As an 8 year old at the time of the US invasion of Panama in 1989, I have to confess to having been completely unaware of the subject matter of this 1992 Oscar winning documentary prior to sitting down to view it. Directed by Barbara Trent who’s IMDB resumÃ© only runs to four feature films, all of which cover countries in central America, it is a very one sided piece once it gets past the scene setting of the opening 20 minutes.
For those in a similar situation to myself, a quick prÃ©cis of the invasion (hopefully without any bias) goes as follows: Following completion of the Panama canal in 1914, the United States controlled the ‘Panama Canal Zone’ – an area of Panama that ran approximately five miles beyond each side of the canal. Until 1979, the canal was under the sole control of the US and then until 1999 was under joint US-Panamanian control. In 1977, the Torrijos-Carter treaty was signed which paved the way for Panama to take sole control of the canal from 31st December 1999.
In 1983, following a military coup, Manuel Noriega became the de facto Panamanian leader and having been a paid CIA informant since 1967, this created a large tactical advantage to the US. Over the following three years, theUSknowingly turned a blind eye to high levels of drug trafficking and allowed him to launder drug money whilst protecting the main dealers from the US Drug Enforcement Agency. When relations turned sour after the New York Times publicly exposed Noriega as part of the Iran-Contra Affair (in which the US secretly sold arms to the embargoed country of Iran), Reagan indicted him in the US judicial system on various drugs charges. With a weak extradition treaty between the two countries, Noriega had no credible threat from the indictments and remained in power.
With the Panamanian Defence Force (PDF) unsuccessfully attempting to overthrow Noriega from within, and deadly incidents occurring regularly involving US personnel in Panama, a massive offensive to oust Noriega was launched on the country on 20th December 1989 by over 27,500 military troops. Along with the primary focus to remove Noriega from power, the US also aimed to disband the PDF in order to break the treaty on the grounds that Panama could not possibly defend the canal successfully if it had no effective armed force to do so. Control would therefore have to remain with the US, thus retaining their tactical outpost bridging the North and South Americas.
Based on this documentary, what followed was the loss of 20,000 peoples’ homes, the killing of hundreds of Panamanian civilians and the swearing in of new, unelected political leaders appointed by the US. The Panamanian death toll is purported to have been between 2,500 and 4,000 (the Pentagon’s official report states 516) and the refugees that resulted were left in a battered country in large overcrowded and unsanitary camps.
How much of what really happened is very unclear due to media censorship in the days directly after the invasion. All the US military and political personnel interviewed play it down as if the toll on the Panamanian people was not particularly great but eye witness testimonies speak of executions by the US military on unarmed civilians in the street and other such atrocities the truth of which will likely never be known.
The slant of the documentary heavily favours the Panamanian story as one would expect given the film maker and the truth perhaps lies somewhere between the two sides. The problem is that without a properly balanced view, the film suffers from veering into propaganda territory much of the time and becomes a little tiresome. Whilst the aftermath footage clearly shows the terrible circumstances civilians were left in, what happened during the actual invasion is something of a mystery and leaves the most important questions unanswered.