The major news media and the government propaganda machine (perhaps one entity) expect us to forget what’s gone before, as evidenced by what I just heard on NPR about the Gulf War. Giving yet more commentary about President George H.W. Bush, whose costly, taxpayer-funded state funeral is today, they said the Gulf War showed Saddam Hussein that he “couldn’t just simply invade his neighbor state, Kuwait.” And who’s teaching Saddam this lesson? George Bush, who 11 years before invaded his neighbor state of Panama to topple the regime of Manuel Noriega. We forget these things, because most of us never understand them in the first place. We just listen to the daily news – a series of unanalyzed factoids, unrelated to what’s gone before.
State funerals, which we taxpayers pay for, are also part of propaganda. Here’s what Shihoko Goto, senior business analyst for UPI, said about Ronald Reagan’s funeral in June 2004: “Since Abraham Lincoln, no president has gone without the nation mourning at length…Even disgraced president Richard Nixon was remembered fondly when Bill Clinton closed the government in his honor in 1994. It’s not too high a price to pay, as the presidency is the closest thing the United States has to royalty and the pageantry that goes with it…Perhaps the cost of Reagan’s funeral was a small price to pay to bring the nation together.” Brought together in ignorance, by lies.
At least I was able to find one news outlet, Democracy Now!, that reported accurately and extensively on Bush’s invasion of Panama yesterday. Here’s my edited version – still long, but worth reading through for the way it ties the whole ball of wax together.
AMY GOODMAN: The death of George H.W. Bush has dominated the U.S. news for days, but little attention has been paid to the defining event of Bush’s first year in office: the invasion of Panama. On December 19, 1989, Bush Sr. sent tens of thousands of troops into Panama, ostensibly to execute an arrest warrant against its leader, Manuel Noriega, on charges of drug trafficking. General Noriega was once a close ally to Washington, on the CIA payroll, but in a nationally televised address, Bush claimed the invasion was needed to defend democracy in Panama. During the attack, the U.S. unleashed a force of 24,000 troops equipped with highly sophisticated weaponry and aircraft against a country with an army smaller than the New York City Police Department. An estimated 3,000 Panamanians died in the attack.
Last month, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called on Washington to pay reparations to Panama over what was widely seen as an illegal invasion. For more on the lasting impact of the invasion, we’re joined by Greg Grandin, professor of Latin American history at New York University. His latest piece for The Nationis “George H.W. Bush: Icon of the WASP Establishment and of Brutal US Repression in the Third World.” Professor Grandin, welcome back to Democracy Now! Tell us about the Panama invasion.
GREG GRANDIN: It was consequential in that it was the first major deployment of U.S. troops since Vietnam War and it was done in a spectacular fashion. Calculated to overturn what Bush called the Vietnam syndrome, it set the stage for all the wars to come – the legal doctrine, the shock and awe, and the containment of the media.
JG: There was a big uproar among the press because initially the government wasn’t allowing any coverage. Finally, on the second day they agreed to send one plane of reporters. I participated in that flight, reporting for the Daily News. We were held by the military on one of the military bases, then sent out in a military bus under military escort. A few of us broke free and went out on our own, but most of the press treated this illegal invasion as a liberation effort.
GG: Yes. Part of overcoming the Vietnam syndrome was figuring out how to control the press. There was an analysis that the press had gone off reservation in Vietnam, that they’d developed independent sources, that they weren’t listening to the Pentagon, and that they were critically analyzing the war. The press had to be re-established as a pillar of the national security state, whether as cheerleaders or asuncritical commentators.
Noriega had been our man in Panama. He was a key asset in Iran-Contra, and the broad policy of cultivating anti-communist allies within the region, whether they be drug runners or dictators. In 1986, however, Sy Hersh published a story in the New York Timesthat detailed Noriega’s involvement in narcotrafficking. There were also movements for more democracy in Panama that had been repressed, and domestic politics within the United States was pressing the White House to do something. So, the democracy promotion justification overtook anti-drug trafficking, and Bush appeared on TV saying that’s the reason we’re invading Panama.
JG: I’d like to play a clip from the 1992 award-winning documentary “The Panama Deception,” in which community leader Rafael Olivardia and investigative journalist Robert Knight talk about U.S. military atrocities in Panama.
RAFAEL OLIVARDIA: [translated] There were many Panamanian troops at the Balboa concentration camp. They were sitting on the grass with their hands and feet tied with plastic bands. I, along with many other people from El Chorrillo, witnessed their execution. Eight of the soldiers at the entrance were executed by U.S. troops.
ROBERT KNIGHT: A Spanish news photographer, who in the early moments was able to get a picture of their bodies lined up in the morgue, was also shot by an American soldier. What happened in Panama is a hidden horror. Many of the bodies were bulldozed into piles and immolated in the slums where they were collected. Other bodies were left in garbage chutes in poor projects in which they died from artillery fire. Others were said to have been pushed into the ocean.
AG: Last month, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called on Washington to pay reparations to Panama over what was widely seen as an illegal invasion. We’re joined now by international human rights attorney José Luis Morín, who’s been working since 1990 to secure reparations for Panama. He’s a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and chairperson of the Latin American and the [Latina/o] Studies Department there.
JG: It’s taken almost 30 years for a judgment on what happened in Panama to come out from an international body. Can you talk about that, why it took so long to be able to get this?
JLM: Well, when you’re going against the most powerful country in the world, there’s going to be pushback. And the United States, at every stage of this case, attempted to claim that the Inter-American Commission didn’t have the competency, and that we hadn’t exhausted all remedies, as required under international law and the procedures of the commission. At every stage, the United States has continued to deny its responsibility.
AG: Talk about the community, the neighborhood, that was hit the hardest. We’re talking a bomb every few minutes, massive bombing of Chorrillo.
JLM: El Chorrillo is a poor neighborhood in Panama City. And it’s also the site of the Comandancía, the headquarters of the military. The United States claimed it was doing a surgical strike, but a whole neighborhood was put up in flames and destroyed – civilians targeted indiscriminately. That’s what the commission found. The United States wasn’t taking the precautions; it was acting in a reckless and arbitrary way in trying to meet its military objectives. And under international law, that’s prohibited.
JG: Panama also became the place where the United States tested some of its newest weaponry. Wasn’t the B-1, the stealth bomber, first used in combat there?
JLM: That’s correct. It was also the first time the Humvee was used, as a replacement for the military jeep. There was all sorts of ways in which the population was being intimidated as part of this process. And because so many of these neighborhoods were the poorest, were the places where, you know, black and brown Panamanians lived, they could be ignored, and marginalized.
AG: Let’s go back to “The Panama Deception.”
NARRATOR: The Pentagon used Panama as a testing ground for newly developed high-tech weapons, such as the stealth fighter, the Apache attack helicopter and laser-guided missiles. There are also reports, that can’t be explained, indicating the use of experimental and unknown weaponry.
CECILIO SIMON: [translated] We have testimony about combatants who died literally melted with their guns as a result of a laser. We know of automobiles that were cut in half by these lasers, of atrocities committed by weapons that fire poison darts which produce massive bleeding.
AG: José Luis Morín, tell us who José Isabel Salas Galindo is, the named person in the suit.
JLM: Salas’s case was compelling, because not only did he suffer injuries, but his wife, Dionisia, who was at home at the time in a 15-story building that was struck by artillery fire. Her body was destroyed in ways that were just indescribable. Her remains, scattered in the kitchen, had to be shoveled into a body bag.
GG: Bush had a long history of violence in the Third World, starting back from his days in west Texas with the Zapata Oil Company. In 1976, he presided over the height of Operation Condor, which organized and coordinated national death squads in Latin America. The single largest run of bombings and executions carried out by Condor happened while Bush was the head of the CIA.
AG: What about his role in Iran-Contra? And explain what that was for younger people.
GG: Iran-Contra was a hydra-headed scandal that involved selling high-tech weaponry to Iran, and diverting the profits to support the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua, both in violation of U.S. law. It supported the worst kind of death squads, assassins, and fascists in Central America throughout the 1980s. Bush was deeply involved in that as vice president and coming out of his work with the CIA, so my point with regard the bleeding of Panama is that Bush had a long history of violence in the Third World, which obviously continued with the first Gulf War.
JG: And a key part of Iran-Contra is that as he left the presidency, Bush pardoned all the people involved with it.
GG: Yes. That completed the cover-up of Iran-Contra, creating a precedent for current politics in terms of the limitlessness of presidential power to sweep scandals that they’re involved in under the rug.
AG: President Bush defended his decision to issue the pardons by saying, “First, the common denominator for their motivation – whether their actions were right or wrong – was patriotism. Second, they didn’t profit or seek to profit from their conduct. Third, each has a record of long and distinguished service to this country.”
GG: And the scandal went down the memory hole. Iran-Contra was consequential in that it brought together a lot of the different coalitions that made up the Reagan administration – the evangelical right, the neoconservatives, the militarists, and anti-communists. They gave them Central America to run wild with, funding the anti-communist insurgencies seeking to overthrow the Nicaraguan Sandinistas.
AG: Michael Isikoff wrote in 1991, “The Medellin cartel, once branded by U.S. officials as the world’s most violent and powerful drug-trafficking organization, made a $10 million contribution to the U.S.-backed contra guerrillas fighting during the 1980s to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, a former cartel leader testified today.”
GREG GRANDIN: Yeah. I think they routed that through Manuel Noriega. So it brought together all of the worst elements. But the larger point is that it was all part of overcoming the Vietnam syndrome, about the executive branch figuring out how to reassert and project military power, free from democratic oversight.
AG: And the main operation was run through Vice President George H.W. Bush’s office?
GG: And Oliver North.
JG: Even though Bush was only the director of the CIA for a year, he’d had a long-running relationship with it?
GG: His father, Prescott Bush, before he was a senator, was in the OSS, the CIA precursor, during World War II. He went to Yale and was a member of its secret Skull and Bones society, like every major player in the Bay of Pigs operation. The CIA was Skull and Bones writ large, with a multi-million-dollar budget. It wasn’t a conspiracy – just a close relationship between the kind of WASP East Coast establishment that the Bush family represented and the intelligence community. George H.W. Bush represented its radicalization after the Cuban revolution, in Texas, and then Iran-Contra. So, there’s a through line through Bush’s life, which is being completely ignored in all of the obituaries and remembrances of him. And that through line is the easy resort to violence in the Third World.
JG: And you note in your piece for The Nation that it wasn’t just Bush’s father, Prescott Bush, who was a senator, but even his grandparents.
GG: Yes. He came from a family that occupied the highest echelons of Episcopalian capitalism in its most expansive period, when finance, industry and energy extraction and militarism were interlocking and fusing together. His move from New England to West Texas represents the broader shift of American capitalism from the East Coast to this new center of gravity, more ideological and hostile, which becomes the basis of the new right, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and even a lot of the forces that back Trump.
AG: George H.W. Bush was the only president in U.S. history to serve as CIA director, a role that would come to define his career and politics. He once described the intelligence agency as “part of my heartbeat.” He was at the helm of the CIA from January 1976 to January 1977. We speak now with Ariel Dorfman, best-selling author and activist, who served as an adviser to Chilean President Salvador Allende’s in 1973. He went into exile soon after the U.S.-backed coup in Chile that killed Salvador Allende and brought Augusto Pinochet to power. His new piece for The Guardianis “George HW Bush thought the world belonged to his family. How wrong he was.” Ariel, as you watch the reporting on George H.W. Bush, can you talk about the corporate media’s assessment of him, and your experience of him?
AD: I have no doubt that he was decent and civil to many people. Certainly he was much better than what we’ve got now. But there was that sense of “The world is mine. I do with it what I want. I’ll squeeze Panama like I squeeze this. I’ll squeeze Chile like I’ll squeeze this.” The irony of it all is that his son went on to destroy the world with the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, and then with the destruction of the U.S. economy. And that ended up softening my image of the elder Bush, because I said to myself, “Well, at least he’s not his son.” And then, when Trump came along, we said, “At least he’s not Trump.” And, of course, Bush did some things that were worthy of praise. He did the Americans with Disabilities Act, and he lowered the threat of nuclear war. But basically, we should remember the terrible pain he wrought. He’s not really dead. He’s alive in the sense that so many of his victims are alive, including myself and many other people.
GG: The rot that Bush represented delivered us to Trump. There’s a tendency to kind of posit these two people as opposites, but in some ways, they’re mirror images of each other. You go back to the Bush family, the two grandfathers embedded in Brown Brothers Harriman. Their economic deals with foreign countries, including Russia and Nazi Germany, were just as sketchy and unaccountable and corrupting as what Trump is accused of. There might have been a moment of reform that makes Trump seem less acceptable, but basically there’s a continuation. And certainly, the catastrophe that Iraq war that his son delivered onto us, has laid the groundwork for the complete debasement of American politics that Trump represents. So it’s not a question of this or that, you know, comparing these two things as if they’re separate, but understanding how this led to that, how Bush led to Trump.