Deterring Democracy Copyright © 1991, 1992 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Chapter 5: The Post-Cold War Era Segment 11/15
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5. Good Intentions Gone Awry

In the months following the Panama invasion, the successful affair largely disappeared from view.62 U.S. goals had been achieved, the triumph had been properly celebrated, and there was little more to say except to record subsequent progress towards freedom, democracy, and good fortune -- or, if that strains credulity, to produce occasional musings on how the best of intentions go awry when we have such poor human material to work with.

Central American sources continued to give considerable attention to the impact of the invasion on civilians, but they were ignored in the occasional reviews of the matter here. New York Times correspondent Larry Rohter devoted a column to casualty estimates on April 1, citing figures as high as 673 killed, and adding that higher figures, which he attributes only to Ramsey Clark, are "widely rejected" in Panama. He found Panamanian witnesses who described U.S. military actions as restrained, but none with less happy tales.63

Among the many readily accessible sources deemed unworthy of mention we find such examples as the following.

The Mexican press reported that two Catholic Bishops estimated deaths at perhaps 3000. Hospitals and nongovernmental human rights groups estimated deaths at over 2000.64

A joint delegation of the Costa Rica-based Central American Human Rights Commission (CODEHUCA) and the Panamanian Human Rights Commission (CONADEHUPA) published the report of its January 20-30 inquiry, based on numerous interviews. It concluded that "the human costs of the invasion are substantially higher than the official U.S. figures" of 202 civilians killed, reaching 2-3000 according to "conservative estimates." Eyewitnesses interviewed in the urban slums report that U.S. helicopters aimed their fire at buildings with only civilian occupants, that a U.S. tank destroyed a public bus killing 26 passengers, that civilian residences were burned to the ground with many apartments destroyed and many killed, that U.S. troops shot at ambulances and killed wounded, some with bayonets, and denied access to the Red Cross. The Catholic and Episcopal Churches gave estimates of 3000 dead as "conservative." Civilians were illegally detained, particularly union leaders and those considered "in opposition to the invasion or nationalistic." "All the residences and offices of the political sectors that oppose the invasion have been searched and much of them have been destroyed and their valuables stolen." The U.S. imposed severe censorship. Human rights violations under Noriega had been "unacceptably high," the report continues, though of course "mild compared with the record of U.S.-supported regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador." But the U.S invasion "caused an unprecedented level of deaths, suffering, and human rights abuses in Panama." The title of the report is: "Panama: More than an invasion,... a massacre."65

Physicians for Human Rights, with the concurrence of Americas Watch, reached tentative casualty figures higher than those given by the Pentagon but well below those of CODEHUCA and others in Panama. Their estimate is about 300 civilians killed. Americas Watch also gives a "conservative estimate" of at least 3000 wounded, concluding further that civilian deaths were four times as great as military deaths in Panama, and over ten times as high as U.S. casualties (officially given as 23). They ask: "How does a `surgical operation' result in almost ten civilians killed (by official U.S. count) for every American military casualty? By September, the count of bodies exhumed from several of the mass graves had passed 600.66

The CODEHUCA report emphasizes that a great deal is uncertain, because of the violent circumstances, the incineration of bodies, and the lack of records for persons buried in common graves without having reached morgues or hospitals, according to eyewitnesses.67 Its reports, and the many others of which a few have been cited here, may or may not be accurate. A media decision to ignore them, however, reflects not professional standards but a commitment to power.

While Larry Rohter's visits to the slums destroyed by U.S. bombardment located only celebrants, or critics of U.S. "insensitivity" at worst, others found a rather different picture. Mexico's leading newspaper reported in April that Rafael Olivardia, refugee spokesman for the 15,000 refugees of the devastated El Chorrillo neighborhood, "said that the El Chorillo refugees were victims of a `bloodbath' during and after the invasion." "He said that those victims `saw North American tanks roll over the dead' during the invasion that left a total of more than 2000 dead and thousands injured, according to unofficial figures." "You only live once," Olivardia said, "and if you must die fighting for an adequate home, then the U.S. soldiers should complete the task they began" on December 20.

The Spanish language press in the United States was less celebratory than its colleagues. Vicky Pelaez reports from Panama that "the entire world continues in ignorance about how the thousands of victims of the Northamerican invasion of Panama died and what kinds of weapons were used, because the Attorney-General of the country refuses to permit investigation of the bodies buried in the common graves." An accompanying photo shows workmen exhuming corpses from a grave containing "almost 200 victims of the invasion." Quoting a woman who found the body of her murdered father, Pelaez reports that "just like the woman at the cemetery, it is `vox populi' in Panama that the Northamericans used completely unknown armaments during the 20 December invasion." The head of a Panamanian human rights group informed the journal that:

They converted Panama into a laboratory of horror. Here, they first experimented with methods of economic strangulation; then they successfully used a campaign of disinformation at the international level. But it was in the application of the most modern war technology that they demonstrated infernal mastery.
The CODEHUCA report also alleges that "the U.S. Army used highly sophisticated weapons -- some for the first time in combat -- against unarmed civilian populations," and "in many cases no distinction was made between civilian and military targets."68
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62 In the mainstream, that is. See, however, Alexander Cockburn, Nation, Jan. 29, 1990, and subsequent articles of his.

63 Rohter, "Panama and U.S. Strive to Settle on Death Toll," NYT, April 1, 1990.

64 Excelsior-AFP, Jan. 27, cited in Latin America News Update (LANU), March 1990; Mesoamerica (Costa Rica), May 1990; CAR, March 2, 1990.

65 Brecha, CODEHUCA, "Report of Joint CODEHUCA-CONADEHUPA delegation," Jan.-Feb. 1990, San José.

66 See Physicians for Human Rights, "`Operation Just Cause': The Medical Cost of Military Action in Panama," Boston, March 15, 1990; Americas Watch, Laws of War and the Conduct of the Panama Invasion. CAR, Sept. 7, 1990.

67 See CODEHUCA letter to Americas Watch, June 5, 1990, commenting on the Americas Watch report.

68 Excelsior (Mexico City), April 14, 1990; Central America NewsPak, Austin Texas. Pelaez, El Diario-La Prensa, May 7, 1990.