Then a quarter century of reflection and bitterness.
Conrad. Photo: Bart Bolger
March 15, 2016. Panama City, Panama.
by Bart Bolger
This is Conrad.
Conrad is an 81-year old tour guide—he says he is a “walking taxi”—in Panama City and he is a victim of the 1989 USAmerican invasion of Panama.
He says the invasion lasted just 17 minutes. Conrad lost his wife and house, both destroyed within 17 minutes of the first shots fired.
Conrad is a proud Panamanian. His grandfather came to Panama with thousands of other Jamaicans to build the Panama Canal. He is proud of the canal.
After the attack, Conrad lived in a refugee camp for many months, living off USAmerican MREs (meals, ready-to-eat). He blames them for the intestinal problems he has today.
The US military admits to killing about 250 innocent civilians. Conrad scoffs at that number and with good reason: The Commission for the Defense of Human Rights in Central America (CODEHUCA), an NGO, puts the figure at between 2,500 and 3,000.
According to Wikipedia, “About 20,000 people lost their homes and became refugees as a result of urban warfare. About 2,700 families…were each given $6,500 by the U.S. to build a new house or apartment in selected areas in or near the city.”
Conrad does not say if he got any money to rebuild.
He thinks the invasion was a form of genocide. “US invasions always hurt the poor the most,” he tells me. Conrad knows about other US invasions and cites Iraq and Grenada.
The rich always come out of these things just fine. “War is good for business,” Conrad tells me. Panama is booming now. The Panamanian poor call the oligarchs “rabi-blancos,” literally “white-tailed.” The wealthy profited from the invasion and they profit from the canal fees today. Little trickles down to the poor.
There is utter squalor in Manuel Noriega’s old neighborhood of El Chorrillo, where the Panamanian Defense Forces Headquarters, La Comandancia, was obliterated—and to the east in the barrios surrounding the gentrified Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage site full of luxury accommodations and eateries for visitors.
Beyond Mercado Mariscos, the Panama City commercial district. Photo: Bart Bolger
Many public works projects have the veneer of good intentions but are sink holes for enormous sums of money. The Panama Canal fees–it costs about $10,000 to transit one freighter and annual fees total $10 million–lack any public accountability, according to one local resident, a sure sign of corruption.
On a brighter note, Conrad is proud of the Panamanian national health care system which allows him to consult with a physician for one dollar and provides pensioners with discounted medications.
He is also proud of his five grandchildren given him by his daughter who was only 20 when her mother was killed by the Americans.
Conrad is still bitter. After I express my shame and contrition over the savagery committed by the US government, he tells me he still blames George Bush Sr. The poor here hate “Poppy” with far more vehemence than “W.”
And why not?
Conrad asks me, “Why would you blow up an entire country just to get one guy?”
We both know the answer, but it remains unspoken.
Conrad gives me his permission to share his story and is keen to offer his thoughts to the American people, most of whom he feels are good and caring. He stresses the importance of Americans visiting other countries and talking with their people.
I tell him that I work with Veterans For Peace and that we hope to prevent future invasions like “Operation Just Cause,” an Orwellian code name, if ever there was one.
Conrad gives me his tour today while sitting on a bench in Casco’s Cathedral Plaza.
He takes my card and promises to keep in touch. I hope so. I still have a lot to learn about life in Panama.
Bart Bolger is the chairperson of Veterans For Peace, Linus Pauling Chapter 132, Corvallis, Oregon. He may be contacted at bart[at]vfpcorvallis.org, twitter: @bartbolger