regime, which empowered the impoverished classes. Torrijos’ main goal was very clear: the restitution of the canal to Panamanian hands. Torrijos death in an airplane crash is, up to date, a matter of speculation. General Noriega who was a long-time ally of the United States and who had worked with the CIA since 1950s came to power. Soon he became a liability and turned against his former friends. After a long stand-off between the US and its former ally, on December 20th 1989, George Bush ordered the invasion of Panama, in order to remove General Noriega from power. Many Civilians lost their lives in the so called Operation Just Cause. Equally blessed and cursed by its strategic importance and geographic location, Panama’s troubled relation with the United States still has no end in sight.

TIME CODE: 00:00 _ 05:00

Narration:

In the United States of the 19th century, Manifest Destiny was the widely held belief that American settlers were destined to expand across the whole continent.

In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt declared that the United States had the right to intervene in the internal affairs of Latin America.

In his own words: "if any South American country misbehaves it should be spanked."

All US presidents that succeeded him have, in lesser or greater measure, continued to exercise their perceived right over a region often known as “America’s Backyard”.

Narration:

Graphic map Greater Col and panama: border appears??

In the late 18 hundreds the French attempted to build a canal that would link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, across a region known as Panama, then part of Colombia.

They failed to succeed and, in 1903, the United States proposed to take over the project.

But the Colombian government, fearing a loss of sovereignty, rejected the proposal.

President Roosevelt’s response was to give military backing to a rebel group of Panamanian nationalists.

Olmedo Beluche:

The separation of Panama from Colombia and its creation and as a pseudo-independent republic happened because of the United States’ interest to build a canal across Panama, in order to safeguard their interests across all oceans.

Narration:

Against the will of the vast majority of Panamanians, Roosevelt signed a treaty with his allies in the newly independent country, granting the US perpetual rights over the canal.

Olmedo Beluche:

The US imposed in Panama a political regime directly intervened by them; a puppet regime of the United States.

Narration:

To protect their interests, the US built dozens of military bases in what was known as the Panama canal zone.Manuel Quintero is an Economic historian, who has spent much of his professional life studying and teaching the impact that the canal has had over Panama.

Manuel Quintero:

We’re entering what used to be the Clayton Military Base, where the Americans used to have soldiers who will prevent any non-American from entering the premises. In order to get in you had to apply for authorization.

The military bases where like cities within a city. They had their own schools, their own churches, tribunals, and so on. So they lived in their own little bubble and it was very rare for them to come out and integrate with the Panamanians.

That situation, which led to the existence of a country within another country, generated many conflicts. For example, if an American was to commit a crime in Panama City, he could quickly run back and hide in the Canal Zone thus avoiding being judged.

However, if a Panamanian committed a crime within the Canal Zone, he would be judged under US law. Until the mid sixties the US used to have racist laws, and those laws were also applied within the Canal Zone.

We’re now leaving the former military base and we’re heading to the canal that is just here.

Narration:

Since it’s origins the canal was a source of abuse of power.

Manuel Quintero:

From 1904 to 1913, while the Americans were building the canal, it’s estimated there were over 5,000 deaths, either from accidents or from tropical diseases. Around 4,500 of these were workers from the Antilles, while less that 300 were actual US citizens.

However these numbers pale in comparison with the 22,000 workers who died while the French were building the canal.

Narration:

Each year around 300 million tones of shipping cross the canal. Besides its strategic importance for commerce and defense, the Canal is also a huge source of income. Only this passenger cruise ship leaves over 400 thousand US dollars each time it enters the canal.

TIME CODE : 05:00 _ 10:00

Narration:

The Panama canal generates yearly profits averaging 800 million dollars.The frictions between the Panamanians and the US citizens living in the canal zone got to a critical point in January 1964.

Manuel Quintero:

Written here we can read the names of the 21 people who died during the three days of protests that began on January 9th 1964.This is a monument that symbolises the moment when the students tried to climb the fence and cross into the Canal Zone, in order to raise the Panamanian flag as a symbol of sovereignty.

Narration:

In 1963, U.S President Kennedy agreed that Panama's flag should fly alongside the U.S. flag inside the Canal Zone.However, Kennedy was assassinated before his orders were carried out.On January 9th 1964, US high school students who lived in the Canal zone decided to raise a US flag at their school.

This prompted around 200 Panamanian students [check] to march to the canal zone with the aim of raising the Panamanian flag alongside that of the US.

The US police and civilians drove the protesters back and, in the scuffle, the Panamanian flag was torn. Within hours thousands of Panamanians took to the streets to protest.

Manuel Quintero:

Throughout those three days of protests, the 21 dead and over 400 injured we suffered meant a lot for all us Panamanians.

It also evidenced the arrogance of a foreign nation against a small country, which demonstrated that its heroes were bigger than all the weapons that the US could have.

Narration:

Mass protests had shown that the status quo that had prevailed in Panama could not be maintained for much longer.

Olmedo Beluche:

The threat of an imminent revolution forced the US and the Panamanian ruling classes to re-negotiate the colonial situation under which we had been living since 1903. The main consequence of this situation was the emergence of the Omar Torrijos’ regime.

Narration:

In 1968 Omar Torrijos, a Lieutenant Colonel of Panama’s National Guard, staged a coup d’etat and imposed an autocratic but progressive regime, which empowered the impoverished classes and distanced itself from the traditional ruling elites.

But Torrijos’ main goal was very clear: the restitution of the canal to Panamanian hands, at whatever the cost.

Omar Torrijos

The (Panamanian) National Guard is in the capacity to be able to destroy it (the canal), and that capacity we do not intend to lose.

And that’s the reason why we’re not too scared about the demonstrations of machismo and so-called braveness from those who have no respect for the dignity of other peoples.

Narration:

After lengthy negotiations, in 1977 Torrijos and US President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty that stated that Panama was to gain control over the Canal and the Canal Zone by the end of 1999.

Omar Torrijos:

President Carter has demonstrated that he wasn’t elected only to have his national anthem sang to him, but to actually take decisions that will prevent his country, which is that great northern nation, from continuing with the embarrassment of maintaining a colonial enclave only supported by the fact that they are much stronger.

Narration:

But Omar Torrijos’ progressive policies were soon to come to an end.

Olmedo Beluche:

At the beginning of the 1980s there was a change of situation: the Washington Consensus was imposed, in the United States Ronal Reagan won the elections, Margaret Thatcher was ruling over the United Kingdom and the international organizations adopted the neo-liberal economic model. In terms of politics, the United States imposed in Latin America a radical turn to the Right.

Narration:

Ronald Regan’s extreme neoconservative policies were to further encourage brutal civil wars across Latin America, while providing ample support to the continent’s right wing rulers and dictators.

Ronal Reagan:

You ain’t seen nothing yet…

Olmedo Beluche:

Coincidentally or, according to many, not precisely a coincidence but a conceived plan, Omar Torrijos died on July 31st 1981.

Narration:

Reagan’s dislike of Torrijos was no secret. Before the signing of the treaty for the future control of the Panama canal,…

TIME CODE : 10:00 _ 14:59

Narration:

He had publicly stated: "We built it, we paid for it, it's ours, and we should tell Torrijos and company that we are going to keep it." Torrijos death in an airplane crash is, up to date, a matter for speculation.

Olmedo Beluche:

Panama entered into a period of transition and the neoliberal policies, which were in full fashion in Latin America, began to be applied. This new situation was widely represented by the emergence of a new character: General Manuel Noriega whom, up to then, had always been in Torrijos’ background. After Torrijos’ death, General Noriega began to play a fundamental role in Panama.

General Manuel Noriega:

I will utilize the powers that you are giving me in a thoughtful manner…

Narration:

General Noriega was a long-time ally of the United States, having worked for the CIA since the 1950s.

George Bush Sr., then Reagan’s vice-president, had been the Director of the CIA while Noriega was working for the agency. The new de-factor ruler of Panama enjoyed a very cosy relationship with the US leadership.

Olmedo Beluche:

At the beginning there was a political alliance between the United States and General Noriega, in order to impose these new economic policies.

Narration:

But Noriega’s increasingly more public ties to the Colombian drug cartel of Pablo Escobar and his obvious disregard for democracy, became a source of international embarrassment for the United States.

Olmedo Beluche:

Noriega became a liability for the United States, who always wants to protect their economic and political interests behind a façade of democracy.

General Manuel Noriega:

The only thing that the American Empire cannot steal from us is our geographic position as a bridge to the world and heart of the universe.

Olmedo Beluche:

The United States asked General Noriega to establish a date for his retirement, but Noriega and his entourage were determined to stay in power, so at the beginning of 1988 the US broke ties with Noriega and imposed Panama a series of economic sanctions.

General Manuel Noriega:

I now tell the Americans to stop threatening me, because death doesn’t scare me!

Narration:

After a long stand-off between the US and its former ally, on December 20th 1989 ex-CIA director and newly elected president of the US, George Bush Sr, ordered the invasion of Panama, in order to remove General Noriega from power.

Olmedo Beluche:

The invasion was aimed at replacing Noriega’s regime and imposing the neoliberal policies that the US hadn’t been able to fully implement yet.

Narration:

Code-named “operation just cause”, the US invasion of Panama was justified to the American public as a necessity in order to protect the 35,000 US citizens living in the Canal zone, as General Noriega was now deemed a dangerous threat. As in many other US invasions around the world, the defence of democracy was also cited as a reason.

Olmedo Beluche:

These buildings are the only ones that survived the invasion. They were left with marks from bullets and bombs that the Americans fired from the Ancon hill. The other buildings in this area were made of wood, so they all ended up burnt down. 20,000 people from this neighborhood lost their homes during the invasion.

Narration:

The impoverished neighbourhood of El Chorrillo was the worst hit area of Panama City, as the invading forces were targeting Noriega’s headquarters located nearby.

Olmedo Beluche:

The Central Headquarter of General Noriega’s Defence Forces was located right here.

Many bombs missed their targets and landed on the homes of those who lived nearby Noriega’s Headquarters. As you can see, this is now a children’s playground.

All around this area of El Chorrillo, Panamanian soldiers and members of the Dignity Battalions resisted the US invasion for a few hours.

Narration:

The dignity battalions were popular militias, created in 1988 and made up of volunteers with the aim of defending Panama from an imminent US invasion.

Olga Cardenas:

The Defence Forces made a call to all civilians who wanted to defend their motherland with weapons.

Narration:

Now one of El Chorrillos most respected community leaders, Olga Cárdenas volunteered for the dignity battalions before the US invasion.

TIME CODE : 14:59 _ 20:09

Olga Cardenas:

Mayor Dominguez called us all to inform us that the “gringos” were about to enter, when actually the “gringos” had never left and, up to date, they still rule over Panama. So I asked the Mayor where were the weapons, but he just laughed. Years later they explained us that they couldn’t arm the civilian population, so we were left unarmed.

Narration:

Mayor Dominguez, the Panamanian officer who gave the warning of the US invasion to Olga and the residents of El Chorrillo, had a very active role during the war.

Mayor Cesar Dominguez:

I took part in two main events. One was the attack of the US Embassy in Panama City, and the other was the kidnapping of 16 American civilians.

Narration:

Other actions from Mayor Dominguez and his comrades-in-arms were also largely ineffective. The Panamanian Defence Forces and the unarmed Dignity Battalions were no match for the US Armed forces.

Olga Cardenas:

Up to date we still don’t know how many people died during that cruel invasion. The Americans came here to test their weapons against us: a group of defenceless people.

Narration:

Ernesto Fitzroy is another resident of El Chorrillo who, through various artistic expressions, campaigns to maintain the memory of the 1989 invasion alive in people’s minds.

Ernesto Ftizroy:

This mural is aimed at stating our opposition to that invasion. Just imagine: 25 years have gone by and still no local government has taken the time to find a way to amend the moral, social and economic disaster left by the invasion.

The mural is a work of art named “Something Happened Here”. And that something was when the US Armed Forces came here not to liberate a country, but to massacre its people.

They came with the excuse of freeing Panama from a dictator, but it was us who suffered the pain and damage.

When we saw the US soldiers we didn’t see freedom, we didn’t see liberators. What we saw were monsters.

I was still a kid and I remember the horror that my friends and I felt when we saw those characters.

Narration:

27,000 US troops and over 300 military aircraft took part in the invasion of Panama.

Ernesto Ftizroy:

When I looked out of my window I saw the burst of ammunition coming from the helicopters, but what shocked me the most was to see all those corpses lying on the ground everywhere.

Around two or three in the morning my mother tried to get us out of the building, as every time a bomb exploded the building will begin shaking.

I was with my nine year-old sister and, when we were desperately trying to leave, I remember these shadows approaching us, carrying their big weapons. One of them told us to stop or they would open fire. After they searched us and realized we had no weapons, as we were only two young kids with their mother, we were told to move forward. But that would have meant moving forward to our deaths, as only across the road their tanks were passing at full speed and we could see corpses lying everywhere.

Narration:

The Pentagon published a civilian death toll of 220. More reliable estimates situate this at around 3,000.

Ernesto Fitzroy:

I was a kid back then, and I lost everything I had.

Olga Cardenas:

We will never forget the vile and cruel mass assassination they carried out, just to get hold of one man.

Such cruelty against defenceless and unarmed people who didn’t even know where to hide. So many died without even knowing how or why.

Narration:

The meant-to-be “surgical operation” by US forces inflicted at least four times more civilian than military casualties. General Noriega holed up in the Vatican diplomatic mission, and only surrendered two weeks after the beginning of the invasion.

Olga Cardenas:

In the one hand Noriega should have left power when the Americans told him to do so. But in the other hand, who are the “gringos” to give orders in our country?

I would like to ask (Noriega): “Why did you try to hide or run away?” He should have never tried to escape, but should have died with his boots on.

TIME CODE: 20:09 _ 26:08

Narration:

Noriega was immediately taken to the US, were he was trialled and sentenced for drug trafficking.

Meanwhile, thousands of Panamanians were held as prisoners of war in improvised camps.

Mayor Cesar Dominguez:

At the end of the invasion the United States captured at least 80% of all the officers from the Panamanian Army.

They captured me too and wanted to interrogate me, but I had learnt from the Americans themselves that, according to the Geneva Convention, a prisoner of war is only obliged to give his name, rank and that his main duty is to try to escape.

Narration:

Mayor Dominguez had been educated at the School of the Americas: a US military institute that, between 1946 and 1984, was based within the Panama Canal Zone.

Mayor Cesar Dominguez:

I’m still alive, and what saved me was the training that the Americans had given me.

Narration:

Most of the buildings that belonged to the School of the Americas are now abandoned.

But for almost 40 years these buildings housed military personnel from all across Latin America, who were being taught how to fight communism.

Mayor Cesar Dominguez:

The School of the Americas was created in order to fight the various leftist insurgent movements that were appearing across Latin America. After 1960 Cuba’s President, Fidel Castro, sent missions to different countries in the region, so at the School of the Americas they felt that the democratic system was under threat in Latin America.

Our training was based on techniques to defeat those leftist insurgencies, with both tactical operations and military intelligence.

Narration:

The School of the Americas is best known for its notorious ex-alumni. From Major D’aubisson, the man behind the worst atrocities during El Salvador’s civil war, to the leaders of the Argentine military junta, responsible for up to 30,000 disappeared. From the Chilean Generals who oversaw the torture centers during the Pinochet years, to the leaders of Mexico’s most bloodthirsty drug cartels. From Colombian paramilitary leaders, to the very own General Manuel Noriega.

Olmedo Beluche:

The School of the Americas trained all the military leaders who became dictators and human rights violators that we have known throughout the second half of the 20th century.

Mayor Cesar Dominguez:

It was a very good school that taught us many combat techniques and other things.

However the school has been falsely accused of teaching how to torture people, but that’s a lie.

Narration:

Despite the Mayor’s assurances, the teaching of brutal torture techniques at the School of the Americas has been widely documented.

Olmedo Beluche:

I had colleagues who denounced that during the 1960s and 1970s people were being kidnapped. Either random people who were picked up from the streets, or militants from leftist organizations, who were then subjected to torture experiments at the School of the Americas, as part of the training.

Narration:

The training of torturers, and the memories of a ruthless invasion are not the only things the US left behind in Panama.

Tomas Cabal:

During the Second World War the governments of Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States used the Island of San Jose as a testing ground for chemical weapons.

Narration:

Most of these chemical weapons were removed from the San Jose island decades ago. However a few were left behind.

Tomas Cabal:

A few unexploded ordnances were left on the site. After checking the serial numbers it was corroborated that all the unexploded ordnances came from the United States.

Narration:

Despite this, the US government refused to dispose of the dangerous chemical ordnances for over 70 years.

Tomas Cabal:

The matter wasn’t addressed until 2013.

On April last year we met at the Hague with diplomats from the United States. We had some discussions and at last the Americans agreed to send specialized personnel to remove between six to eight unexploded bombs that are still lying in the San Jose island.

Narration:

Thanks to the diplomatic efforts of Mr Cabal, a final settlement was recently reached.

Tomas Cabal:

We expect that before the end of this year the bombs will be removed and Panama will get a certification from the OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) stating that Panama is chemical-weapons free.

Narration:

With the chemical weapons about to be finally removed and the canal back in Panamanian hands, has the US intervention in the tiny Central American nation finally come to an end?

Olmedo Beluche:

The United States continues to control our national politics.

For example, during the 2009 elections, the three opposition candidates that the US favoured were sat together at the US embassy and the Americans persuaded them to form an electoral alliance.

So there is US intervention in our politics, in our economy – which is controlled by their credit institutions – and in our security matters.

Narration:

Equally blessed and cursed by its strategic importance and geographic location, Panama’s troubled relation with the United States still has no end on sight.

   

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