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Rights Action
December 19, 2018
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Will the U.S. pay reparations to survivors of 1000s of victims of 1989 “operation (be)just cause” invasion of Panama?
By Grahame Russell, Rights Action
 
"To allow any of them to pass into the comfort of forgetting would be utterly obscene."
(Lawrence Thornton, Imagining Argentina)
 
Around midnight, December 19, 1989, the U.S. unleashed a massive “shock and awe” invasion of Panama, attacking from the air, the water, and on land. 1000s of Panamanians civilians were killed within days; many more wounded. Entire neighborhoods were razed to the ground.
 
On October 5, 2018, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ruled that: “the United States of America … provide full reparation for the human rights violations established in [this] report, including both the material and moral dimensions; Adopt measures that provide both financial compensation and satisfaction.”
 

(In late December, 1989, at a place called the Garden of Peace, the U.S. military dumped 123 Panamanian bodies of Operation Just Cause invasion victims into a common grave; they did not bother to identify the cadavers, or advise the family members. CODEHUCA “This is the just cause” report, 1990)
 
U.S. Owes Reparations to Panama over Bush’s Invasion
For close to 30 years, the Center for Constitutional Rights has been representing Panamanian survivors of the December 19, 1989, U.S. invasion of Panama, in an on-going struggle for a measure of justice and reparations for 1000s of people killed, many more wounded, plus untold amounts of destruction.
 
Democracy Now interviewed human rights attorney Jose Luis Morin (jmorin@jjay.cuny.edu, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice) about the loss of life and destruction caused by the United States, and legal efforts to secure a measure of justice and reparations.
George H.W. Bush’s 1989 Invasion of Panama Set the Stage for U.S. Wars to Come
Democracy Now also interviewed Professor Greg Grandin about this “shock and awe” invasion of Panama, a brutal trial run leading up the massive “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq, beginning soon after, initiating a U.S. led war that has yet to end.
“Operation just (be)cause”
In 1989, I was living in Costa Rica working with CODEHUCA, the Central American Human Rights Commission. Work took me travelling regularly to Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and – after December 20, 1989 – Panama.
 
The U.S. “Operation Just Cause” invasion (‘Just Because’, as many Panamanians said) was just one of many Canadian and European-backed, or accepted U.S. interventions across Latin America, dating back to the 1800s. During and after this invasion, the U.S. and Canadian media lied to or seriously mislead the public about what happened, and why.
 
The Oscar award winning documentary “Panama Deception” remains today a textbook film providing the proper story to this invasion and a careful dissection of the complicit, deceitful role of the media. (https://www.empowermentproject.org/pages/panama.html)
 
My work trips to Panama
In early January 1990, I took my first of three work trips to Panama – a bus ride south from San Jose, Costa Rica, where I was living – to gather testimonies and document the enormity of this short and brutal invasion.  Here are excerpts from my book “The Never Ending” (1992), interspersed with photos from a comprehensive report I prepared for CODEHUCA.
 

(CODEHUCA report, 1990)
 
To state the obvious: No justice has been done for this illegal, murderous invasion; no reparations have yet been paid to the thousands of victims, killed and wounded.
 
****** / ******* / *******

“The Never Ending”
(excerpts)
 
December 20, 1989
Christmas in Panama
From my apartment, I overhear an English news service on cable TV - this is unusual at 9 a.m.  In my neighbor's apartment, friends are crowded around the television, watching the U.S. Air Force bomb Panama.  A Costa Rican woman from apartment 3 exclaims: "Excellent, this is what they should have done in Nicaragua a long time ago."  A young man from Panama, apartment 9, says: "General Noriega had this coming to him for a long time."  Someone else: "Now they're going to kick them all out of there."  A traveler from the U.K. agrees: "Bloody right."
 
Something inside of me dies, standing there, with my friends.  I work with Panamanians.  I know Panamanians.  I leave, and walk hurriedly to the CODEHUCA office.  This invasion will create a lot of work for human rights commissions.
 
The press reports on "Operation Just Cause"
Listening to indignant newscasters, you might have thought Panama was invading the U.S., but it is the U.S. Air Force bombing civilian neighborhoods.  This collateral detail is not reported.
 
The invasion is called "Operation Just Cause," in the name of democracy and freedom, of capturing Noriega, an accused drug dealer who, by the way, was on the CIA payroll in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, who worked closely with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in 80s, ... but all this is not reported.
 
American F-117 Stealth Bombers drop 2000-pound bombs - Christmas presents from weapons producers, the U.S. government and people.  The Pentagon states (and the press duly reports) that the Air Force is using computer-guided "smart bombs" and there is minimal "collateral damage."
 
Receiving information directly from civilian human rights groups in Panama, at CODEHUCA we report that perhaps as many as 1000 people, mostly civilians, have been murdered already from the air.
 
Collateral damage means killing of civilians, and destruction of civilian homes and buildings.  The problem is not the reporting but getting reported.
 
Panama City - January 20, 1990
Law and order
9 p.m., we leave our hotel to buy some food.  Bedlam and violence reign in the streets of Panama City.  Thousands of people crowd the city center.  Screams pierce the air.  We swing around this way -- a woman is robbed.  We swing around that way -- a man with a pistol runs off.  As two white North Americans on the destroyed streets of the city that the Army from the north had recently bombed, we are conspicuous and careful.
 
Men with pistols everywhere.  People are running and shouting, dodging piles of glass and garbage, ducking in doorways of looted stores, jumping over metal security gates hanging from their hinges.  Another scream, another robbery, another pack of looting people.  A lone guard confronts the pack waving a gun in each hand.  Frenzy.  A man sprints in front of us with a pistol.  We duck behind some overturned carts.
 
Suddenly, in the midst of this mad, violent carnival, a silence pervades, as thick as the hot night.  We look up the street, where Panamanians are edging slowly to the sides.  Three U.S. marines, in full combat gear, fingers ready on the triggers of M-16 machine guns (that are bigger than their torsos), are walking in triangle-formation down the center of the street.  They exchange hand signals and head nods with one another, warily watching in all directions.
 
Law and order, in the newly free and democratic Panama.
 
El Chorrillos
The next morning, we arrived at El Chorrillos that used to be a poor, crowded, and lively neighborhood close to the U.S.-designed headquarters of the Panama Army.  Half the neighborhood was a flattened, burnt waste land of empty shell buildings, and strewn rubble.  Fifteen city blocks -- houses, churches, stores and warehouses -- had been disappeared by the U.S. ground-air-naval attack.  It looked like the devil's land development project; everywhere, U.S. soldiers were driving army bulldozers, cleaning up the remains of buildings, burnt-out buses and cars, etc.
 
"[They] were engaged in a military operation which had an amazingly self-explanatory name, a human enterprise which is seldom described in detail, whose name alone, when reported as news or history, gives many war enthusiasts a sort of post-coital satisfaction.  It is, in the imagination of combat's fans, the divinely listless loveplay that follows the orgasm of victory.  It is called "mopping-up"".  [Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five, p. 45]
 

(CODEHUCA “This is the just cause” report, 1990)
 
A “democratic, civilized” nation applauds
The Canadian government was one of the few governments to openly support Operation Just Cause.  As a new member of the Organization of American States, Canada's first act was to support this massive make-work project for arms dealers, the morgue, human rights workers, and the U.S. army mop-up patrol.
 
Collateral damage
I walked through the hollow shell of a blackened and bombed residential apartment, 24 de diciembre, a casualty of Apache attack helicopters.  Lots of collateral damage here, never reported on in the press.  The smell of death and human decay lingered in the elevator shafts and garbage drops of the "24th of December" apartment buildings, where pajama-clad Panamanians had tried to hide from the flying 50 millimeter bullets that cut through three walls.
 
A 13-year-old boy was poking around the rubble, scrounging for anything of value.  He had lived on the fifth floor.  His family had been in bed when the Apache helicopters attacked.  He could see them out his window, firing on his building.  He stuck his hand in the holes in the walls of what used to be his apartment, talking of his homeless family, of unemployment, of friends he hadn't seen again, ... .
 
The bombing continues
In the home of a Panamanian friend, I lay in bed thinking of the testimonies we received that day, never to be reported in the news.  I couldn't sleep well any night that I was in Panama.  Three weeks after the invasion, the U.S. army was still dropping bombs, reminding the Panamanians of the new law and order.
 
People disappear like smoke
Survivors, wide‑eyed, told us of seeing U.S. soldiers walking through the remains of El Chorrillos with what looked like scuba tanks on their backs.  These tanks were flame‑throwers used to cremate bodies on the spot.  No effort were made to identify the cadavers and let the family members know.  A lawyer might say this practice was a violation of international humanitarian law.
 

(CODEHUCA “This is the just cause” report, 1990)
 
A Panamanian child told us of the "el laser", some type of weapon shot from the Apache helicopters.  It came through the night, a direct red laser beam -- "You heard it wiiin, wiiin, wiiin, and then you saw it hit its target -- puun, puun, puun, and the whole thing explodes," and more people disappear like smoke.
 
The children of war
In the city of Colon we walked through the blackened remains of a children's day‑care center.  Drawings, toys and games -- torn, trashed and melted -- in a jumbled debree.  Walls blown in, windows blown out, glass shattered, ghosts and children's laughter scattered.
 
Why, what, why?
We interviewed a woman (her children crowd around) in a school gym converted into a refugee center.
 
"Hi, we are a visiting human rights delegation ... Please tell us your story".
"Well they came ...".
"Who?".
"The U.S. troops, ... at 4 am, on the 20th, ... They ordered us out of the house, and fire bombed it to the ground."
"Why?"
"What?"
"Why?"
"I don't know why.  So here we are.  We have nothing from our home.  We lost everything. ... They give us rations here every two weeks.  The rations last two or three days.  We are a family of eight.  There is no work."
 
And all of this was said with smiles -- "Thank-you for listening to our story."  But in their eyes, confusion and pain.  We walk from the gym/refugee center, through the hot and ransacked streets of Colon, to our air‑conditioned van.  Ten minutes to cool down before the next interview.
 
The Colon yacht club
We lunch at the Colon Yacht Club, the only restaurant open.  U.S. soldiers sit nearby with Panamanian wives or friends, or with sergeants and colonels.  At other tables, some Caribbean travellers sit, their cabin cruisers docked outside.  At the yacht club english is spoken.  I feel white and english speaking.  President Bush is now on cable TV: "There will be 1 billion dollars for the recovery of Panama."
 
Make-work project
It struck me like a flash, in the cool of the dark bar, in the Colon Yacht Club, watching President Bush on TV -- this is the perfect make‑work project: blow them up, fill the morgue, dig deep the mass graves, and the result?  A perfect investment opportunity for new money, and of course work for human rights commissions.
 
"Doin' the Caribbean"
Leaving, I hear one yacht traveller say to another: "Hey buddy, are ya doing the Caribbean?"
 
What is a mass grave?
A mass grave is a deep hole dug in the ground where the victors place the loser's unidentified bodies.  The victors then fill in the hole and deny its existence.  There are a number of recently filled mass graves in Panama, but no news reports to date.
 

(CODEHUCA “This is the just cause” report, 1990)
 
Dead people lie
When the lie -- 'There are no mass graves' -- is accepted by all, then the truth is that the families of the bodies in the holes become the liars.  According to what is reported in the press -- headquarters New York and Washington -- their missing ones simply don't and didn't exist.  The mass graves and the dead are disappeared.  And besides, it was a just cause ...
 
Operation Just Because
Samantha, a member of the delegation, concludes that the U.S. invaded, killed, dug mass graves, etc, "just because" Central America is in the back-yard of the U.S.
 
"They are killing my heart"
Transcribing interviews from today, after a 2nd 'Cuba Libre', my thoughts tale off and loses their focus because the little Panamanian boy had said to us "they are killing my heart."
 
The dog who nipped my hand
In a less bombed out neighborhood, Mercedes, a grandmother, tells of her daughter.  Mercedes' now motherless grandson sits on her knee.  While civilian deaths and mass graves don't exist, according to the Pentagon and the press, Mercedes and her husband continue to look for the body of their daughter which most likely they will never find.  She probably lies in a black body bag at the bottom of a pit.
 
As we leave Mercedes' house, her dog nipped my hand.  Her husband quickly says: "I'm sorry my dog bit your hand."  I say: "I'm sorry about the war."  Shaking his head slowly, staring at the ground, he responds: "The massacre, the massacre."
 
"This book is so short and jumbled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.  Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again.  Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. ...  Absolutely everyone in the city was supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were and that anybody that moved in it represented a flaw in the design."  [Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five]
 
In support of the invasion
After five days of interviewing victims of the invasion, I find myself in the home of Patricia, the wealthy Panamanian girlfriend of a friend of mine.  We sip coffee, munch toast, look at a fruit plate, and talk of the invasion and the civilians killed.  We don't agree.  We have the luxury to disagree.  Patricia calls in her maid -- an indigenous Cuna woman -- and asks her to tell me what had happened to her cousin.  The maid stands away from the table and looks at the ground: "One night, he had been drinking, which he did a lot, and then he went out to drink some more and some U.S. soldiers shot him dead in the street.  It was after curfew."
 
Silence.
 
Patricia then asks "How did you and your family feel?"  The maid, eyes on the ground, says: "He deserved it, and his family thinks that he deserved it as well."  The maid is dismissed.  Patricia has made her point to me -‑ that it was a Just Cause invasion.  I say nothing, but I don't believe the maid.  And even if the maid were sincere, then how hateful it is, the propaganda, used and manipulated, such that a family and cousins will blame their brother and son because he went out in the streets of his country, drunk or not, and got shot by invading and occupying forces.
 
"We killed all those people. Shouldn't we do or say something, anything?"  [Chaim Potok, The Book of Lights]
 
January 31, 1990
Crimes, great and small
We are in a cemetery to photograph recent graves, whose headstones read: "In Memory, December 20, 1989."  The cemetery borders a disappeared neighborhood of El Chorrillos.  In broad daylight, at the entrance, three 13 or 14-year old boys swiftly and silently approach our group with sticks and a small knife.  I thought it was a joke and didn't have time to get scared before they robbed us and ran off with Sam's camera.
 
It is illegal for these boys to rob, it is immoral, ... but is it not illegal to blockade a small dependent country for over two years, creating unemployment, shortage, poverty and crime, and then invade and destroy, and deny that the dead ever existed?
 
Equality of treatment
A conversation with a North American friend comes to mind.  We had spoken in Costa Rica, just before I came to Panama; he was travelling through Central America and was mad because some guy on the street had given him a low black market exchange rate for his U.S. dollars: "That guy treated me that way just because I was a foreigner. I expect to be treated equally."
 
Why do we expect equal treatment, and what do we mean by it?  We don't treat other nations and their people equally.  The systems of wealth between and inside nations are not equal.  Is it so outrageous that someone will try to rip you off by giving you a lower exchange rate for your U.S. dollar? -- the very dollar that is helping render the local currency useless.
 
Is it so outrageous that, going into a cemetery in Panama after an invasion, three young boys might rob your camera?
 
May the children play
Heading north-west from Panama City towards Costa Rica, I sit at the back of an empty bus, window open, wind blowing away 10 days of testimonies from survivors of a massacre.  Crossing a river, I am happy, I am elated to see some kids in the river below.  They are happy, hooting and hollering, and they are not from Chorrillos.
 
"Be witness"
Driving north, I am tired of the testimonies and invasion tales.  In a university talk, I remember hearing a holocaust survivor say: "Be witness."  "Operation Just Cause": Do not let them turn deaths into fiction, blown‑out houses and day‑care centers into fantasy, mutilated people into imagination.  At a minimum, tell this tale.  The memory must live, for the sake of the dead.
 
"To allow any of them to pass into the comfort of forgetting would be utterly obscene."  [Thornton, Imagining Argentina]
 
The bus drives on, into the north-western mountains of Panama.  Snatches of some songs from a walkman: "My heart feels like a blister for doing what I do." (Leonard Cohen)  "I am very scared for this world, I am very scared for me." (REM)
 
Panama - April 1990
"The Garden of Peace"
In late December, 1989, at a place called the Garden of Peace, the U.S. military dumped 123 Panamanian bodies of Operation Just Cause invasion victims into a common grave; they did not bother to identify the cadavers, or advise the family members.
 

(CODEHUCA “This is the just cause” report, 1990)
 
'By mistake,' the U.S. Army buried one of their own soldiers there as well.  When they realized this, they dug up the pit, searched through the body bags, found the U.S. soldier, removed him and filled in the hole.  The cadaver was flown home, his family advised, and the soldier was given a hero's burial.
 
Meanwhile, Panamanian cadavers rot in anonymity.  They are 'other', to be "treated worse than dogs" a Panamanian woman told me.
 
"The Association of the Dead"
Family members of the murdered victims formed a civic association; not an association of little league baseball players, nor of bird watchers.  It is the Association of the Dead whose object is 'to dig up mass graves, try to identify cadavers, and give them decent burials.'
 

(CODEHUCA “This is the just cause” report, 1990)
 
On April 28, 1990, there was only sadness and mourning at the Garden of Peace.  The big pit was exhumed and all but eight of 123 cadavers were identified by family members and loved ones.  The Garden of Peace is one of approximately 14 mass graves in Panama.
 
Panama - July 1990
Life is the stuff that dreams are made of
I am in Panama to attend the exhumation of a mass grave where Panamanians were dumped by the U.S. military after last year's Operation Just Cause invasion.  Staying again the Hotel del Centro, that has seen better days, I lay awake, in the Panamanian heat, thinking, thinking, thinking, of tomorrow.  Finally, exhausted, I slept, and drempt of disappeared people.  As their bodies drifted by, or as I paraded by them, I noticed that all the cadavers were faceless.
 
This is an intentional function of the system of disappearances, like dumping the slain victims of unjust causes in unmarked pits.
 
"Hope Cemetery" - July 25, 1990
It is 6 a.m. and already I wish the day were over.  I accompany Panamanians from Panama City going to Colon to attend the digging up of a mass grave.  Body bags will be unzipped, decaying remains examined, to see if their loved ones are there -- killed and rotting.  Hide and seek.
 
In the Hope Cemetery, we are gathered around the John Deere back-ho that digs into the ground.  Hundreds of Panamanians peer into the ever widening pit.  Expectant loved ones and family members stand back, huddled together.  A man jumps in the hole and signals the back-ho driver to lower the shovel.  He grabs two black handles sticking out of the dirt, hooks them onto the teeth of the shovel, and signals the driver.
 
As everyone watches in silence, the shovel raises the body bags up into the air, two bags at a time.
 
Red shorts
Twenty-one body bags are hauled from the pit and laid side by side.  The smell of death and decay overwhelms; Red Cross workers scurry around handing out hospital masks.  After completing their preliminary work, the forensic doctors call the loved ones and family members forward, one by one, to try and identify the decomposed green and grey mass in the body bags that may or may not be their loved one.
 
 
(CODEHUCA “This is the just cause” report, 1990)

It is next to impossible to identify anything -- perhaps a gold tooth, or a pair of glasses are identifiable amongst the green and grey.  Despite the unlikelihood, the families line up one by one -- a ghastly, mournful procession.
 
A forensic doctor holds up a pair of shorts found on the cadaver of a six-year-old boy, and asks if anyone can identify them.  A woman collapses in tears, staring at the shorts of her nephew.  She later tells us that he and his mother had been shot by U.S. soldiers while they were driving in Colon.
 
Peace and hope
Four months ago, in the Garden of Peace Cemetery, the first mass grave was exhumed.  Today, in the Hope Cemetery, the second grave is exhumed.  There is neither hope nor peace for the family members and loved ones.
 
Life is the stuff that dreams are made of - July 27, 1990
In the heat of the Panama night, in the seen-better-days Hotel del Centro, I awoke smelling the cadavers from the bombed out apartment buildings and yesterday's mass grave.  In the dark, I felt around for my clothes and shoes, I smelled them, to try and detect the source of that deathly odour.  I couldn't smell it anywhere, anymore.  I took me a while to figure out that I could smell in my dreams.
 
Normalcy
A friend advises me: 'It would be a good thing to infuse some normalcy into your life."  But, I'm not so sure anymore what normal is.  For many in Central America, and elsewhere, a lot of horrible things are normal.
 
Video tapes
At the National University in Panama City, I find myself watching a video of the multi-faceted attack on the now disappeared neighbourhood of Chorrillos.  The U.S. Defence Department footage was filmed from a U.S. Air Force fighter plane bombing over-head during the attack, from a naval ship attacking from the harbour, from ground troops firing rockets and mortar shells.
 

(CODEHUCA “This is the just cause” report, 1990)
 
A bomber, flying above Chorrillos, looks into the computer controlled view-finder TV screen.  There!, the target finder honed in on a building far below.  The radar locks in.  A flick of a switch and the radar-programmed missile streaked down.  Boom -- lots of smoke and the building crumbled.  The bomber drinks from a soft-drink can.  And where are the Panamanians?
 
With ground troops on a hill overlooking burning Chorrillos, a U.S. soldier stands at the edge of the picture, looking over their handi-work: "Burn baby burn."  Another soldier:  "Obviously there are some die-hards down there!  Why don't they give themselves up .... Goddamn, they just don't give up, do they?"
 
No dead Panamanians appeared in the video.  And many Panamanians were killed.
 
"What horrified me the most was the bitter and futile struggle of the doomed to breathe for just one second more."  [Simone de Beauvoir, Forces of Circumstance]
 
"It happened, therefore it can happen again.  This is the core of what we have to say."  [Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved]
 
Human's colors
A much desired war is coming, in the sands of the Middle East, a war over pools of oil.  Much red blood will be splattered over the black oil.  The war will be fought in the name of international law, citing provisions and principles that were never respected in Nicaragua, Panama, Guatemala, ... .
 
******* / ******* / *******
 
The Panamanian struggle for truth and a measure of justice and reparations will continue, for many more years.  The U.S. government is not on the cusp of paying reparations, let alone admitting there was anything wrong with the invasion, let alone that there were any civilian victims.
 
The North American media is not on the cusp of admitting they misreported on the invasion – both why the U.S. invaded, and what happened.  The media will not admit they were complicit with covering up war crimes and crimes against humanity.
 
Please read and share this.  At a minimum, we remember.  And we rededicate ourselves to work and struggle for serious transformation of how we humans live together on this beautiful planet.
 
Grahame Russell
Toronto, Canada
grahame@rightsaction.org
 

(Grahame Russell is a non-practicing Canadian lawyer, adjunct professor at the UNBC (in Prince George) and director of Rights Action that funds and supports community, human rights and environmental defense struggles in Guatemala and Honduras, and supports education and activism work aimed at exposing and holding accountable U.S. and Canadian governments, companies and investors – and the U.S. military –, if and when they cause, directly or indirectly, the harms, violations and repression our partner groups are suffering and resisting.)
 
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