Logo Click BACK to return to Basecamp
Lost Teachers
Search Info
White beveled edge

Meet Stephen

Stephen Archive

Cool Links
An Interview with Barbara Trent

Use Media to Make a Difference



Read at Your Own Risk: What the US Does Not Want You to Know about Panama


Adventures with a Big Red Chair

Four days before Christmas in 1989, Barbara Trent was feeling distrustful. When she turned on her television that morning, she watched President George Bush announce that he had deployed over 20,000 US troops to Panama in order to arrest President Manuel Noriega and overthrow his government.

When Barbara started to think about the number of military forces being sent to that small Central American country, she knew that the US must have had another agenda, and she knew that Americans had the right to know why their military was being sent. She made a few phone calls, gathered a crew of filmmakers, and flew to Central America in order to document a firsthand account of what was really going on in Panama. What she and her crew discovered there, most Americans are still too sheltered or too afraid to learn.

Reader beware.

Twelve years ago, the United States killed at least 2,500 innocent people in Panama, and the American public knew nothing about it. Residential neighborhoods were burned, families were crushed in their cars by tanks, and tens of thousands of impoverished Panamanians were left homeless in the streets. All of this happened during the four days of brutal violence that the world now remembers as "Operation Just Cause", the 1989 US invasion of Panama.

I imagine that after reading such shocking facts you are feeling overwhelmed with questions. Why did the US invade Panama? Why were so many civilians affected? Why didn't Americans know what was happening?

First things first....

The US and Panama share a long and tumultuous history that began at the turn of the previous century, when the US conspired to create the independent nation of Panama and sponsored the construction of the Panama Canal. You can read the trek dispatch about the US conspiracy to create Panama and the tumultuous history between the two countries here!!!

It is almost certain that the evidence found to slander the president of Panama was planted by the US military  (photo courtesy of Doug Vaughn )
In the 1980's, both countries were still struggling for control of the Panama Canal. Manuel Noriega was the current president, a known figure in Central American drug and arms trafficking, and a paid contact for the US Central Intelligence Agency. His influential drug trade connections, in particular, made him important to the US government.

In 1984, however, Noriega became increasingly unpopular in the US. He upset US government officials after he hosted a conference of international leaders that called for an end to US involvement in Central America. Despite having received payments from the US government, Noriega refused to support foreign interests in maintaining control of the Panama Canal.

In response, the US State Department began to threaten Noriega with drug trafficking charges if he would not allow the US to expand its military presence in the area. Noriega ignored the threats, which persuaded the US to begin systematic efforts to overthrow his government.

If the US went to Panama arrest one man, then why did they leave poor civilian communities in shambles? (photo courtesy of Doug Vaughn)
During the 1989 national election campaign in Panama, the US funded Noriega's opponents with ten million dollars (even though accepting money from a foreign government is illegal in the US!). The government also stepped up economic sanctions, reasoning that if Panamanian citizens were deprived of food and medical supplies, they would lose faith in Noriega's leadership and sway the vote toward his opponents.

When it became clear the opposition was winning the election and the US strategy was working, Noriega seized ballot boxes and halted the elections. The streets of Panama erupted in violence. Citizens protesting the ballot seizure were violently attacked and brutally beaten by Noriega supporters.

The US military destroyed the homes of poor families during the 1989 invasion of Panama  (photo courtesy of Doug Vaughn)
The following day, the US sent 2,000 troops into the country under the auspices of "protecting the lives of Americans" in the area. When the troops arrived in Panama, they began to enact military maneuvers and block local roads outside of US jurisdiction. Their intent was to hassle Panamanians until they reacted violently, at which point the US would be able justify to the American public the deployment of more troops, and the hostile takeover of Noriega's government. When a group of Marines known for provocation was eventually shot at, the 1989 invasion of Panama began.

After the invasion, 18,000 Panamanians were left without homes and forced into refugee camps (photo courtesy of Doug Vaughn)
Operation Just Cause, as it was called, was anything but just. Barbara Trent and her team were there just after the invasion, and they documented eyewitness accounts of "overwhelming force beyond any possible justification." In the days after the invasion, 18,000 Panamanians were forced into refugee camps, where they received little assistance from US forces or the newly-installed, US-supported government. 7,000 people alleged to have been Noriega supporters were arrested and illegally jailed without due process. Fifteen mass graves were discovered where US troops had dumped piles of civilian bodies.

Not even a scratch!...President Noriega's house after the invasion  (photo courtesy of Doug Vaughn)
While Barbara and her team were collecting independent film footage, the story that American people heard was that the US had successfully invaded Panama and arrested the internationally notorious narcoterrorist, Manuel Noriega. There was no mention of what was happening to the innocent families, pregnant women, and children who had nothing to do with politics. There was no mention that the United Nations had declared the invasion "a flagrant violation of international law."

Part of the reason why Americans did not know what was really happening was because most journalists were only permitted to visit places that were approved by the US military. Others, not affiliated with large media corporations, were stopped, detained, and sometimes shot. Cameras were stolen and film was destroyed.

It was practically banned in the US, but this low-budget documentary film won an Academy Award for exposing the dirty secrets behind the US invasion of Panama
After Barbara and her crew returned to the States, they created a documentary from the film footage they had taken while in Panama. Though their documentary eventually won an Academy Award for exposing the media cover-up of the invasion, not even PBS would allow it to be seen.

When I asked Barbara Trent about the experience of releasing the documentary, she was not surprised by the silencing response of the American media. "Our media is owned by a few corporations," she said, "print media, radio, TV. They all share the same views. They have the same voices." The large corporations that own US news sources, like PBS, also have a vested interest in protecting their connections with the US government. A lot of times the American public is kept in the dark about US foreign policy because the new media is corporate, not democratic. Because the most immediate links to information are not in the hands of individuals, "a lot of people think we do not need to know what is going on.

"But that's not right," Barbara continued. "We should be aware of what our government does abroad." The American public was told that their troops were going into Panama to restore democracy, but military actions there contradicted those principles. The US government and the media let the American public, in whose name the invasion was carried out, be misled. Had Barbara Trent and her crew not distrusted the news and forged their own paths to information, the deception of the US public by its government would have gone unnoticed.

Doug Vaughn knows the truth about the invasion of Panama
So, if the American media diverts attention from what is really going on in the world, then how do people access the right information? Find alternative news sources. Watch documentaries. Access Barbara Trent's Empowerment Project, which is dedicated to making the public more conscious of media practices and helping people become more critical consumers of the media.


Please email me at: stephen@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - America the bully? Corruption in Latin America
Neda - The after effects of Saddam's bombs
Jennifer - So what is NAFTA all about anyway?
Is peace in the Middle East just a pipe dream?