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Noriega’s Return

The London Review of Books blog has just published my short post on the repatriation to Panama of former dictator Manuel Noriega. The post begins:

The president of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, announced on Twitter on 2 December that the repatriation and immediate imprisonment of Manuel Noriega would enable Panamanians to ‘finally close this bitter chapter’ of history. Noriega arrived in Panama City nine days later, the third and final stop on a multinational extradition tour that began with his ousting by the US military in January 1990 in Operation Just Cause. Incarcerated for nearly two decades in Miami on drug trafficking charges, Noriega then performed a shorter stint in a Paris jail for money laundering and was convicted in absentia in Panama for the murder of two political opponents in the 1980s. He is now in the El Renacer prison in Gamboa.

Residents of El Chorrillo, a poor area of Panama City, may not share Martinelli’s sense of justice and closure. It was bombed so heavily during Operation Just Cause that ambulance drivers referred to it as ‘Little Hiroshima’. According to the US military, a few hundred Panamanian civilians were killed; the UN puts the number at 2500 and other estimates are even higher. On the invasion’s tenth anniversary in 1999, US General Marc Cisneros said:

“I think we could have done it with less troops and less destruction. We made it look like we were battling Goliath… We are mesmerized with firepower. We have all these new gadgets, laser-guided missiles and stealth fighters, and we are just dying to use that stuff.”

Click here to read the post in its entirety at the LRB blog.


Drugs and justice in Panama

Former US installed president Guillermo Endara enabled Panama to become a province of the Cali drug cartel (Photo: EPA)

The following is my latest article for Al Jazeera:

Prior to his death in 2003, my grandfather – a former intelligence officer in the US military and a veteran of D-Day, Korea, and Vietnam – experienced regular flashbacks to his bellicose career.

These manifested themselves in various ways, such as via his suspicion that the other inhabitants of his assisted-living facility were using their oxygen tanks for communist purposes. In other cases, the ideological foundations of perceived threats were less readily detectable, and he exhibited intermittent concern about potential plots being concocted by the Mexican Air Force.

Another recurring fear was that of being dropped from a helicopter by ex-Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who had in his pre-dictatorial incarnation as director of military intelligence under Omar Torrijos been a frequent visitor to my grandfather, himself the director of intelligence from 1971-76 for the US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), then headquartered in the Panama Canal Zone. The visits often took place in the “Tunnel”, the local US nuclear bunker at Ancon Hill, which was equipped with numerous amenities useful in the event of Armageddon, such as air conditioning, a church, and an SUV-sized paper shredder.

Though accused by some of orchestrating Torrijos’ death in a plane crash, Noriega was not known for dropping human beings from aircraft into bodies of water – the practice of which art was generally restricted to US-backed dictators in the Southern Cone and was concurrent with the curriculum of the US-run School of the Americas, also located in the Canal Zone. According to my grandfather, however, Noriega dabbled in the application of such techniques as well, capitalising on the convenient proximity of the Bay of Panama prior to being deposed by the US invasion of 1989.


Little-known world war excuses slaughter of Panamanian civilians

The remains of Noriega’s former beach house (Photo: Kurt Fernández)

Shortly after midnight on December 20, 1989, Don Felipe—a Panamanian man now in his fifties—emerged from his house near Río Hato military base, 52 miles west of Panama City. He cannot remember why he went wandering outside at such a late hour, but he does remember what happened after he killed the snake that appeared in his path.

Don Felipe imitates the sound of incoming aircraft, followed by explosions. This was Operation Just Cause, the U.S. invasion that ousted Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. The crafting of the “just cause” required the vilification of Noriega on account of drug trafficking and other unsavory activities—all of which had also taken place during his decades of partnership with the CIA.

Standing in the ruins of Noriega’s beach house near Río Hato, Don Felipe looks out to sea as he recalls the terror of December 20. His daughter, three years old at the time, asked him to take her away from the bombs. “Where could I take her?” he says.

His neighbor’s family fled in their car. It was fired on by U.S. helicopters and a teenage son perished. Don Felipe could not understand such errors in a military operation touted as a triumph of surgical precision.

A few days after speaking with Don Felipe, I attended a birthday party in the nearby town of Coronado, where I discussed the surgical issue with a former member of the U.S. Air Force who was intermittently dancing with a bottle of rum in each hand.


Panama’s Underappreciated Role in the Creation of Israel

In honor of the sixty-third anniversary of Israel’s independence from the proprietors of the land on which it was established, the Israeli embassy in Panama is issuing a four-part magazine series entitled “Israel: 63 years of constant progress”. The first 30-page installment arrived last week with the morning La Prensa and dealt with typical cultural themes such as hummus, shawarma, and the coexistence in the Israeli democratic “oasis” of various ethnicities enjoying equal rights. Cultural trivia items included that “Israelis drink 3.5 cups of coffee per day”, “A cup of coffee costs 4 dollars on average”, and “Because they are adventurous, Israelis love extreme sports”.

Higher-caliber trivia—such as the success of an Israeli invention for an electric hair removal device, which according to Israel’s Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs “makes women happy all over the world” and should thus be used in order to counter “barbs of criticism” levied against Jewish state on account of its barbarous policies—was not on this occasion made available to Panamanians. Nor was it explained whether the multiethnic democracy’s Afghan Jewish inhabitants, represented by a photograph of women in blue burqas, had access to alternate ensembles for use during skydiving and other extreme activities, or how vast portions of the Israeli population living below the poverty line can spend 14 dollars a day on coffee.


Air-Conditioned Vestiges of an Empire

One end of the Tunnel

When I told my father recently about my morning jogs up Ancón Hill—located in Panama City’s Quarry Heights, former headquarters of the U.S. Southern Command—he emailed back to say that his own father, director of intelligence for SOUTHCOM from 1971-76, used to receive visits from Manuel Noriega in the Ancón Hill “Tunnel” during the latter’s service as director of military intelligence under Omar Torrijos.

Not known for my attentiveness to scenery, I asked what tunnel. He responded: The thing dug into the side of the hill.

Indeed, ascending the hill the following morning, I noted a cement edifice on my left—one end of the U.S. bunker, abandoned in accordance with the withdrawal of SOUTHCOM from Quarry Heights in the late 1990s.

Located not far from the Tunnel is the former house of U.S. General Marc Cisneros, a key player in the 1989 U.S. war on Panama to dislodge Noriega, who had by this time risen to the position of dictator and whose decades of cooperation with the CIA failed to avert his demise via “Operation Just Cause”. The house is currently inhabited by a Panamanian woman who drew my attention to the whirring machinery 10 meters from her front door as an indication that the bunker continues to be air conditioned, and who asked me why, if nuclear holocaust were visited upon the region, U.S. military commanders would wish to prolong their existence three years inside a tunnel. Aside from air conditioning, the Tunnel is reportedly equipped with other luxuries such as decontamination chambers, a church, and an SUV-sized paper shredder.


Honduras One Year Later

According to a recent article in the Honduran daily El Heraldo, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo will attend the summit of the Central American Integration System (SICA in its Spanish acronym) in Panama starting June 29, the day after the one-year anniversary of the coup d’état that ousted President Manuel Zelaya. As the article notes, the potential reversal of Honduras’ suspension from SICA—enacted following the coup—would be a stepping stone in its bid for reintegration into the Organization of American States (OAS), from which it was also suspended.

Honduras is incidentally still listed as a member country on the SICA website, as well as part of a SICA-affiliated delegation sent this month to a course in Haifa, Israel, on Latin American female empowerment through rural tourism micro-business—an admitted improvement on past, less formal Israeli courses on the empowerment of Latin American paramilitaries. The El Heraldo article on the SICA summit notes that Panama, in its role as acting SICA president, is actively encouraging Honduras’ reincorporation into regional organizations and that Nicaragua is the only Central American state that has refused to recognize the Lobo government. It seems as though the consolidation of democracy, which is listed as one of SICA’s goals, might have been more plausibly pursued via consistent support for an elected Honduran leader’s efforts to reform the constitution in accordance with the whims of the majority of the population.