The right wing financial and political masterminds behind the 1989 US invasion of Panama are exposed in this commentary. FC&B analyzes the Corporatocracy's direct involvement in 20th century Latin American politics, inspired by information from John Perkins' "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man," and "the Secret History of the American Empire."
If you've read the first installment of this series, you would have read all about the nasty, manipulative cards we've dealt the rest of the world. You've read about the tight alliance between the heads of the power elite; international banking cartels, private corporations, and elected officials. And you've read just a little bit on how we've managed to pull this off for fifty years. In this essay, I'll be delving deeper into the dirty details of the dastardly doings we've been doling to destitute democracies and dictatorships.
Sorry, that was a little too much alliteration. I digress.
So, a quick review, if you haven't read the beastly long piece that precedes this one (this one will be longer). I'll first give credit to John Perkins and his book "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man," which has provided me with much of the information I'm proliferating to my readers. As a consultant for the private consulting firm Chas T. Main (MAIN), Perkins was key to forwarding what he calls global imperial interests. His role was to provide inflated economic forecasts to justify gargantuan loans to small countries from international banking cartels like the IMF, World Bank, and USAID. Once these loans were shackled to their respective countries, engineers from MAIN would proceed to design and build large-scale infrastructure projects that were meant only to help the most fortunate 1% of the populace, while these projects took their toll on the land of the peasants and farmers. Forests would be leveled, streams would be filled, waters would be polluted, and homes would be destroyed for the power lines and roads that MAIN's engineers were commissioned to do.
Most people would say, "Wait a minute, now. Isn't infrastructure good for growth? Isn't an electric grid and phone line system beneficial and essential for economic progress and industrialization? Don't these projects create jobs for people?" (Don't worry, I did too when I first read Perkins' book.)
The answer is yes, of course. For any nation to industrialize, it needs massive infrastructure to do so, or else it will languish and fall ever behind the steady pace of progress. However, these projects didn't create local jobs, nor did they help the populace rise out of poverty, nor did they provoke progress. The deal MAIN (and countless other multinational corporations) usually has with world leaders is that they play by America's rules. Meaning American contractors do the design, American banks provide the money, and American workers are paid that money to do work in foreign countries, so America will benefit at the expense of the host country. These massive infrastructure projects usually don't provide practical use for a good 99% of the population in most of these countries, so it only really improves the lives of the corrupt leaders who agreed to such terms and the wealthy families who control the politics.
Gee, that sounds a lot like imperialism, don't it?
America was founded by people who had a better dream- one where all men were created equal, where it was believed wrong to exploit people for the benefit of others. America was founded as a sanctuary in the midst of an oppressive empire built on the feudal system. And, with the diabolical imperialistic machine that American banks, CEOs, and politicians now depend upon, that same system of feudalism is ever prevalent in society today. There are social and economic castes that certain people fall into. The king and his barons are at the top, controlling business and politics. The knights fall beneath them; the soldiers who benefit by doing the bidding of the kings and barons. And, of course, underneath the knights, there lie the serfs. The serfs are the majority of the poor who make their living by serving the rich. Making just enough to get by, the serfs of the feudal era performed tasks that can now be done easily by machines, and barely had enough to put food on the table, let alone afford a doctor or proper schooling for their families.
Doesn't this sound too familiar? It isn't obvious to see that the American Dream envisioned by our Founding Fathers has been corrupted into the imperialistic, feudalistic travesty that we see today. Instead of freedom and equality for all, the world, and indeed much of the American population, has been reduced to serf status, working only to live paycheck to paycheck, earning just enough by serving the elite. The media shamelessly hammers "The American Dream" into our skulls, teaching us to idolize those who take and consume without regard for others, and to venerate the selfishness required by these loathsome individuals that allowed them to prosper as they have. Our incentive for this dream is the image of a large, expansive mansion, complete with a five-car garage stocked with expensive vehicles, and a lifestyle of excessive consumption and consumerism. That American Dream, sadly, has come true. And it's up to us to dream a new dream and make that into reality. This new dream will be discussed in the fourth and final installment of this series.
Now, let's get down to business. I was talking about how we shamelessly exploit other countries for our own selfish gain, right? Panama will serve as a fine first example.
During the spice trading days, the old empires of Europe sought the lands of Asia and the Indian peninsula, as it was rumored a man's yearly wages could be realized with a handful of Saffron or Cardamom. Columbus found the West Indes, and North and South America were also soon discovered. But Asia lay beyond the Americas, and one was required to suffer the ordeal of sailing all the way around South America, to the tip of Argentina, before going back around to the other side of the American continent. This was where Panama came in.
Panama is at the center of the Americas- it is the bridge between the Central American strip and South America. Finally, in 1914, after some failed excavation by the French, Teddy Roosevelt and the good ol' USA blasted away enough land to create the present Panama Canal, which finally connected the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Panama was still under control of Colombia, so Roosevelt encouraged Panamanians to revolt with US support.
After they claimed independence, Panama happily sold the Panama Canal Zone rights to the US government for $10 million. Oddly enough, this deal was struck between a Frenchman and the Americans, and not one Panamanian signed the treaty that did it.
So basically, under dubious means, the United States had secured legal control of the most valuable and prized piece of real estate in all of world history. Even today, the Canal remains a staple trade route for most of the world's shipping.
The canal remained under US control for decades- we had built a military base in the Canal Zone, which was, as Perkins described, a world within a world. While Panamanians lived in abject poverty under the oppressive Arias regime that we had supported for many years, American military families in the Canal Zone lived in pristine conditions and enjoyed unprecedented luxury. There were several 18-hole golf courses, movie theaters, lavish restaurants catering to gourmand customers, lush houses, neatly-paved roads, and plenty of electricity and running water. Several prominent Americans were born in the Canal Zone, including US senator and GOP presidential hopeful John McCain.
No Panama native had dared challenge the system, or ask for the wealth the canal provided to Americans be provided to Panamanians until General Omar Torrijos came along. And he would prove to be a very nasty problem for the American establishment.
At this point in history, world hegemony was divided between the Capitalist USA and the Communist USSR. Usually, if a nation wanted to challenge the American establishment, they allied themselves with the Soviets, as Salvador Allende did in Chile. However, Torrijos chose instead to simply declare Panama a sovereign nation, rather than an imperial subject. After overthrowing the Arias family in a bloodless coup, Torrijos demanded Americans pack up and leave Panama. He included the Canal as part of Panama, and cited recent history in his claim that Panamanians never had a say in the control of their own Canal in the first place. As a former member of the impoverished class in Panama, Torrijos was incredibly popular among his people. Being the leader of the country housing the world's most valuable piece of property, both Torrijos and the USA knew the world was watching; others could take Torrijos' example and rise against the imperial American establishment. America knew this, and planned to make an example of Omar Torrijos.
John Perkins worked for MAIN at this point, and exploiting Panama by forecasting inflated figures was his next assignment. Perkins had been absorbing Panamanian culture and milling about with the natives in Panama City, learning about why Panamanians had hated his home country. He began to see the error in the reasoning of his superiors at this point, and was reluctant to exploit a people so ruthlessly for the sake of capital gain.
When Perkins sat down with Torrijos, the general agreed to allow the loans for the infrastructure projects go through, but only if they actually helped his people. Torrijos had integrity, and refused to be corrupted with promises of fortune. Perkins was smitten by the general's honesty and candor, and agreed to forecast honest figures, and see that the projects built reached into the slums and ghettos of Panama, providing people with adequate electricity and clean water. Torrijos was pleased, and while his supervisors at MAIN grumbled about the low forecasts, Perkins' conscience was somewhat assuaged.
In the meantime, Jimmy Carter had agreed with Torrijos' wishes to give the Canal back to Panama, and the highly controversial Panama Canal Treaty was finally ratified by congress by just one vote. Panama finally had the rights to her own canal. As Perkins attested, conservatives swore revenge.
This all changed in January of 1981, when Ronald Reagan, the champion of the right, was sworn in as POTUS. Capitalizing on Jimmy Carter's failed handling of the Iranian Mullah Revolution, the resulting hostage situation, and the failed rescue attempt, Reagan ran on a campaign that swore to re-assert US dominance, bring democracy to Iran, and get the Panama Canal back under US ownership. Ronald Reagan sought to re-negotiate the Canal Treaty with Omar Torrijos as quickly as he had removed Jimmy Carter's solar panels from the White House. Torrijos adamantly refused to surrender any control of the Canal to US interests, and instead sought to expand the canal in a massive construction project with Japanese contractors. I'll explain why this was such an outrage to Reagan and his crew.
Perkins aptly noted in "Confessions" that he found it fitting Reagan was a former actor in Hollywood; someone used to cowering to the wishes of directors, agents, financial backers, and studio moguls to get the finished product just right. Reagan would serve as an excellent puppet to the Corporatocracy. This was made more obvious with the appointments of Caspar Weinberger as Secretary of Defense and former CIA director George H. Bush as Vice President.
Caspar Weinberger was the former director of the Bechtel corporation (the biggest American multinational contractor) in San Francisco before joining the Reagan administration. Bechtel was usually awarded the contracts for projects designed by MAIN's engineers. It would very much hurt Bechtel's wealth and dominance of the contracting market if the new canal construction went to Japanese companies.
John Perkins mentioned how the "jackals" (CIA agents) were always waiting in the shadows of exploited countries if Economic Hit Men failed. When EHMs fell short of their duties, world leaders tended to die in fiery plane crashes or violent collisions. I mentioned in part 1 of this series how we had propped up violent, authoritarian regimes with the help of the School of the Americas and CIA-orchestrated coups, such as the ones in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile. When Torrijos refused to cower to the new American powers, the American powers struck back.
In July of 1981, just six months after Reagan's inauguration, Omar Torrijos' plane exploded in midair. This was just shortly after Ecuadorian populist Jaime Roldos, who also challenged American imperialism, suffered the exact same fate. It has been widely speculated that the CIA used Manuel Noriega, Torrijos' eventual replacement, in equipping the general's plane with a bomb planted inside a tape recorder.
With Torrijos out of the picture, Noriega now ruled Panama. While at first keeping the legacy of his predecessor alive, Noriega quickly began acting as a double agent working for the CIA. We turned a blind eye to his drug trafficking as he worked to advance the Corporatocracy's interests in Panama. The jackals, as Perkins stated, were working in Panama all along. The evidence was overwhelming.
After 8 years of Ronald Reagan, Americans once again elected a member of the Corporatocracy as their leader. The former CIA director and Vice President took control of the White House in 1989, and immediately was branded a "wimp" by the media. This was largely attributed to his kindly old man image, the existence of the USSR still as a world hegemon, and his inability to stand up to President Reagan during the controversial Iran-Contra affair (to be discussed later).
Although his drug trafficking was always known to us, the United States didn't act against Manuel Noriega until we discovered he was backing the Sandinista freedom fighters in Nicaragua, as they fought the oppressive right wing Somoza dynasty backed by the CIA (and Jimmy Carter's adminstration). Ironically, under the Orwellian-esque title "Operation Just Cause," touting our ideals of freedom, democracy, liberty, and equality, we bombed Panama City with force not seen since World War II. We did this to topple a regime that had been funding a progressive cause that championed populist ideals of freedom and democracy. Operation Just Cause killed thousands of innocent men, women, and children, and destroyed the homes of thousands and thousands of others. Panama in 1989, much like Iraq in 2003, was a country that had done nothing at all to threaten our freedom, our ideals, or our way of life. The operation was meant solely to capture one man, Manuel Noriega, who had been a puppet of the CIA for years.
(Modern-day comparisons can also be made to Saddam Hussein and Iraq- Hussein had been working for the CIA in the 1960s, and we had even helped him gain leadership of the country after his first two failed attempts at a coup.)
Operation Just Cause had sparked global outrage. It was unequivocally seen as a blatant violation of international law. And, not more than a year after the Panama debacle, George Bush had the audacity to accuse Saddam Hussein of unjustly invading Kuwait and violating international laws. Irony, it seems, is lost on the Bush family. And as recent years have shown us, those who have failed to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Needless to say, after we had bombed Panama's capital and brought it's leader to our soil as a prisoner of war, the influential and corrupt Arias family gained power once more. Whatever the Canal Treaty had influenced while Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos were in power, it was all rendered irrelevant by the Bush administration. Panama was once again reigned by a puppet government acting in our interests. The Corporatocracy had silenced their opponents in several bold, violent moves. We had indeed made an example of Omar Torrijos and those who dared defy our imperial wishes.
Panama is just one example of how corporate skullduggery, corrupt politics, and ruthless greed have secured a global empire for the United States. In the next essay of this series, I'll focus on Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Latin America, and how such a big part of the world was subjugated under the thumb of US interests.