Twenty five years ago, before dawn on December 20, 1989, U.S. forces descended on Panama City and unleashed one of the most violent, destructive terror attacks of the century. U.S. soldiers killed more people than were killed on 9/11. They systematically burned apartment buildings and shot people indiscriminately in the streets. Dead bodies were piled on top of each other; many were burned before identification. The aggression was condemned internationally, but the message was clear: the United States military was free to do whatever it wanted, whenever it wanted, and they would not be bound by ethics or laws.
The invasion and ensuing occupation produced gruesome scenes: “People burning to death in the incinerated dwellings, leaping from windows, running in panic through the streets, cut down in cross fire, crushed by tanks, human fragments everywhere,” writes William Blum. 
Years later the New York Times interviewed a survivor of the invasion, Sayira Marín, whose “hands still tremble” when she remembers the destruction of her neighborhood.
“I take pills to calm down,” Marín told the paper. “It has gotten worse in recent days. There are nights when I jump out of bed screaming. Sometimes I have dreams of murder. Ugly things.”
In the spring of 1989, a wave of revolutions had swept across the Eastern bloc. In November, the Berlin Wall fell. The Cold War was over. No country was even a fraction as powerful as the United States. Rather than ushering in an era of peace and demilitarization, U.S. military planners intensified their expansion of global hegemony. They were pathological about preventing any rival to their complete military and economic domination.
U.S. government officials needed to put the world on notice. At the same time, President George H.W. Bush’s needed to shed his image as a “wimp.” So they did what any schoolyard bully would: pick out the smallest, weakest target you can find and beat him to a bloody pulp. The victim is irrelevant; the point is the impression you make on the people around you.
Panama was an easy target because the U.S. already had a large military force in 18 bases around the country. Until 1979, the occupied Panama Canal Zone had been sovereign territory of the United States. The Panama Canal was scheduled to be turned over to Panama partially in 1990 and fully in 2000. The U.S. military would be able to crush a hapless opponent and ensure control over a vital strategic asset.
Washington began disseminating propaganda about “human rights abuses” and drug trafficking by President Manuel Noriega. Most of the allegations were true, and they had all been willingly supported by the U.S. government while Noriega was a CIA asset receiving more than $100,000 per year. But when Noriega was less than enthusiastic about helping the CIA and their terrorist Contra army wage war against the civilian population in Nicaragua, things changed.
“It’s all quite predictable, as study after study shows,” Noam Chomsky writes. “A brutal tyrant crosses the line from admirable friend to ‘villain’ and ‘scum’ when he commits the crime of independence.”
Some of the worst human rights abuses in the world from the early 1960s to 1980s did originate in Panama – from the U.S. instructors and training manuals at the U.S.’s infamous School of the Americas (nicknamed the School of the Assassins), located in Panama until 1984. It was at the SOA where the U.S. military trained the murderers of the six Jesuit scholars and many other members of dictatorships, death squads and paramilitary forces from all over Latin America.
The documentary The Panama Deception demonstrates how the media uncritically adopted U.S. government propaganda, echoing accusations of human rights violations and drug trafficking while ignoring international law and the prohibition against the use of force in the UN Charter. The Academy Award-winning film exposed what the corporate media refused to: the lies and distortions, the hypocrisy, the dead bodies, the survivors’ harrowing tales, and the complete impunity of the U.S. military to suppress the truth.
The propaganda started with the concoction of a pretext for the invasion. The U.S. military had been sending aggressive patrols into the Panama City streets, trying to elicit a response.
“Provocations against the Panamanian people by United States military troops were very frequent in Panama,” said Sabrina Virgo, National Labor Organizer, who was in Panama before the invasion. She said the provocations were intended “to create an international incident… have United States troops just hassle the Panamanian people until an incident resulted. And from that incident the United States could then say they were going into Panama for the protection of American life, which is exactly what happened. 
After a group of Marines on patrol ran a roadblock and were fired on by Panamanian troops, one U.S. soldier was killed. The group, nicknamed the “Hard Chargers,” was known for their provocative actions against Panamanian troops. Four days later, the invasion began. 
Targeting Civilians and Journalists
Elizabeth Montgomery, narrating The Panama Deception, says: “It soon became clear that the objectives were not limited only to military targets. According to witnesses, many of the surrounding residential neighborhoods were deliberately attacked and destroyed.” 
Witnesses recounted U.S. soldiers setting residential buildings on fire. Video footage shows the charred remains of rows of housing complexes in El Chorillo, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
“The North Americans began burning down El Chorillo at about 6:30 in the morning. They would throw a small device into a house and it would catch on fire,” recounted an anonymous witness in the film. “They would burn a house, and then move to another and begin the process all over again. They burned from one street to the next. They coordinated the burning through walkie-talkies.” 
People were crushed by tanks, captured Panamanians were executed on the street, and bodies were piled together and burned. Survivors were reportedly hired to fill mass graves for $6 per body.
Spanish photographer Juantxu Rodríguez of El País was shot and killed by an American soldier. Journalist Maruja Torres recounted the incident in the Spanish newspaper the next day.
“’Get back!’ the U.S. soldier yelled from his painted face brandishing his weapon. We identified ourselves as journalists, guests at the Marriot,” she wrote. “’We just want to pick up our things.’ He didn’t pay attention. The hotel, like all of them, had been taken over by U.S. troops. Those young marines were on the verge of hysteria. There was not a single Panamanian around, just defenseless journalists. Juantxu ran out running toward the hotel taking photos, the rest of us took shelter behind the cars. Juantxu didn’t return.”
While the professed aim of the operation was to capture Noriega, there is ample evidence that destroying the Panamanian Defense Forces and terrifying the local population into submission were at least equally important goals.
American officials had been told the precise location of Noriega three hours after the operation began – before the killing in El Chorillo – by a European diplomat. The diplomat told the Los Angeles Times he was “100% certain” of Noriega’s location “but when I called, SouthCom (the U.S. Southern military command) said it had other priorities.”
No one knows the exact number of people who were killed during the invasion of Panama. The best estimates are at least 2,000 to 3,000 Panamanians, but this may be a conservative figure, according to a Central American Human Rights Commission (COEDHUCA) report.
The report stated that “most of these deaths could have been prevented had the US troops taken appropriate measures to ensure the lives of civilians and had obeyed the international legal norms of warfare.”
The CODEHUCA report documented massively “disproportionate use of military force,” “indiscriminate and intentional attacks against civilians” and destruction of poor, densely-populated neighborhoods such as El Chorillo and San Miguelito. This gratuitous, systematic violence could not conceivably be connected to the professed military mission.
When asked at a news conference whether it was worth sending people to die (Americans, of course, not thousands of Panamanians) to capture Noriega, President George H.W. Bush replied: “Every human life is precious. And yet I have to answer, yes, it has been worth it.”
‘Flagrant Violation of International Law’
Several days later, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution condemning the invasion. But the United States – joined by allies Great Britain and France – vetoed it. American and European officials argued the invasion was justified and should be praised for removing Noriega from power. Other countries saw a dangerous precedent.
“The Soviet Union and third world council members argued that the invasion must be condemned because it breaks the ban on the use of force set down in the United Nations Charter,” wrote the New York Times.
After this, on December 29, the General Assembly voted 75 to 20 with 40 abstentions in a resolution calling the intervention in Panama a “flagrant violation of international law and of the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the States.”
The Organization of American States passed a similar resolution by a margin of 20-1. In explaining the U.S.’s lone vote against the measure, a State Department spokesperson said: “We are disappointed that the OAS missed a historic opportunity to get beyond its traditional narrow concern over ‘nonintervention.’”
In the ensuing occupation, CODEHUCA claimed that “the US has not respected fundamental legal and human rights” in Panama. The violations occurred on a “massive scale” and included “illegal detentions of citizens, unconstitutional property searches, illegal lay-offs of public and private employees, and … tight control of the Panamanian media.”
Despite the international outrage, Bush enjoyed a political boost from the aggression. His poll numbers shot to record highs not seen “since Presidents Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower.” The President had authorized crimes against the peace and war crimes. Rather than being held accountable, he benefitted. So did the Pentagon and defense contractors who desperately needed a new raison d’ etre after the fall of Communism.
No longer able to use the fear-mongering Cold War rationales it had for the last 40 years, Washington found a new propaganda tool to justify its aggressive military interventions and occupations. Washington was able to appropriate human rights language to create the contradictory, fictional notion of “humanitarian intervention.”
“Washington was desperate for new ideological weapons to justify – both at home and abroad – its global strategies,” writes James Peck. “A new humanitarian ethos legitimizing massive interventions – including war – emerged in the 1990s only after Washington had been pushing such an approach for some time.” 
The stage was set for the even more horrific invasion of Iraq the following summer. Operation Gothic Serpent in Somalia, the NATO bombing of Serbia, Iraq (again), and the Bush and Obama interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq (a third time), Pakistan, Libya, Somalia (again), Yemen, Iraq (a fourth time) and Syria would follow.
The invasion of Panama caused unthinkable devastation to the people of Panama. Because of the U.S. military’s obstruction, the full extent of the death and destruction will never be known. The damage done to the legitimacy of international law compounded the devastation exponentially.
Indisputably, the U.S. invasion was aggression against a sovereign nation. Aggressive war was defined in the Nuremberg Trials as the “supreme international crime,” different from other crimes (like genocide or terrorism) in that it contains “the accumulated evil of the whole.” People convicted of waging aggressive war were sentenced to death by hanging.
Twenty five years later, the man who ordered the invasion of Panama, George H.W. Bush, enjoys a luxurious retirement at his Houston and Kennebunkport estates. He is considered by mainstream U.S. pundits to be a foreign policy moderate.
 Blum, William. Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II – Updated Through 2003. Common Courage Press, 2008.
 The Panama Deception. Dir. Barbara Trent. Empowerment Project, 1992. Film. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-p4cPoVcIo&list=PLBMiR6FLgz2-BEFx0w_V-jE6hKb9uP3Wh&index=3, (30:54)
 Ibid (31:40)
 Ibid (34:08)
 Ibid (37:06)
 Peck, James. Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights. Metropolitan Books, 2011.
Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro made news this week by breaking off relations with Panama following Panama’s proposal for the Organization of American States (OAS) to take up the situation in Venezuela. Panama’s move followed weeks of calls from members of the U.S. Congress, pundits and others to use the OAS against the Maduro government for supposed government repression of “peaceful” protesters.
In remarks yesterday, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza criticized what he described as hypocrisy from both those who support and oppose such a move. Insulza stated:
here we see a swapping of roles: Those who just a few years ago brandished the Inter-American Democratic Charter to demand severe sanctions against the de facto government in Honduras are now saying that even mentioning a crisis that has already led to the deaths of a large number of people constitutes interference; while those who denounced (and still denounce) the steps we took when faced with an obvious coup d’état as an attack on a nation’s sovereignty –I’m referring again to Honduras-, now demand that we help them overthrow a government recently chosen in a democratic election.
It appears that Insulza is playing a role that he has played on numerous prior occasions – most recently in April when he refused to recognize the Venezuelan presidential elections, until South American pressure forced him (as well as the U.S. and the right-wing government of Spain) to accept democratic election results. This is unfortunate, but the manipulation of the OAS by Washington and a diminishing number of right-wing allies is the main reason that Latin American countries created the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in 2011, to have a region-wide organization without the U.S. and Canada.
While it is important for officials such as Insulza to reaffirm the importance of Venezuela’s democratic processes and remind the OAS membership that Venezuela’s government was recently elected (and had its strong public support reaffirmed less than three months ago in local elections), other remarks equate extreme sectors of the Venezuelan opposition and the Venezuelan government, even though the government has won elections and the opposition has not:
Today, it is undeniable that there is a profound political crisis, characterized above all by a split and confrontation between most political and social actors into irreconcilable bands. When the opposition mobilizes, it does so on a massive scale, and poses strong demands; when the Government’s supporters take to the streets, their numbers and the fervor of their demands are also huge.
But for the last few weeks, it isn’t “massive” opposition protests that are occurring, but rather small protests designed to wreak havoc in a few neighborhoods throughout the country. In essence, Insulza and the U.S. administration are suggesting that when extremist groups demand the immediate departure of an elected president, and try to achieve their aim by barricading streets and engaging in violent acts, the government has an obligation to dialogue with them.
This is reminiscent of Insulza’s approach to the coup in Honduras in 2009, when he effectively raised up a repressive regime that destroyed democracy with a military coup to the same legitimacy as the elected government. Insulza’s characterization of the OAS role in responding to the Honduran coup is also misleading. In fact, the OAS did little to try to restore democracy to Honduras, and Insulza apparently did not speak out when the U.S. ultimately blocked a measure that would have required the ousted president Manuel Zelaya to be returned to office before new elections were to be held, even though this was a solution supported by most OAS members.
Insulza’s comments on Chile are also troubling:
Both sides are an indispensable part of a country that needs all its people as it forges its future. Seeking to “win” this battle is a sure path to a decades-long national split between the vanquished and the conquerors. History is replete with examples of when division and confrontation destroyed democracy and ushered in long bouts of dictatorship. That is what happened in my country and thousands died.
Those familiar with the history of Chile know that political polarization was not the main problem, but rather that the right wing was by led by fascists who did not respect democratic government and were willing to institute a violent dictatorship that killed, disappeared, tortured and imprisoned tens of thousands of people. (It is also relevant that the U.S. government fueled much of the unrest as well as economic sabotage after then-U.S. president Richard Nixon vowed to “make the economy scream.”) It is of course good to avoid unnecessary political polarization and pursue dialogue as a general principle. But Chile’s infamous military coup and dictatorship were not a result of a conflict between two opposing forces representing equally just claims; it was rich against poor, people who did not respect democratic elections versus those who did, people allied with an aggressive foreign power versus those who believed in national sovereignty.
Insulza also refers to OAS support for “democracy and political stability in Haiti”: “during the Haitian crisis, over a decade ago, we gladly accepted U.N. leadership in that country and still maintain our association with it, in support of democracy and political stability in Haiti.”
This also raises very serious questions about Insulza’s idea of democracy. The U.N. mission was deployed to Haiti following the 2004 U.S.-backed coup d’etat against the democratically-elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who also had faced a violent opposition (for years) with whom the international community repeatedly urged him to “negotiate;” while at the same time we now know that U.S. funders of the opposition were telling them not to reach any agreement, that Aristide would be overthrown. The U.N. has occupied Haiti almost ever since, while the most popular political party, Fanmi Lavalas has been arbitrarily excluded from elections and many of its leaders and members hunted down and killed, and others imprisoned on bogus charges.
As we have described in detail, the OAS has played a key role in overturning elections in Haiti twice: in 2000, when the OAS’ rejection – without justification – of the election of seven senators provided the pretext for a political “crisis” and U.S.-led efforts to undermine the Aristide government; and the OAS’ overturning of the first round of the 2010 presidential elections. (Former OAS insider Ricardo Seitenfus has recently provided more details on this sorry episode.)
Considering this background, and the disproportionate influence wielded by the U.S. at the OAS, it should be of little surprise that Venezuela would seek to have UNASUR take up the Venezuelan political situation, rather than the OAS, which it appears UNASUR might, next week.
In a statement before the OAS, U.S. Ambassador Carmen Lomellin described
what appears to be a pattern of security personnel using excessive force.
We are also concerned with increasingly stringent tactics being employed by the government in an effort to restrict the rights of Venezuelan citizens to peaceful protest.
However, violence in recent days has almost exclusively impacted those opposed to the protests or the barricades, which make getting around certain neighborhoods difficult.
If there is a “pattern” of “excessive force” and “increasingly stringent tactics” by the government, it is unclear what these are, considering that the road blockades continue, even after nine people have been killed either trying to get through, or remove, the barricades, and considering that National Guard officers are getting killed. It is hard to imagine such a situation taking place in the United States, with small groups of protesters blockading streets, not for hours, and not even for days, but for weeks, and those attempting to remove the barricades being attacked and sometimes even shot and killed. The Occupy protests just a few years ago were usually violently repressed, and these were mostly in parks and other green spaces – not blocking off streets in major cities. These were actually peaceful demonstrations. Nor was the police repression of the Occupy protests met with calls for intervention by the OAS, even after Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen was almost killed after being shot in the head with a canister by police in Oakland, CA.
The U.S. statement follows a pattern of official statements since Venezuela’s latest wave of protests began that heaps all blame for violence on the government while characterizing the protests only as peaceful (the nine people who have been killed while trying to pass through or remove barricades, or the pro-government demonstrators killed, are testament to a different reality).
While both Lomellin and Insulza (among many others) have stressed the importance of dialogue between the government and the opposition, little attention is paid to the Venezuelan government’s efforts to engage in such dialogue. Maduro invited opposition leaders to a meeting on February 24; opposition leader Henrique Capriles rejected the offer. Jorge Roig, the head of FEDECAMARAS (the main business federation) and Lorenzo Mendoza, head of major food and beverage company Empresas Polar did attend, however, with Roig saying “We have profound differences with your economic system and your political systems but democracy, thank God, lets us evaluate these differences.”
Insulza’s comments that “it is also essential that the principal party leaders and opposition leaders with the most backing are also parties to the dialogue” could be seen as criticism of Capriles’ refusal so far to speak with Maduro. As CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot recently noted in Venezuela’s Últimas Noticias, by taking a radical posture and refusing to meet with Maduro despite having shook hands with Maduro just weeks before, Capriles has clearly sided with the more extreme elements of Venezuela’s opposition.
Panama has refused to extradite the former CIA chief of Milan station to Italy where he has been sentenced to nine years in prison for the 2003 abduction of an Egyptian Muslim cleric on suspicion of terrorist activities.
Italian justice ministry’s press office on Thursday announced that Robert Seldon Lady, also known as “Mister Bob,” has been arrested in Panama. However, it is not clear when and where he has been arrested.
On Friday, the US State Department confirmed Lady was on his way back to the United States. Italy had asked Panama to hold Lady while an extradition request was being made.
Panama foreign ministry sources have said the documents submitted by Italy for the extradition were “insufficient,” according to Italian media.
Italy’s Justice Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri said Friday that she was “deeply disappointed” by Panama’s decision not to return Lady to Italy.
The former Milan CIA station chief was sentenced to nine years in jail for the abduction of Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar. Twenty-two other Americans involved in the kidnapping were each sentenced to five years in prison.
The court ordered each of the 23 convicts, none of whom appeared for the trial, to pay one million euros (about $1.3 million) to Abu Omar, plus 500,000 euros to his wife.
The Muslim cleric was transferred to US military bases in Italy and later in Germany before being flown to Egypt. He was later set free in Egypt.
A former station chief with the CIA has been detained in Panama after being on the run from Italian police for more than a decade.
Robert Seldon Lady, 59, was reportedly brought into custody early Thursday after surfacing in the Central American country. An Italian court convicted him in 2009 in absentia of abducting an Egyptian terror suspect from the streets of Milan, and he was sentenced in early 2013 to nine years in prison. Only now, however, has he been caught, according to a statement made Thursday by the Italian justice ministry.
The case against Lady marked the first time ever that a CIA agent was accused of kidnapping and brought to trial. Twenty-two other Americans, mostly intelligence officers, were also convicted for their role in the “extraordinary rendition” of a Muslim cleric.
Lady was the station chief of the Central Intelligence Agency post in Milan during the time of the abduction. He is accused of abducting Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr and assisting in his years’ long detention which was reportedly accompanied with bouts of torture.
“I’m not guilty. I’m only responsible for carrying out orders that I received from my superiors,” Lady told Italy’s Il Giornale newspaper in 2009.
Previously, Lady told GQ magazine in a candid interview that, “When you work in intelligence, you do things in the country in which you work that are not legal.”
“It’s a life of illegality,” said Lady, “But state institutions in the whole world have professionals in my sector, and it’s up to us to do our duty.”
“I console myself by reminding myself that I was a soldier, that I was in a war against terrorism, that I couldn’t discuss orders given to me,” Lady said to Italian journalists.
Lady had served just shy of a quarter-century with the CIA at the time of the crime. He described his former employer to GQ years later as “the vanguard of democracy” and his role as “the greatest job I ever had.”
Onésimo Rodríguez, a leader in Panama’s Ngöbe-Buglé indigenous group, was killed by a group of masked men in Cerro Punta, in western Chiriquí department, the evening of Mar. 22 following a protest against construction of the Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam. Carlos Miranda, another protester who was attacked along with Rodríguez, said the assailants beat both men with metal bars. Miranda lost consciousness but survived; Rodríguez’s body was found in a stream the next day. Miranda said he was unable to identify the attackers because it was dark and their faces were covered. Manolo Miranda and other leaders of the April 10 Movement, which organizes protests against the dam, charged that “the ones that mistreated the Ngöbes were disguised police agents.”
The Ngöbe-Buglé stepped up their demonstrations against the Barro Blanco project in January, when construction continued at the site despite a United Nations (UN) report that largely substantiated indigenous claims that the dam would flood three villages, cut the residents off from food sources and destroy important cultural monuments [see Update #1168]. As of Mar. 26 an independent study mandated by the UN report and agreed to by the government had still not started.
In addition to protesting the Honduran-owned company building the dam, Generadora del Istmo, S.A. (GENISA), indigenous activists blame two European banks for funding the project: Germany’s private Deutsche Investitions- und Entwicklungsgesellschaft (DEG) and the Nederlandse Financierings-Maatschappij voor Ontwikkelingslanden N.V. (FMO), in which the Dutch government holds a controlling interest. Dam opponents say GENISA also sought funding from the European Investment Bank (EIB) but withdrew the application after learning that bank officials planned to visit the affected communities themselves. (Mongabay.com 3/25/13; La Estrella (Panama) 3/26/13)
In other news, as of Mar. 19 the National Coordinating Committee of the Indigenous Peoples of Panama (COONAPIP) had decided to withdraw from the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (UN-REDD+) program, which focuses on environmental problems in developing nations. The indigenous group charged in a statement that the UN and the Panamanian government “have appeared to marginalize the collective participation of the seven indigenous peoples and 12 traditional structures that make up COONAPIP” and have put “legal and administrative obstacles in the way” of indigenous participation. The Mesoamerican Alliance of People and Forests (AMPB), a coalition of Central American and Mexican indigenous and environmental groups, is backing COONAPIP’s decision. (Mongabay.com 3/19/13; Adital (Brazil) 3/21/13)
A new survey by the Washington, DC-based public opinion pollster Gallup finds that Latin Americans are the most positive people in the world, and Venezuela is tied for second place among all countries measured.
The survey asked citizens of various countries to answer questions including: “Did you feel well-rested yesterday?” “Were you treated with respect?” and “Did you smile or laugh a lot?”
In Venezuela, 84 percent of respondents answered “yes” to those questions, the same amount as in El Salvador, which tied with Venezuela for second place after Panama and Paraguay, which tied for first with 85 percent.
According to Gallup, eight of the top ten most positive countries in the world are in Latin America, with Trinidad and Tobago coming in at number five (with 83 percent), followed by Thailand (83 percent), Guatemala (82 percent), Philippines (82 percent), Ecuador (81 percent), and Costa Rica (81 percent). At the low end, just 46 percent of respondents in Singapore answered “yes” to the questions.
The implications, according to the analysis, are that a country’s overall economic prosperity does not correspond with the amount of positivity felt by its citizens.
The report explains: “These data may surprise analysts and leaders who solely focus on traditional economic indicators. Residents of Panama, which ranks 90th in the world with respect to GDP per capita, are among the most likely to report positive emotions. Residents of Singapore, which ranks fifth in the world in terms of GDP per capita, are the least likely to report positive emotions.”
On average, 73 percent of adults around the world felt enjoyment a lot of the day, and 72 percent felt well-rested. A smaller proportion – 43 percent on average – said they were able to learn or do something interesting.
The report states that, on the whole, the data “reflects a relatively upbeat world.” It concludes that “Despite many global challenges, people worldwide are experiencing many positive emotions.”
Click here to see the full results.
- The Achievements of Hugo Chavez (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Economic BS in Rich Countries is Reinforced by BS about Venezuela (alethonews.wordpress.com)