“I was in traffic that evening, going to El Pavo, my drinking hole, when I saw at least six F-117s fly straight over head,” remembers University of Panama Professor Rafael Hassan. “Then, the SOCOM radio station started issuing commands, and the bombings started…just after midnight (on the 20th of December).”
The bombing campaign lasted over a week in some cities, according to local residents. Panama City resident Mimi Lopez speaks of bombings all around her family’s home, and an unidentified sniper right outside their door. “For five days, we all stayed huddled in my brother’s room, because it was the farthest from windows, doors, and the explosions. We were so hungry, so terrified.”
On 20 December of 2004, hundreds of Panamanians gathered in their nation’s capital to observe the fifteenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion amid growing concerns of a rise of U.S. military activity in the region. Others took their annual pilgrimmage to the the cemetaries and sites of mass burials where their relatives lay among the many thousands killed during the invasion.
Groups, led by the Alternativa Patriotica Popular coalition, gathered in downtown Panama City at Parque Porras, near El Chorrillo, an impoverished neighborhood that was one of the hardest hit during the bombing campaign that began the invasion of some 26,000 U.S. troops in 1989. The military strategy, which included a massive bombing campaign that decimated many of the urban regions of the country which was followed by a ground invasion to oust then military dictator and former CIA agent Manuel Noriega from power, was the model of the recent invasion of Iraq, according to Pentagon officials.
Padre Conrado Sanjur, the leading Panamanian liberation theologian and activist with the National Liberation Movement-29, led the ceremony, as hundreds from student groups joined rural laborers from the interior, the Professor’s Association, and SUNTRACS, the nation’s leading construction union.
“In the years after the invasion, we had hundreds of thousands of people at these protests, but since then (the U.S. troop pull-out in 2000) people have begun to forget,” said Henry Rodriguez, a student leader with Pensamiento Y Accion Transformadora, which can be translated as Action Transforming Thought. “The most famous of those protests was in 1992, when (President George H. W.) Bush (Senior) visited, and the protesters were teargassed. Some threw back the teargas canisters, and they hit Bush. Now, people seem to have forgotten.”
But massive sectors of Panamanian civil society are perturbed at what they see as the build-up of U.S. military presence in the region, and its increasingly aggressive position in attempting to coerce austerity measures on underdeveloped countries like Panama.
In the latter situation, Panamanians have been especially frustrated with the attempts of the government, under the auspices of the IMF, to privatize social security. These actions fomented a strong reaction from Panamanians, bringing hundreds of thousands of people into the streets in late 2003, and leading to two attempted general strikes. A week before the anniversary of the invasion this past December, workers and students were again in pitched street battles with police in defense of Social Security, and the issue continued to be centerstage on the 20th.
Meanwhile, many locals have been frustrated with what they see as dangerous U.S. neglect in its constant refusal to fullfil its obligation to clean up all unexploded bombs and chemical weapons of mass destruction in the former Canal Zone and on the island of San Juan. Some two dozen Panamanians have been killed by these leftovers of the one hundred-fifty year U.S. occupation, and the obligations were part of the 1977 treaties which had forced the U.S. to carry out a full military departure in 2000. The governments here have been increasingly impatient with the attitudes of U.S. Ambassador Linda Watts and Donald Rumsfeld on this issue, just as U.S. military aid and troops begin to come back to the isthmus.
Indeed, the U.S. plans to send three thousand troops to Panama by next February, as nine hundred Panamanian police are trained at the School of the Americas, and earlier this year, the U.S. doubled its troop presence to 800 and increased by half its mercenary presence in Colombia.
“After having seen US war in our homeland for so long, and witnessing the ruthless actions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, we condemn the reintroduction of U.S. military personnel to our shores,” said Arturo de Leon, with the Popular University Bloc, another Marxist student group that was well represented at the protests. Polls indicate some 95% of Panamanians opposed the invasion of Iraq.
And the stories from Iraq have brought back old memories. Lopez says that it’s hard for her to read stories of Iraqis who are shot in their cars at US checkpoints. At the time of the invasion, she worked at the airport, and tells of how ten of her co-workers were killed. “Most of them were killed when they were driving together to work. When they came upon the checkpoint, the (US) soldiers fired, killing all of them.”
Lopez, who is not a political activist herself, had participated in protests against the regime of Manuel Noriega, who himself had been financed by both the CIA and the Pentagon for some time. By 1989, the situation had worsened to the extent that she spent one night praying that the US would invade Panama. “But we thought it was going to be quick. We thought they were just going to take Noriega and it would be over.”
“One thing you have to understand about the Panamanian people is that were natural anti-imperialists. We have been fighting imperialism for five hundred years, and US imperialism for over one and a half centuries,” explains Sanjur. “But some people were so sick of the corruption and brutality of the Noriega regime, that they forgot the misery of gringo domination, and only knew the misery of Noriega. But almost all Panamanians changed our minds during the invasion. All, that is, except the very rich.”
“Panamanian military commanders took control of the television stations at the beginning of the invasion. They implored citizens to resist it. To take in arms and fight back,” recalls Lopez. “But these were the same men who had been torturing us, brutalizing us. If anyone else had come on television to tell us to resist, we would have.”
“That’s true,” comfirms Luis Carlos Jimenez, currently a media relations chief at the National Assembly. “But when the US took over the television stations, they showed an inauguration of their colonial governor (then President Guillermo) Endara on US military territory. Few Panamanians were there. You call this democracy? This was while their bombing flattened our poorest neighborhoods.”
“When you go back to your country, tell them we don’t want anymore soldiers. Just for once, leave us in peace,” says Hassan. “And tell them to clean up the mess they made. Tell them to clean up the bombs that they left.”