Panama is “A Mirror of the Future” (2004)
Panama is “a mirror of the future”
Operation “Just Cause” 1989
[The invasion of Panama] was by far the largest American military operation since the end of the Vietnam war. The Pentagon began to employ some of its newly developed high-tech weaponry, notably the F-117A stealth fighter. Less than two months after the fall of the Berlin Wall…the United States was putting its new military prowess on display…
Secretary of State James A. Baker III…later explained:
“In breaking the mindset of the American people about the use of force in the post-Vietnam era, Panama established an emotional predicate that permitted us to build the public support so essential for the success of Operation Desert Storm some thirteen months later.”
Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet
New York, Viking Penguin. 2004
State Crime, The Media, And The Invasion of Panama
President Bush cited four reasons to justify the invasion of Panama: to safeguard the lives of American citizens; to defend democracy in Panama; to apprehend Noriega and bring him to trial for drug trafficking; and to ensure the integrity of the Panama Canal Treaties. The authors [ of State Crime, The Media, And The Invasion of Panama.] consider and dismiss each of these reasons in the third chapter. American lives were not at risk; there was no democracy in Panama to begin with; the Panama Canal was never threatened; and the U.S. concern with the drug trade in Panama was a sham. It should also be noted, although Johns and Johnson do not discuss it in any detail, that the reasons offered by Bush find no support in international law and, in fact, run directly counter to it (see Maechling, 1990). Although the title of their book is “State Crime, *The Media*, And The Invasion of Panama,” Johns and Johnson devote only one short chapter to analyzing the role of the media in this affair. They argue that the coverage of the invasion demonstrated “just how subservient the corporate media had become to the political elite in the United States” (p. 63). The government went to great lengths to either exclude or control the media during the Panamanian operation, creating a “national media pool,” restricting its access to the war zone, and feeding it a few crumbs of managed information. It may not have been necessary, however. Johns and Johnson explore a number of media themes that emerged in the uncritical coverage of “Operation Just Cause” and their overall conclusion about the U.S. media performance in this case is sobering. “The American government has no need to implement formal controls on the press,” they note, “if the press willingly parrots government propaganda, gives government officials almost unlimited time to voice their perspectives and interpretations, and slants its stories to suit the government line” (p. 64).
…Panama is “a mirror of the future.” In the aftermath chapter they cover a large number of concerns: the controversy over the civilian body count; the jingoistic celebration of the conservative Right; the reaction in Latin America; the military occupation of Panama and the intimidation of popular democratic [End page 46] groups; the puppet Endara government; the continuing problems of drugs and crime in “liberated” Panama; and finally, the criminal trial of Noriega. In the final chapter they argue that the invasion of Panama can be considered a mirror, not only of the future of Latin America, but of the future of the United States as well. In discussing the future of Latin America, Johns and Johnson return to the issue of political economy and describe the newly emerging form of exploitative colonial relationship between the U.S. and the undeveloped nations of the region. As to the U.S. future, the authors describe a situation were there is no respect for international law, no respect for domestic law by the corporate state, no effective opposition political party, and no investigative or analytical journalism.
[Barbara] Trent [ director of 1992 Academy Award winning documentary The Panama Deception ] details the excessive use of deadly force, the large number of civilian deaths, the systematic burning of buildings, the executions, the repressive measures taken against populist leaders and organizations, [ including labor leaders and the raiding of opposition newspaper offices ] and the herding of hundreds of refugees into camps. Several times the film revisits the refugee camps and interviews the angry, fearful Panamanians held prisoner there. And several times the film attempts to document the mass graves and calculate the number of civilian dead (in the thousands). There are some gruesome and sickening pictures in this section of the film.
In the final third of the film, several other important issues are addressed. One is the inadequacy and complicity of U.S. media coverage, a theme also explored in the book. Snippets of newscasts featuring Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel are used effectively to illustrate the point. The political economy perspective is nicely brought in at this point through the comments of political scientist Michael Parenti. Another issue addressed is the reaction of the international community to the invasion [End page 48] and the fact that the U.S. action was clearly in violation of international law. Next is a critique of the reasons that Bush offered for the invasion, covered in more detail by Johns and Johnson. Finally, the issue of the future of the region is raised by the argument that the invasion of Panama sets the stage for the wars of the 21st century in South America.
EXPLORING STATE CRIMINALITY: THE INVASION OF PANAMA
Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 3(2) (1995) 43-52
Ronald C. Kramer
Western Michigan University
The Panama Deception
For those familiar with the findings of the report of the Independent Commission of Inquiry see The U.S. Invasion of Panama: The Truth Behind Operation Just Cause, South End Press, 1991), the film’s exploration of the contradictions between the official reasons for the invasion and the real motivations will come as no surprise, but for many The Panama Deception will serve as a shocking illustration of the brutal face of American foreign policy.
During the attack, the U.S. unleashed a force of 24,000 troops equipped with highly sophisticated weaponry and aircraft against a country with an army smaller than the New York City Police Department. With uncanny echoes of Grenada less than a decade earlier, this illegal invasion against a sovereign nation was made in the name of “the protection of American lives” as well as the defense of the Panama Canal, the restoration of democracy, and the removal of Noriega and his drug trafficking operation – reasons which might have sounded good at the White House but failed to convince anyone with a knowledge of the history of U.S.-Panamanian relations.
The film also chronicles the rise and fall of Noriega as he was courted, then rejected, by the American government after he became a political liability. The sequence on the U.S. media’s demonization of Noriega, including Bush’s inarticulate rambling about “Mr. Noriega, the drug-related, drug-indicted dictator of Panama” would be comical if we didn’t know that this was just the prelude to a bloody confrontation. As an interview with an ex-CIA analyst reveals, the invasion was intended to “reverse Bush’s image as a wimp,” a rather large price for the Panamanian people to pay for the sake of his political viability.
Eyewitness accounts of the bombing and the fear felt by the people as they saw their families killed, their homes destroyed, and their city devastated, powerfully convey the human suffering caused by this act of aggression. In contrast to the images of Panamanians welcoming the Americans as a liberating force which the mainstream broadcast media presented, the angry voices of Panamians describe the horror, pain, and continued disruption of their lives. While some might call it heavy- handed, the ironic juxtaposition of official commentary by government spokesmen with actual footage of the invasion and its aftermath succeeds in revealing that lies were created on every level – the sites of the bombings in civilian neighborhoods, the search and destroy methods of the U.S. military in the days following the attack, the number of Panamanians killed, and the continued impact on the people in the form of homelessness, unemployment, and political instability.
Various regional and international human rights commissions estimate that between 2,500 and 4,000 Panamanians were killed in the invasion, a far cry from official U.S. reports of only several hundred. Many of those interviewed in the film – like Isabel Corro, a Panamanian human rights worker – continue to raise money for the exhumation of bodies from mass graves which Pentagon spokesmen deny exist.
As the film makes clear, the U.S. government was not solely responsible for the deception. The mainstream media was shamefully complicit in passing on government press releases as news. Interviews with media analysts Michael Parenti and Mark Hertsgard discuss the total collaboration of the media in this dress rehearsal of restrictions on the press later repeated during the Gulf War. Several cleverly edited sequences mesh the images and voices of Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and other arbiters of information as they use virtually the same language to describe the invasion and what it means to the American public.
The Panama Deception
by Susan Ryan
Cineaste v20, n1 (Wntr, 1993):43 (2 pages).