The following article was originally published in Proletarian Revolution No. 36 (Winter 1990).
As a result of the U.S. invasion, over 2000 Panamanians have been killed, thousands wounded and tens of thousands made homeless. In Panama, a small Central American country of 2.3 million people, the slaughter per capita was far greater than in the recent bloodbath in Romania.
“I’ve been frustrated that he’s been in power so long, extraordinarily frustrated,” George Bush whined in mid-December, referring to Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. To assuage his ruffled feelings, Bush turned the fire-power of 27,000 U.S. soldiers on the people of Panama. Tanks rolled through the streets shooting at anything that moved, while planes and helicopter gunships bombed and strafed working-class neighborhoods.
The numbers of dead and maimed are based on information released by Panamanian trade unionists and others. It is impossible to give exact figures; we can say with complete confidence, however, that official U.S. reports of only a few hundred dead are absurd lies. Even the U.S. military admits it made no attempt to identify or count the dead on the streets before hauling them off. Truckloads of bodies were dumped into mass graves like so much garbage.
The liberal Democratic politicians used to depict the president as a wimp. A popular cartoonist always portrayed him as invisible. Bush had indeed perfected the art of opportunism in his long climb upward in Washington politics. CIA chieftain, Republican party chairman, ambassador to China, vice president, slavishly echoing the likes of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, he would do or say anything to be popular with his political masters. But now, to virtually all the Democrats as well as the Republicans, Bush is not only highly visible but the champion of democracy in Panama. The media proclaim him as the man who showed the world who is boss.
It is the Panamanian working class which has become invisible. For example, the New York Times (December 31) said, “Panamanians of all classes seem for the moment not to be disturbed by the prospect of a long-term American presence.” It cites “the rich, for example” and “the middle class” – and no one else. TV news is crowded with coverage of joyous pro-American rallies and ecstatic citizens kissing U.S. troops. The Times quotes a Panamanian woman fawning over an American soldier, saying “We belong to you, and we need you take care of us.” These happy people are almost always white and well-dressed; the angry and the victims are the darker masses, poorly clad, some buried in unmarked graves, all buried in the media.
But the working class is there, waiting, searching for a way to fight back. And not only in Panama. It was no accident that the usually lickspittle Organization of American States voted 20 to 1 (guess who) to “deeply regret” the invasion and call for troops to be removed. Who do you think this collection of bourgeois statesmen (i.e., comprador thieves) was afraid of?
The reasons for the U.S. invasion have nothing to do with Bush’s feeble explanations: the threat to U.S. citizens and the Panama Canal, and the drug dealing of Noriega. Murder and harassment of its citizens in El Salvador and Nicaragua by pro-U.S. forces are ignored by Washington. The canal was already “defended” by thousands of U.S. troops whose real role is to keep Panama a semi-colony.
As for stopping Noriega’s drug deals, that is the biggest fraud of all. He was started in the business by the CIA, itself notorious for drug running in Latin America and Asia. Noriega was a hired thug and agent, armed and encouraged by the U.S., notably by one George Bush, CIA godfather and “drug czar.” Noriega’s real crime was looking to feather his own nest first, after he had been bought and paid for. Only when this petty comprador criminal tried to cross his imperialist masters did they decide he was naughty.
The claim that the U.S. was defending democracy is a real stomach-turner. Washington created Noriega’s military dictatorship; now it has also created the Endara regime to replace it. Presumably Bush will allow Endara to put his own pants on, but little more. The “new” Panamanian army is led by former Noriega officers who have agreed not to bite the hand that feeds them.
Washington has many enemies. The USSR was one; increasingly, world imperialist conflicts will revolve around the U.S./German/Japanese rivalries. But underneath, the real enemy to U.S.-dictated stability is the struggle of the working classes of the world, seeking the way to overcome exploitation. The U.S. answer is a facade of incorporative “democracy” covering the mailed fist. The path of recovery from Vietnam has led to attacks on Lebanon, Grenada, Libya and military support to reaction everywhere, today most notably in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
The Soviet Stalinist rulers were always willing to betray the “third world” for a price. But at Malta Bush got a free ticket from Gorbachev and immediately clobbered Panama. Delicate radio receivers placed within two feet of the Kremlin heard Moscow’s protest. However, the Salvadoran guerrillas, the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and above all the rebellious masses around the world had no trouble hearing Washington’s message. In the reorganized world imperialist order, U.S. striking forces will be even more available for repression than in the past.
Bush’s personal pique was of course a factor. As well, Panama offsets the adverse publicity he received for his too hasty embrace of Deng in Beijing. After all, Deng, Pol Pot, de Klerk, Cristiani et al are all fellow soldiers in the army of democracy and must be protected from sniping, so that the “war against drugs and terrorism” can proceed. In other words, U.S. foreign policy, underlined by Panama, says to the world’s masses that as the mortal crisis of capitalism deepens, any and all means to compel greater exploitation will be used. There will be less tolerance for those who do not comply with imperialist demands.
There has been comparatively little protest in the U.S., unfortunately. Leftists and anti-war militants in the hundreds have demonstrated in various cities. But there is no denying that for the moment the invasion is popular among U.S. workers. Many, genuinely fearing the drug plague in their communities, are being taken in. As well, workers are frustrated over the battering they have been receiving for years. Under the leadership of a craven labor bureaucracy, obedience to bourgeois legality has largely stymied militancy. Tragically, their anger is momentarily diverted: “at least, ‘we’ are not letting this bastard Noriega kick ‘us’ around any more.”
However, given the circumstances in the U.S., class struggle is not only inevitable but explosive. Marxism shows us that even reactionary events teach lessons. The trampling of U.S. and international law by Bush & Co. in the invasion of Panama is as evident to its supporters as it is to its opponents. And when our class rises up, we pledge to Mr. Bush and all his friends that it will give bourgeois law the same respect that they do. Count on it!
We in the LRP/U.S. join fellow workers around the world in demanding the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Panama.