Friday, December 23, 2011

Panama Invasion

December 20th is a somber date in Panama`s modern history. Only 22 years ago this month the USA invaded this small country of around 3 Million people in order to take out its dictatorial leader, one Manuel Noriega.

While many may say that Panama of today is totally different and has "boomed" since its "liberation" from dictatorial leadership...I have to question the "totally different" claim. After almost 7 years living here, while I see billions of dollars of new skyscrapers going up everywhere on the skyline...I am not convinced there is much change in the Panamanian people or culture over all. Sure, there are currently more jobs and a higher standard (cost) of living for many people here...but I am not seeing much of the sense of "liberation" in the words and attitudes of my host country.

As is a common theme in my global blogs, I question many of the assumptions and media hyped manipulations of what is and isn't going on here as well as the rest of the world. While many of us who are somewhat educated or come from a more wealthy perspective may find Panama to be a nice calm place to settle in for either retirement or investment, there is a sick underside to what is going on in this country that should be examined in balance to the superficial buildings and gigantic projects such as the Canal expansion and the Metro. The GNP and employment statistics look wonderful for such a small county of still less than 4 Million people. The new "Cinta Costera" boulevard around the bay and the new island being built before our eyes off Punta Pacifica makes this place appear to be the new "Dubai" of the western hemisphere.

Yet, as I read the local papers, listen to the news and talk to Panamanians I am trying to make friends with...I find that among the regular working or poor classes in Panama...they are not in the loop or benefiting much in the long run from these past two decades of "change". If anything, their cost of living is rising significantly compared to their wage base...and with the recently passed TLC trade agreement with the USA and Colombia, many of their agricultural products may end up competing poorly against the higher production and lower prices of the trading partner's goods. If that happens, the locals will be getting less profit on their products, and paying higher prices in the local markets for those same goods. There is no such thing as true "free trade" in today`s markets...and Panama has little or no manufacturing of products outside of agricultural. Most other products (cars, materials, tvs, computers, etc...) are imported and higher priced than they are in the USA or other global markets. This surely does not help the average Panamanian get ahead in this scenario of modern day Panama.

So...what was accomplished on those dark days of December 1989? Pictures and videos speak much louder than words on what took place. The justifications of why are what I think much more complicated...and unfortunately has little to do with the Panamanian people. There are a number of books out there to read perspective by, and I must admit I have been more busy learning and living in Panama in the first person than pursuing many of those third person written accounts or interpretations. I have been reading more from the faces, words, memories and attitudes of typical Panamanians I have met over these years.

While no one I have met admires or wants a return of the likes of Manuel Noriega in leadership, there are many who still prefer his comradeship to that of the oligarchy and political powers of today. Corruption is STILL hugely rampant in this business and in politics. There is no independent judiciary to speak of, so justice is based on who you know and how they like or don`t like you as a local or a foreigner. Supreme Justices are appointed by the President, so that makes justice a very political exercise. Having protection because of WHO you know is comforting for those within those circles, but lets face the fact that a majority of the population are helpless and at the systems mercy if all they know is WHAT their rights SHOULD be. I don`t know what the USA expected to happen post invasion on this front...but from what I have seen...and observed/read about in other places like Iraq, Nicaragua, etc...the results of our invasions and global "policing" are pathetic in comparison to the price in lives and dollars we have paid.

We typical, everyday Americans have no clue what and why our government does these things. We wake up one morning...such as it was in December our leader telling us we have ALREADY invaded a foreign land. No warning, no DECLARATION of war, not invited by any internal leadership group. Immediately we Americans get on our flag waving, Bible toting bandwagons in support of what our government has decided...without our participation or voice. I truly hope after this past decade of demise in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan that we are finally learning our lesson. Our military actions are NOT appreciated. The collateral damage of our actions are NOT acceptable. We the people can no longer afford to blindly agree to the machinations of our flawed leaders, political or military. We truly should become the moral, righteous nation we claim to be...even a Christian nation if that is what you want (see my recent blog on that topic).

Poetry in life continues to rear its sometimes ugly head. I cant claim to know why the various country leaders got together to bring Noriega back to Panama just before the anniversary of that unfortunate invasion this month. What politics are in play for passing this Noriega "hot potato" back and forth in the international justice arena for over 22 years? We (Americans and Panamanians) paid a huge price to "take him into custody", and now nobody wants this ugly bundle of human tragedy and waste.

For me the question always is...why does my country spend the money and lives on taking out some of these tyrants in the "bring them to justice"? What happened with justice for the hundreds and possibly thousands of innocent Panamanians who were killed during that short invasion and assault? Why is the guy we were after still alive almost into his 80s, while so many young, poor and middle class Panamanians are forever lost to their families and hopeful futures? Millions of dollars have been spent in international courts and tribunals and sustaining this one pitiful life in jail...for justice...while no one seems to care about the justice of all those Panamanians seen in the video above. How does this make sense to anyone?

These issues are not very comfortable for typical Americans to discuss or rationalize. We dont want to face the facts of our own barbarianism in world affairs. We don`t want to face the hypocrisy of our hidden agendas and power brokering ways that do not particularly defend the rights of all men and women equally. Yes, we have done many noble things in the two World Wars of this century. Our country has spent considerable money and resources on famine relief and rebuilding countries we have helped tear down through the ravages of war. The question we should ask ourselves is WHY do we continue this cycle of tearing down and building up again...and in most cases getting no respect or appreciation for it? I think we have to face the music that much of the world looks at Americans in a very different light than we see ourselves. We might want to start considering that it IS important how the world views us from a standpoint of trust and stability. Most Americans back home that I talk to have very little concern about how foreign countries view us. As long as WE feel good about ourselves...that seems to be the only thing that matters. Yet, I would argue that in the new globalized world we live in with huge reliance on interconnected economies and ruling international institutions...our reputation and true morality is more required than ever before in protection of our OWN interests and sustaining our future in the US of A.

Most of you will not understand the lyrics to Ruben Blades song above. Most of you will not connect with the images of the charred out buildings and bodies on the ground if you have not been in Panama City and met these people face to face. I will tell you though...that we continue to live with the fallout of this action. We Americans living or working in Panama are the face of those who invaded. The few locals who are "happy" about our invasion are those who profited or took power from the vacuum we produced when we left a short time later. A majority of people here RESENT the fact of our invasion...even if they are also happy that Noriega is gone. Their question justifiably is...why did we have to kill so many innocent people to do so? Why could we not have just paid someone to take him out individually? Why could we not have worked behind the scenes politically and otherwise to replace him or get at him? We may never understand the answers to those questions...but I have never identified with the USA policy of non-assassination of despot leaders in the world or in-clandestine operations...yet we readily defend our carpet bombing, strafing skills and expensive Drone planes firing on indiscriminate targets. Something is hugely askew with our perspectives on morality.

As we Americans enjoy our holidays and contemplate a New Year, I hope we spend some time thinking about the motivations and results of our actions as a country...and hopefully commit to a more peaceful, patient, and yes...Christian...approach to our problems and conflicts throughout the world.