WORLD

BRUTE POLITICS

A DISPUTED ELECTION AND STREET VIOLENCE IN PANAMA BRINGS A SWIFT U.S. RESPONSE

ANDREW BILSKI May 22 1989
WORLD

BRUTE POLITICS

A DISPUTED ELECTION AND STREET VIOLENCE IN PANAMA BRINGS A SWIFT U.S. RESPONSE

ANDREW BILSKI May 22 1989

Clouds of tear gas hovered over the Panama City street where an anti-government protester lay last week in a pool of blood. Someone had draped a political opposition banner over the man’s body—a macabre warning to anyone who may have forgotten that in Panama, despite periodic elections, brute force continues to be the language of political discourse. Moments earlier on May 10, the street had been lined with cheering supporters of the three opposition leaders who had challenged Gen. Manuel Noriega, 53, Panama’s de facto ruler, to accept their apparent victory in the May 7 presidential election. But Noriega’s reply was unequivocal. Members of a paramilitary gang waded into the crowd of demonstrators, attacking the opposition leaders and their supporters with clubs and iron bars as government soldiers looked the other way. Bleeding profusely from a head wound, presidential candidate Guillermo Endara barely escaped with his life. Then, a Noriega-appointed tribunal nullified the elections, and the next day President George Bush dispatched 1,881 troops to support the nearly 11,000-strong American military presence in the country.

The tribunal declared the elections null and void because of the “obstructionist action” of foreign observers. A progovernment coalition had earlier declared victory, but international observers maintained that the opposition had in fact won by a landslide. Noriega’s attempts to manipulate the results—and his regime’s brutal response to opposition protests—presented Bush with a key foreign policy test. He responded at week’s end by publicly urging the Panamanian people to overthrow Noriega. “They should do everything to get him out of office,” the President said. “The will of the people should be implemented.”

Earlier in the week, following a May 11 meeting with congressional leaders, Bush announced that he was sending the additional troops (they began arriving the next day) in order “to protect the lives of American citizens.” About 51,000 Americans are living in Panama, roughly 21,000 of them private businessmen or military retirees, the rest members of U.S. military forces, their dependents, civilian defence department staff, and employees of the Panama Canal Commission. Bush also recalled Ambassador Arthur Davis and ordered government employees and military dependents to either leave the country or move to the safety of U.S. military bases along the canal. And he extended existing economic sanctions against Panama.

In addition, the President vowed to use “regional diplomacy” to remove Noriega and called on Panama’s military to desert its discredited leader. “The United States stands with the Panamanian, people,” said Bush. “We share their hope that the Panamanian Defence Forces will stand with them and fulfil their constitutional obligation to defend democracy.” In Ottawa, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark announced that, to protest the irregular vote, Canada’s ambassador and consular staff in Costa Rica—who are accredited to Panama—will reduce the number of diplomatic visits to Panama City.

Hundreds of international observers in Panama last week unanimously condemned the election as a fraud. Following a meeting with Bush in Washington on May 9, Democratic Representative John Murtha of Pennsylvania—who had led a bipartisan congressional observer team to Panama—said that “we saw such widespread irregularities and actual fraud that we didn’t see any way it could be a free and fair election.” Fellow observer Republican Senator Connie Mack of Florida said that he had witnessed “overwhelming support for the opposition” during the election. He also charged that soldiers were allowed to cast multiple votes because, unlike average Panamanians, they were not assigned to a specific polling station.

But the harshest criticism of Noriega came from former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, who was in Panama as co-chairman of a private international observer delegation. Unlike Bush’s official observer group, which many Panamanians regard as biased and meddling, Carter is well respected in the Central American country because he signed the 1977 Panama Canal Treaties, which turn the strategic waterway linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans over to Panamanian control by the year 2000. Last week, Carter called for “a worldwide outcry of condemnation against a dictator who stole this election from his own people.” He said that he had seen voting documents that showed the opposition had won the election by a three-to-one margin. But he charged that the original tally sheets “were stolen during the night, some at gunpoint.” Carter added that “totally counterfeit records” showing Noriega’s handpicked presidential candidate, Carlos Duque, in the lead were substituted for the authentic ones.

Duque's campaign had cost a staggering $47 million, roughly $40 per registered voter. “We control the best-organized political machine in this country,” boasted Aquilino Boyd, one of Duque’s two vice-presidential running mates. “We are unbeatable.” On May 7, according to international observers and journalists, that political machine employed fraud, intimidation and theft to protect its investment. Duque’s Coalition for National Liberation (COLINA) commandeered nearly every bus in the country. Armed with multiple voting cards, COLINA supporters were driven from one polling station to another, casting ballots several times. Many opposition supporters were left with the option of either staying at home or walking great distances to vote. But the strategy failed: international election observers reported a strong opposition turnout at the polls.

The day after the election, as the government released partial poll results heavily favoring Duque, violent clashes erupted in the streets of the capital. Riot police fired shotguns and automatic rifles to disperse thousands of opposition supporters who were marching to demand that the government concede defeat. In the ensuing melee, unidentified gunmen shot and wounded three people, including a local television cameraman.

But the worst violence occurred two days later on May 10. At an opposition demonstration in the old sector of the capital, police used water cannons and tear gas to halt a motorcade carrying Endara and his two vice-presidential running mates, Ricardo Arias Calderón and Guillermo Ford. Witnesses later said that police ordered Endara out of his vehicle and told him to “go home.” Suddenly, about 50 members of the Dignity Battalion—a civilian militia corps set up by Noriega—emerged from a side street and waded into demonstrators with clubs and iron bars.

Shouting “traitors, traitors,” they clubbed several demonstrators to the ground while the rest fled in panic. Uniformed riot police at first stood by, then fired rifles into the air and shot tear gas and bird shot into the crowd. The militia beat Endara and Arias Calderón, and witnesses saw Ford—covered in blood—taken away in a police vehicle. U.S. Ambassador Davis said that one of Endara’s bodyguards was killed in the fighting; a Panamanian armed forces spokesman said that opposition bodyguards shot to death four soldiers and critically injured another. Later, in a Panama City hospital, Endara showed reporters the stitches in his battered scalp. “They beat me in the head with an iron bar,” he said from his wheelchair. “I blame Noriega for everything bad that has happened in the Republic of Panama.”

The crisis began in June, 1987, when a military associate of Noriega accused the general of involvement in drug trafficking and the assassinations of political opponents. It deepened last year when then-President Ronald Reagan sought to oust Noriega—through economic sanctions—after two Florida grand juries indicted the general on drug smuggling and racketeering charges in February, 1988. Then, when Panamanian President Eric Arturo Delvalle tried to depose Noriega as commander of the Panamanian Defence Forces (PDF), Noriega ousted his former colleague and replaced him with Manuel Solis Palma, whom Washington refused to recognize as Panama’s legitimate ruler.

White House and Pentagon officials last week played down suggestions of armed intervention. A U.S. general directly involved in the military planning for Panama told Maclean’s, “The last thing we need to do is bomb and invade.” He added: “It would only take a skirmish to defeat Panama’s army. But we would be breaking laws and helping Noriega paint us to Latin American countries, which also want to get rid of him, as the old Yankee imperialists.” National security adviser Brent Scowcroft, too, seemed to discount the possibility of actual combat between U.S. and Panamanian forces. Describing Noriega, Scowcroft said, “He’s a thug, but he clearly operates with some prudence when he has to.”

Bush’s cautious path through a diplomatic minefield won praise from U.S. liberals and conservatives alike. Leaders from both parties issued a joint statement commending Bush’s “measured and deliberate steps” to restore democracy in Panama. Analysts said that by sending a relatively small number of troop reinforcements and by stressing the need for multilateral diplomatic pressure against Noriega, Bush was attempting to redefine the conflict as one of democracy versus dictatorship—rather than as the United States against Panama, as it had been seen under Reagan. Said former White House aide Robert Hunter: “It’s a pretty enlightened approach. No more Mr. Gringo.”

But the besieged Panamanian leadership accused Washington of aggression. Darinel Espino, secretary general of the ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party, charged that “President Bush has practically invoked a state of war.” He also raised the sensitive sovereignty issue, adding, “We Panamanians are capable of solving our own problems.” That sentiment was echoed by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, whose leftist Sandinista government has been under attack by U.S.-backed contra rebels since 1981. “What the Bush administration has done is absolutely illegal under the UN charter,” said Ortega from Dublin, at the end of a 10-day European tour. “It is absolutely inadmissible to resort to the use or threat of use of force.”

At the same time, the immediate reaction of U.S. allies in Latin America was decidedly muted. At least seven governments in the region condemned the fraudulent election and Noriega’s violent suppression of opposition protesters. But in light of Washington’s recent history of military intervention in the region—in Grenada in 1983 and in Nicaragua throughout the 1980s—many Latin leaders were less than enthusiastic about the prospect of an increased U.S. military presence in Panama.

On May 10, a carefully worded statement on behalf of the so-called Group of Eight—Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Uruguay and Peru—said that member states defended the principle of nonintervention and self-determination. It added, “We ratify our conviction that the best defence of the interests of the nations and peoples of Latin America is achieved with free and unrestricted popular will, expressed without obstacles of any kind.” (The eighth member of the group, Panama, was suspended last year after Noriega defied an order by then-President Delvalle to resign as commander of the PDF.) And at a session of the Permanent Council of the 31-nation Organization of American States in Washington last week, Latin ambassadors expressed concern over events in Panama but withheld strong condemnation. They unanimously agreed to meet again on May 17 to debate the issue. Even Endara himself, speaking a week before the vote was held, had said that he would be “totally against” U.S. military intervention to remove Noriega. “If the only reason were to get Noriega out,” he said, “I would prefer Noriega to stay.”

At week’s end, as the first of 70 planeloads of U.S. troops began arriving at Howard Air Base in Panama, opposition leaders vowed to continue their efforts to be officially recognized as the nation’s legitimate rulers. But despite the brave rhetoric of the politicians who insisted that democracy must ultimately prevail, there was a growing sense of desperation and helplessness among many average Panamanians. With the official annulment of the elections by Noriega, the last pillar of Panama’s democratic facade had crumbled, exposing the naked reality of life under a military dictatorship.