Sound the alarm! – US invasion of Panama

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 93 February/March 1990

panama US invasion 1

‘A growing challenge to US interests and national security strategy is so-called low-intensity conflict… The nature of US interests around the world will require that US forces be globally deployable, often with little or no warning.’ – US Army Chief of Staff, General Carl Vuono in ‘Panama: training ground for future conflict’, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 13 January 1990

The 20 December invasion of Panama is the largest US military operation since the Vietnam War. It included the biggest US paratroop assault since the Allied airdrop on Arnhem in September 1944. Coming within a month of US Airforce intervention in the Philippines it demonstrated US imperialism testing its armed forces, its political will, international and domestic reaction in the context of the break-up of the socialist bloc. Fidel Castro described it as ‘a humiliating slap in the face to the Soviet peace policy’. Ominously, polls showed 80 per cent of US people supporting the assault. TREVOR RAYNE and KEN HUGHES report.

The invasion comes at a time when President Bush has announced proposed US troop reductions in Europe, when the arena of struggle between imperialism and socialism has switched definitively to the oppressed nations of the Third World. It follows the tremendous November offensive by the FMLN in El Salvador and precedes the February election in Nicaragua. It was meant to be and was felt to be a threat by all the progressive governments and forces of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Cuban, Nicaraguan and Peruvian embassies were surrounded by US troops: “Panama is only a trench. The war is against all of Latin America, whether or not Latin Americans want it, whether or not they dare to realise it or admit it and assume their responsibilities,” said Captain Jose de Jesus (Chuchú) Martinez, former bodyguard of the Panamanian patriot General Omar Torrijos.

LIKE DOCTOR GOEBBELS

The US government declared that ‘Operation Just Cause’ was intended ‘to protect American (US) lives, restore the democratic process, preserve the integrity of the Panama Canal treaties and apprehend Manuel Noriega’. Mrs Thatcher gave her immediate support and called upon all other governments to do likewise. Like Goebbels, the US government painstakingly prepared the psychological ground: Noriega was a brutal tyrant, tearing up ‘democratic elections’, running drugs, backed by ‘armed thugs’, the Dignity Battalions. Four days before the invasion the US seized upon a pretext: a US soldier was shot, a US woman companion was said to have been sexually abused. The dignity of the United States had been insulted. Never mind that the US soldiers were drunk, firing upon Panamanian troops, killing one. It fitted perfectly. Three days of detailed operational planning followed. At 1am on 20 December an action that had been rehearsed for months commenced.

Shortly afterwards US officials at Fort Clayton US base swore in Guillermo Endara as the new President of Panama. US Professor Noam Chomsky commented: ‘And whom are we putting back in power now? The bankers who back in 1983 were identified by a Senate committee as among the main agents of drug money laundering.’

The US government claimed less than 300 Panamanians died. Former US Solicitor General Ramsey Clark put the number at between 4,000-7,000. Many more Panamanians slaughtered in the name of democracy by a foreign power than all those killed by Panamanian presidents, including Noriega. Meanwhile Christmas TV focused on Romania and claimed 60,000 dead, 6000, then, when attention had drifted, perhaps 600. As with the British attack on the Malvinas/Falklands and the US invasion of Grenada, the US forces threw a news cordon around Panama while operations were in progress: journalists filed their despatches from Washington and Miami.

The President of the United States of America, ‘the world's most powerful democracy’, killed like the Nazis, lied like Goebbels and the US people applauded. In 1977 the Carter administration signed a treaty with General Torrijos which stated that control of the Panama Canal would pass in gradual stages to the Panama government. Total control of the Canal would be transferred by the year 2000 and the 14 US bases would be dismantled. At the time the US ruling class was under pressure, following the debacle of Vietnam, to appear conciliatory towards Latin America. Nicaragua was still under Somoza, El Salvador relatively quiet. Today, the US-controlled Canal Zone is the centre of US operations against Central America, South America and the Caribbean: from here it conducts regional surveillance, military incursions and wields the ‘big stick’. The invasion of Panama is intended to secure this military power on into the twenty first century. The US ruling class understand that the social conditions they have generated in Latin America will require it if continental revolution is to be destroyed.

Manuel Noriega was enlisted by the CIA at a military academy in Peru in 1959. His function was to spy on potentially progressive trainee officers. During the 1960s he was contracted to suppress communist influence among trade unionists on the United Fruit Corporation’s banana plantations in Panama. So pleased with him were his CIA employers that in 1967 the US trained him in ‘psychological operations’ at Fort Bragg North Carolina. Even at this time (during the Nixon administration), Noriega’s official employer, the Panamanian intelligence unit G2, was known to be smuggling drugs. The US Drug Enforcement Agency accepted it as fair trade for Noriega’s services. In 1970 Noriega became chief of G2.

The deal went on, and in 1983, two years after Torrijos’ mysterious death, attributed to the CIA, Noriega effectively became head of the Panamanian armed forces. He served as an intermediary between Colonel Oliver North, the Colombian Medellin cartel and the contras in the drugs-for-guns trade run by the US National Security Council. He met North twice in 1985 and once in London in 1986. He met Bush when the latter was head of the CIA in 1976 (at that time Noriega was on the top CIA pay of $200,000 per annum) and later as Vice-President in 1983. On this occasion Bush wanted Noriega to step up supplies to the contras and to train them on Panamanian Defence Force (PDF) bases. In 1985 US Vice-Admiral John Poindexter, head of the National Security Council, demanded that Noriega withdraw from the Contadora efforts of Central American governments to find a peaceful solution in Central America, and that he must provide the contras with equipment and training, and assign special units of the PDF to commit acts of aggression against Nicaragua. Noriega refused. The slander campaign began. The economic sanctions were imposed, and in the end they resulted in a 20 per cent fall in Panama’s output, half of domestic private businesses going bankrupt and a third of the workforce rendered unemployed. Their aim was to narrow the social base of support for the Panamanian government.

Noriega, the PDF and above all the self-defence force, the Dignity Battalions, formed to counter US destabilisation, represented the national interests of Panama against the middle and bourgeois classes in alliance with the multinationals. Panama’s struggle for the Canal is the struggle for independence and self-determination. Noriega understood that he would never be more than a siphon for US policies, insecure and dispensable, without the support of the Panamanian poor and their demand for sovereignty over the Canal. Ill-equipped, with forces less than half the numbers of the invader, the people fought, and they fought for all the peoples of Latin America.

STEALTH BOMBERS TRIED OUT

The US 82nd Airborne Division, formerly deployed against Grenada in 1983, was sent in: the US needs ‘an unquestioned ability to conduct unopposed entry into combat ... Army airborne forces are uniquely capable of performing this function’ (General Vuono). Light tanks and armoured vehicles edged forward behind helicopter gunships and jet fighters. F-117 stealth bombers were tried out for the first time in Latin America to bomb PDF bases and working class neighbourhoods. The district of Chorrillo containing the headquarters of the PDF was flattened. Thousands were killed, bodies tipped into mass graves. Five thousand Panamanians, government workers and political activists were rounded up and held in US prison camps. Panama is an occupied country.

For the first time in decades the US government did not justify an overseas military action in the name of combatting a ‘Soviet threat’. This was the thirty-seventh US military intervention in Central America and the Caribbean this century. In many ways it is the most sinister. Protest in the USA and Britain was pathetic compared to the scale of the crime. Communists, socialists and progressives everywhere – sound the alarm! •


How much abuse have we come to in this world?

‘But they didn’t attack fearlessly, that is, fearless of the death of imperialism’s own mercenary soldiers. Quite the contrary. They killed as many persons as necessary to avoid their own losses. Wherever there was resistance they didn't send soldiers. They used planes and helicopters to drop bombs, and they ‘flattened’ areas with artillery. Then they attacked. Wherever they encountered resistance, they would retreat again and ‘flatten’ the area, using air power and artillery. This is the type of war they have waged in the capital of Panama, in the most densely populated communities. This is what has created thousands of civilian victims.

‘Imperialism’s mercenary soldiers who are wounded receive immediate attention. They are picked up in modern ambulances, taken to hospital planes, and flown to the best hospitals in the United States. Meanwhile, they don’t even permit ambulances to pick up wounded Panamanian combatants. And they don’t even permit them to pick up the wounded civilian population. Thus people are dying, and the streets of the capital of Panama are covered in blood ... How much barbarity and abuse have we come to in this world? Thus, while the empire’s wounded soldiers travel immediately to the best hospitals over there, Panamanians lie bleeding in the streets.’

Fidel Castro, 21 December 1989.


RCG fights sectarianism

Approximately 250 people, the majority Latin Americans, protested at the Panama invasion outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square on 21 December. The event was organised by Latin American Support Groups based in London. Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! and the RCG mobilised a contingent and brought our banners and voices along. The organisers refused to allow the RCG to sign a letter of protest to be delivered to the embassy or to have a speaker. After they rejected our arguments, an RCG comrade, Eddie Abrahams, publicly challenged the organisers. He pointed out that sectarian divisions had always weakened our movement, that we were not so many as to be able to exclude anyone genuinely opposed to imperialism, and that the refusal to allow the RCG or other left organisations to sign the petition was a ban on communists. Many of the Latin Americans present sympathised with us. The organisers looked embarrassed and backed down. We signed the petition and had a speaker. This protest meant that sellers of News Line, Morning Star and the US Militant also present could also sign the petition if they wanted to. True to form, the Trotskyist organisations – Militant, SWP and RCP stayed at home. What were the organisers attempting to achieve? How did they see their role? Did they want authenticity, credibility, respectability? Who were they trying to impress? The US government, Latin America, the British press, each other? By and large they come from the same left organisations, the Labour Party and the CPGB, that claim proprietorial rights over the Anti-Apartheid Movement. It was not just the RCG they were excluding but people who were angry and disgusted at what the US had done and Thatcher’s support for it. People who protest, people who organise have a right to speak, a right to express their protest and solidarity. When will the British left learn some respect for others and for democracy? What is it afraid of …? When will they learn?

Trevor Rayne

Trump, Puerto Rico and colonialism

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After days of dragging his feet, US President Trump finally authorised a temporary waiver of a century-old shipping law on 28 September to allow aid to be sent to the US colony Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

The Category 4 storm destroyed the island’s power grid and 80% of its agriculture. About 50% of the island is without clean water, food supplies are running low and hospital generators are failing. Infrastructure is severely damaged and the Guajataca Dam in the northwest of the island is at risk of failing.

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Less than two weeks after the Venezuelan Constituent Assembly election on 30 July, US President Trump threatened the country with direct military action. This was the latest example of US imperialism’s history of intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean since the end of the Second World War. Such intervention has consisted mostly of undermining any government that threatens its interests through the use of economic warfare, and by funnelling money, arms and intelligence into right-wing opposition groups. However, in a few instances, it has involved direct military intervention (Dominican Republic, Grenada and Panama).

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Zika: reproductive rights, racism and resistance

Cuban soldiers on a fumigation drive to combat Zika

The Zika virus has spread rapidly across central and South America and to some neighbouring countries, leading to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) declaration of an international public health emergency. The toxic combination of factors behind the epidemic is distinctly social: poor, cramped living conditions, insufficient sanitation and environmental problems. The virus’s possible effect on pregnant women has forced health organisations and the media to acknowledge the region’s desperate lack of reproductive rights. What is being largely ignored however is that social solutions are needed for social problems – socialist Cuba’s vital, organised response shows that another approach is necessary if the health of people is to be cared for. Rachel Francis reports.

An epidemic

The Zika virus, first identified in the 1940s in Africa, is spread primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Four out of five people with the virus will experience no symptoms and the remainder will experience flu-like symptoms. However, the current media storm follows both the rise in the spread of the virus and a possible link to the birth defect microcephaly. Babies who are affected are born with a smaller head than expected and usually abnormal brain development which can lead to chronic complications. There are also possible links with Guillan-Barré Syndrome (GBS), a rare but serious disorder of the nervous system.

Brazil first reported cases of Zika in May 2015, and estimated cases since then may total 1.5 million. 46 countries are reporting outbreaks. An increased number of microcephaly cases has been noted by Brazil, with the Health Minister reporting 4,690 suspected cases since October 2015. However, the link between the Zika virus and both microcephaly and GBS remains strongly suspected but not confirmed – the WHO is calling for further investigation, as well as for other potential causes of microcephaly to be investigated.

Poverty

The living conditions in north and north-east Brazil have made the spread of Zika all but inevitable. 71% of the north-east’s population, ten million people, do not have access to sewage systems. Women fare the worst through poverty – Brazilian journalist Nicole Froio argues that access to water governed by gender, with around 30% of women having no direct access to clean water. The rubbish that fills the streets offers endless spaces for pools of water to collect, the perfect breeding ground for mosquitos. Housing is cramped and overcrowded, making the spread of any illness rapid. There are fewer doctors than in richer regions; the country still has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world. Here lies the crucial problem – mosquitos will continue to spread diseases when such conditions exist and when there is no co-ordinated social response. Debora Diniz, law professor and co-founder of advocacy organisation Anis: Institute of Bioethics, Human Rights and Gender, is clear: ‘the epidemic mirrors the social inequality of Brazilian society. It is concentrated among young, poor, black and brown women, a vast majority of them living in the country’s least-developed regions.’ Neighbouring countries, devastated by the legacies and actions of imperialist plunder and control, are plagued by similar poverty and lack of healthcare – and thriving mosquito populations.

Women and reproductive rights

There have been some practical responses to the epidemic, such as Brazil’s organised home fumigations and community initiatives such as 'Sábados de Faxina' (Cleaning-up Saturdays), to reduce possible mosquito breeding grounds. However, concern over the microcephaly cases has prompted the region’s main public health response, with advice aimed solely at women: do not get pregnant. The choice to not get pregnant is clearly not made by women alone. There is no ‘choice’ when contraception is rarely available. Abortion is almost completely illegal. El Salvador and Honduras, where abortion is illegal and women have been criminalised for miscarriages, have called on women to wait for two years before getting pregnant. Colombia, which has strict abortion laws limiting legal abortions to cases of severe fetal abnormality and where there are sparse resources to perform abortions in rural areas, is urging women to wait 6-8 months to become pregnant. The severe restrictions on abortions in Jamaica, Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia, Guatemala and many others make terminations illegal in all but name.

Women have done and will continue to terminate their pregnancies; many will have no choice but to put themselves in dangerous and ‘criminal’ situations. 95% of abortions in Latin America take place in unsafe conditions, with women forced to visit backstreet providers, paying vast sums they cannot afford for procedures that could cost them their lives. It is the lead cause of maternal mortality in the region. The poorest women face the worst of all situations – as Diniz states ‘when we talk about abortion and reproductive rights in general […] we have a social class split in Brazil – wealthy women will access safe abortion, legal or illegal, and poor women will go to the illegal market or continue to be pregnant.’ The Pope’s hints about liberalising contraceptive use in the wake of the virus have been misrepresented; he argued we should not ‘confuse the evil of avoiding pregnancy by itself, with abortion’ and that abortion remains ‘a crime, an absolute evil’. Of course, this is not about morality – it is about the concrete lack of reproductive rights that come with the impossible combination of poverty, lack of health care and dangerous laws.

Women resist

Women were protesting in Brazil for reproductive rights long before the Zika virus, sparked again recently by politician Eduardo Cunha’s call for a law to further restrict the already limited availability of abortion. Women across the region have used the renewed focus on women’s health to start grassroots community groups to educate each other about reproductive health and sexual rights. WomenOnWeb, a Dutch organisation committed to women’s reproductive autonomy, have offered online consultations to women affected by the Zika virus, irrespective of ability to pay, and will post medications to induce abortion.

The coming Olympics, due to be held in Brazil in 2016, has been considered a chance to raise awareness of the situation for women in Brazil, although the concern of the mainstream international media has been focused on the safety and health concerns of athletes and distinguished guests. Slick government and Olympic committee adverts and lies also pose a problem - they have already covered up the recent evictions that have taken place to make way for stadiums, with residents attacked with batons, tear gas and rubber bullets. Protests that surrounded the 2014 World Cup in Brazil remain close in people’s memories; the causes – poverty, police brutality and racism – have only intensified since the stadiums emptied. The spread of the Zika virus adds another burden – and cause of anger.

Cuba – a beacon of hope

Mosquito-borne yellow fever, chikungunya, and dengue are already familiar to the poorest areas now being affected by the Zika virus. One country, however, stands alone in its ability to resist and withstand such epidemics – socialist Cuba. With the major structures – sanitation, waste disposal, recycling, housing – in place due to the planned economy focused on meeting people’s needs, the possibility of viruses spreading is considerably reduced. The community-led public health campaigns, which see people organised to sweep their neighbourhoods of sitting water thus reducing the possibilities for mosquitos to breed, is simple, free and remarkably effective – and an example of what is possible when people work together in this way. Homes are fumigated and doctors are plentiful, 6.7 for every 1,000 people. Brazil’s doctors number 1.9 per 1,000 people and are concentrated in wealthier urban areas. Britain has 2.8 doctors per 1,000 people. Cuba’s extensive health system enables close monitoring of potential symptoms. Take dengue as an example: Cuba had 1,641 cases in 2015, all of whom recovered. Nearby and similarly-sized Dominican Republic faced almost 17,000 cases, 103 of whom died. Dengue has a huge impact on rural Brazil, with 853 deaths in 2015 alone.

Despite Cuba’s successes, it is of course not impossible for Zika to spread to the island. Cuba has released a statement urging improvement in their prevention measures and the need for the conscious participation of all the population. In an ‘appeal to our people’, President Raul Castro Ruz was confident that ‘our people will be able to show their capacity for organisation, to maintain the levels of health reached by the Revolution, and thus avoid suffering for our families. More than ever before in similar efforts, it is imperative to be more disciplined and exacting.’ Cuba must continue to fight to defend and push forward its achievements in the context of the US blockade, which continues to deny essential medicines and equipment. Crucially, women in Cuba can make choices that are impossible across the rest of the region, with abortion legal and accessible and contraception provided by local doctors.

Cuba responded to a crisis in Brazil in 2014 which saw millions take to the streets to demand access to health care. As part of Cuba’s health missions – active, practical solidarity which sees 37,000 doctors and medical professionals working in 77 countries around the world - doctors travelled to Brazil and committed to working in the poorest, neglected regions. That they faced resistance, protests and racism from sections of doctors in Brazil who have only been prepared to work in wealthy, urban areas, shows the different approach that is necessary when caring for the health of all people.

The Zika virus shows how rapidly epidemics can spread where poverty, a lack of sanitation and cramped housing are widespread and where access to health care is limited. That poor and predominately non-white women are most affected, and are expected to face the burden of reproductive control alone, is no surprise. In the media outpouring of moral judgements and fearful questions, it is crucial to look to the example of Cuba, which shows that another way is necessary – and possible.

Further steps in Latin America integration

The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), composed of every country in the Americas except the US and Canada, met on 24 June for a three-day conference in Caracas, Venezuela. Drawing up a common plan to tackle social and developmental problems in the region, CELAC aims to eliminate poverty and malnutrition in Latin America and the Caribbean by 2024.

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