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Central America

Voters Reverse Panama Invasion Verdict

By Eric Jackson

 

On May 8 most Panamanian voters marked their ballots for presidential candidates critical of the December 1989 U.S. invasion. One third of the electorate opted for the Pueblo Unido coalition, headed by the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) which General Manuel Antonio Noriega once dominated. In a seven-way race, this was enough to win the presidential chair for the PRD's Ernesto "Toro" Perez Balladares.

The election wasn't fought over the invasion, but hinged on the inability of old oligarchy<197>which the invaders re-imposed after 21 years out of power<197>to run Panama. Pueblo Unido's catchy campaign song began "No importa tu color ni tu apellido" (Your color or your surname don't matter). It was a devastating criticism of a regime whose first cabinet included 22 white males and a black woman, in a country where whites make up about 7 percent of the population. The reference to surnames was about the restored power of a couple of dozen intermarried families, whose sons used to be presidents and whose daughters were carnival queens.

But the "born to rule" crowd blew it. In the worst barrios, boys ran in vicious street gangs and men fought vultures for feeding places at dumpsters, all amid the stench of rotting garbage, raw sewage, auto exhausts, and burning crack. Even the Paitilla Medical Center, the private hospital in Panama City's banking district where rich people go for treatment, had a river of raw sewage flowing past it. The electricity, phones, and water kept going out. Transportation networks and buildings which Panama got under the 1977 canal treaties deteriorated and were often abandoned. Well-connected business interests snapped up reverted canal-area real estate at pennies on the dollar. Forests, wetlands, and wildlife disappeared. A new set of drug smugglers paid off new officials, as it was done under Noriega. After over four years of this, people wanted change.

Thus Torrijismo, the social reforming tradition founded by the late General Omar Torrijos, found an opening for its comeback. Right after the invasion, it didn't seem possible. The soldiers who dominated the PRD were in custody, the party's offices had been systematically destroyed and its files had been taken to the United States.

But the PRD's civilian members reorganized and democratized the party. A handful of PRD deputies gave spirited opposition in the legislature. Noriega, the CIA's erstwhile thug, was denounced as a traitor to the party and the nation. The PRD played up memories of Torrijos, who legalized labor unions, promoted the growth of a multi-racial technical and professional middle class and improved housing, education, and health care for the poor.

In a party primary<197>unlike all the other parties' backroom nominating processes<197>the PRD chose Toro Perez Balladares as its candidate. A 46-year-old millionaire former bank executive who served as minister of planning, head of the electric company, and minister of treasury and finance under Torrijos, Toro was educated at Notre Dame and Wharton.

Though the winning party has "revolutionary" in its name, it calls itself social democratic. The PRD platform promised jobs through road-building, wise use of bases and canal assets to be returned to Panama, and privatization of some public enterprises. Toro wants Panama to join NAFTA. Bill Clinton might have espoused such policies.

By the February deadline to form presidential slates, the coalition that had come to power with the U.S. invasion had split into three hostile factions. Then there were a bunch of new parties, some founded on extremely narrow social bases. Two were founded by the heads of rival breweries. Another was based in the Assemblies of God.

The strongest new party was Papa Egoro (Mother Earth in the indigenous Emera language). This green movement was founded by Ruben Blades, the salsa musician and actor. Blades, who has a law degree from the University of Panama and an LLM from Harvard, spent over 17 years in the United States, returning to Panama after the invasion. As a young lawyer, Blades did prisoners' rights work in Panama, and while abroad he helped to organize Amnesty International's global "Conspiracy of Hope" concert tour. Though he quietly helped victims of Noriega's repression, he was one of the invasion's harshest critics.

In mid-April it looked like Blades might catch Perez Balladeres. Polls had him a few points behind and rising fast. But then came a series of strident attacks, many of them totally scurrilous. The PRD attacked Blades for marrying a U.S. citizen. The pro-invasion parties accused him of ties to Noriega's G-2 intelligence unit. Both the PRD and the pro-invasion parties called Blades a communist, and dismissed him as too inexperienced to be president. Papa Egoro's argument that development must be decentralized, based on an inventory of national resources and planned in a way that takes environmental impacts into account was taken as the lack of a jobs policy.

In the end, Blades and Toro ran neck and neck in the capital city and San Miguelito, the latter a 1960s squatter camp that grew into a city of a quarter of a million. Papa Egoro also did well in Colon, the squalid city at the canal's Atlantic entrance where 60 percent are unemployed. But on election day the PRD and President Endara's Arnulfista party had well-organized "get out the vote" machines across the country, while Papa Egoro had nothing of the sort. With the exception of occasional pockets of support<197>such as on the Embera reservation<197>Blades wasn't a contender in the rural areas. With about 18 percent of the vote and six seats in the legislature, Papa Egoro ended up as the third force in Panamanian politics, with five years to mature into a stronger threat in the next national elections.

Even if there was no revolution, Panama's elections will have a profound regional effect. For all of his moderate stands, Toro insists on a sovereign and independent Panama. That includes sticking to the letter of the 1977 treaties, which call for the complete withdrawal of the U.S. Southern Command's 14 military bases by the end of 1999.

Most of the bases are closing anyway, due to Washington's budget. About half of the 10,000 U.S. military personnel are leaving Panama this year. But the plan is to withdraw to "Horoko," a complex just west of the Pacific canal entrance, which includes Howard Air Force Base, the Rodman naval facilities and Ft. Kobbe, a U.S. Army installation. These bases give U.S. forces the ability to quickly strike deep into South America. Military missions to Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia, larger than people in the states know, make Howard a busy place these days. The Central American wars of the 80s were also largely supplied from Howard and directed by Panama-based U.S. Army advisors.

Most pro-invasion parties wanted a new treaty to allow U.S. military bases, and the economic benefits that come with them, to stay. Though polls had most Panamanians agreeing, it wasn't a winning election issue. Candidates who promised it got trounced.

No PRD government will agree to a bases treaty. By the end of Toro's five year term, the bases will have but four months left to stay. Most of the jobs, and the soldiers who pay high rents to Panama City landlords, are likely to be a distant memory by then. Although the 1999 elections will give Washington another chance to arrange things to save Horoko, it seems that the principle staging area for U.S. military intervention in Latin America will be leaving.

Ask any PRD member, or a lot of Panamanians who aren't, and you will be told that the December 1989 invasion was about bases, not drugs or democracy. When one considers the Reagan and Bush administrations' call for a "more realistic" Panama bases policy, massive political arrests, and firings by the Endara government and the increased post-invasion drug trade, there's a lot of supporting evidence for this argument.

If bases were what it was all about, then history books need to be rewritten to reflect political reality. George Bush lost his war against Panama after all.