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Latin America Kavitha Dispatch

American Involvement in Panama:
A Just Cause but an Unjust Result

So, how much time have you spent learning about Panama and its relations with the U.S. government in your school? A couple of years? How about a semester? If your school is like most in the states, maybe you've spent a week at best learning about this fascinating country that divides the continents. Well, students in Panama spend at the very least one full year studying about the history of the relations between their country and ours, and often up to four years in high school and college!

The U.S. has always had a large interest in Panama, so much so that some would even venture to call Panama a colony or a territory. They use U.S. currency, house U.S. military bases, and sell just about any American product or convenience you want. Technically, it's not a colony though: Panama has been independent since it broke off from Columbia in 1905, but even its independence was largely due to its "big brother" in the North, the United States. From the time the U.S. built and ran the Panama Railroad for easier access to California during the gold rush of the 1850's, to the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914, to present day authority and control of the canal and surrounding areas, the United States has played a large role in Panama's politics. (For more information on Panama's history, check out Shawn's article: Panama: The Fifty-first State. Kevin and I found many students eager to talk about their opinions of relations between the two countries when we visited the University of Panama yesterday.

Students discuss politics at the University
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"All in all I think the U.S. has taken good care of our country and interests," explained Vianchan Liudmila, a Panamanian student whose parents came from Lebanon. "They built the canal and have brought good order to it. Panama didn't have the preparation necessary to control it. But they must leave the canal ultimately to the Panamanians. We are not babies, we can learn, and must be given the chance," he continued, referring to the transfer of authority to the Panamanian government on Dec. 31 of this year.

Panamanians were also generally happy that the United States ousted General Manuel Antonio Noriega. Noriega was a former CIA officer and head of Panama's secret police. In 1983, Noriega took control of the National Guard and then of the entire country. He silenced all opposition through murder and media control, drastically increased the size of the National Guard, and removed presidents that didn't support his ultimate authority. Noriega's involvement in drug trafficking and organized crime became known internationally and were of great concern to the world.

"Relations with the U.S. were very bad during the years Noriega was in control," reflects Gustavo Villarreal, a 17 year-old student at the college. "Since the U.S. is such a powerful country, bad relations meant hard years here in Panama. Banks closed down, businesses wanted to leave." I asked Gustavo if the U.S. imposed an embargo against Panama to freeze their economy like we did in Nicaragua when we didn't like the Sandinista government. "No, you see there is a big difference between Nicaragua and Panama. We have the canal, which is very important to the United States. They always had to at least maintain some relations with us."

In May 1989, when Noriega's candidates did not win the presidential elections, he had the winning president and vice president beaten to death. This was followed by an extremely repressive period ending in December 1989 when he declared himself president. The United States quickly reacted by sending air-craft, tanks, and 26,000 U.S. troops to invade Panama City on December 20, 1989-an attack known as "Operation Just Cause". After bombings and kidnapping attempts, Noriega sought refuge in the Vatican embassy, where he finally turned himself in ten days later.

"We were glad to get rid of Noriega; those were dangerous times," explains Salinas Russo, an 18 year-old student from the city of Colon. "But the U.S. shouldn't have invaded the way they did. Many people were killed and buildings destroyed-innocent people not just Noriega's people."

Abdiel speaks up on Panama's history
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Our friend and gracious host here in Panama City, Abdiel, recounted the horror of Panamanians when they discovered a mass grave months after the invasion with over 500 people in it. "Officially they claimed that only about 500 people were killed during the attack, but now we know it's more like 5000. The military headquarters are in very populated areas, so many innocent people were killed during the bombings. Every war is an opportunity to test a new weapon," our wise guide continued. "In Panama, the U.S. tested a new helicopter. It was supposed to be able to accurately hit a target from far away, but in testing it missed by a lot and killed many." All in all though, Abdiel, like the other students I spoke with, are not resentful of U.S. involvement. "Most Panamanians have not forgotten, but they have forgiven. It shouldn't have happened, but what can we do?"

As the date of the final transfer of authority of the Panama Canal nears, and as the U.S. government slowly phases back property control to the Panamanian government, people are hopeful and curious about how relations between the two countries will be. Is Panama ready to take control of one of the most important passageways for the world? Is the U.S. ready to hand over that control? "We'll just have to wait and see," says Abdiel. "It's a challenge, and Panama will have to prove if it is indeed prepared and ready."

Kavitha

Abeja - The Darién Gap: Blow-darts, Guerrillas, and a Mother's Worst Nightmare
Team - HELP! Does Anyone Know How To Get Out Of Panama?!?
Shawn - Panama: The Fifty-first State
Monica - Twenty-Two Reptiles, Toucans, and a Thousand Plants: Biodiversity in Panama
Kevin - A Traveler's Paradise: Yummy Food, Hot Showers, and NO COCKROACHES!!!

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