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The Panama Deception
by Susan Ryan

Cineaste v20, n1 (Wntr, 1993):43 (2 pages).

Produced by Barbara Trent, Joanne Doroshow, Nico Panigutti and David Kasper; directed by Barbara Trent; written and edited by David Kasper; cinematography by Michael Dobo and Masnuel Becker; narration by Elizabeth Montgomery; music by Chuck Wild.

On December 19, 1989, most Americans were glued to their televisions in disbelief as thousands of U.S. troops prepared to attack Panama with the stated purpose of ousting the man the media loved to hate, General Manuel Noriega. By early morning, they were reassured that Operation "Just Cause" had achieved its goal of hitting twenty-seven targets, thus making Panama safe for Americans living in that country as well as those safely at home in front of their televisions. But the media failed to investigate many crucial issues, including the fate of Panamanian citizens and a detailed explanation of the just cause' for which American troops were fighting. These are the questions The Panama Deception sets out to answer, and, in so doing, it provides a provocative, well-documented analysis of U.S. relations with Panama and a devastating critique of the mainstream media and its complicity with the official government line.

For those familiar with the findings of the report of the Independent Commission of Inquiry see The U.S. Invasion of Panama: The Truth Behind Operation Just Cause, South End Press, 1991), the film's exploration of the contradictions between the official reasons for the invasion and the real motivations will come as no surprise, but for many The Panama Deception will serve as a shocking illustration of the brutal face of American foreign policy.

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. With uncanny echoes of Grenada less than a decade earlier, this illegal invasion against a sovereign nation was made in the name of "the protection of American lives" as well as the defense of the Panama Canal, the restoration of democracy, and the removal of Noriega and his drug trafficking operation - reasons which might have sounded good at the White House but failed to convince anyone with a knowledge of the history of U.S.-Panamanian relations.

As a result of the controversial 1977 Carter-Torrijos treaties, the Canal was scheduled to be turned over to Panama by the year 2000. The treaty provided for the closure of all fourteen Southern Command bases in Panama by 1999 which would make more difficult U.S. military access to the rest of Latin America. Seen in these terms, the invasion provided a convenient justification for continued U.S. military presence in the area as well as the rationale for the renegotiation of the treaties. From an international vantage point, the overpowering show of force demonstrated that the U.S. retained control over its own backyard.'

The Panama Deception explores these contradictions as well as the many other lies generated to deflect criticism of the attack which violated both the U.N. and O.A.S. charters. Using archival footage and interviews with a wide range of both Panamanian and American authorities, the film puts the invasion in context by showing the troubled history of the Canal's construction at the beginning of the century, the resulting confrontations over the years between the U.S. military and Panamanians, and the problematic relationship during the Seventies with Panama's popular leader, General Omar Torrijos. The montage of archival images reprising the historical relationship includes several which foreshadow the events of 1989. Of particular note is the televised segment of a soon- to-be-elected Ronald Reagan recreating the role of Teddy Roosevelt as he compares the Canal Zone to the acquisition of Alaska in saying, "We bought it, we paid for it, and General Torrijos should be told we're going to keep it."

The film also chronicles the rise and fall of Noriega as he was courted, then rejected, by the American government after he became a political liability. The sequence on the U.S. media's demonization of Noriega, including Bush's inarticulate rambling about "Mr. Noriega, the drug-related, drug-indicted dictator of Panama" would be comical if we didn't know that this was just the prelude to a bloody confrontation. As an interview with an ex-CIA analyst reveals, the invasion was intended to "reverse Bush's image as a wimp," a rather large price for the Panamanian people to pay for the sake of his political viability.

In addition to analyzing the invasion and filling in many specific details about the excessive force used, the film also presents the Panamanian perspective, the side we never saw on the nightly news. Eyewitness accounts of the bombing and the fear felt by the people as they saw their families killed, their homes destroyed, and their city devastated, powerfully convey the human suffering caused by this act of aggression. In contrast to the images of Panamanians welcoming the Americans as a liberating force which the mainstream broadcast media presented, the angry voices of Panamians describe the horror, pain, and continued disruption of their lives. While some might call it heavy- handed, the ironic juxtaposition of official commentary by government spokesmen with actual footage of the invasion and its aftermath succeeds in revealing that lies were created on every level - the sites of the bombings in civilian neighborhoods, the search and destroy methods of the U.S. military in the days following the attack, the number of Panamanians killed, and the continued impact on the people in the form of homelessness, unemployment, and political instability.

Various regional and international human rights commissions estimate that between 2,500 and 4,000 Panamanians were killed in the invasion, a far cry from official U.S. reports of only several hundred. Many of those interviewed in the film - like Isabel Corro, a Panamanian human rights worker - continue to raise money for the exhumation of bodies from mass graves which Pentagon spokesmen deny exist.

As the film makes clear, the U.S. government was not solely responsible for the deception. The mainstream media was shamefully complicit in passing on government press releases as news. Interviews with media analysts Michael Parenti and Mark Hertsgard discuss the total collaboration of the media in this dress rehearsal of restrictions on the press later repeated during the Gulf War. Several cleverly edited sequences mesh the images and voices of Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and other arbiters of information as they use virtually the same language to describe the invasion and what it means' to the American public.

In this respect, The Panama Deception is not only a visual analysis of the events of December 1989, it is also an indictment of the news apparatus in a society where alternative interpretations of events rarely reach the public at large. In Panama, the suppression of information included the destruction of photographs and videotape documenting the high number of civilian casualties.

Through the efforts of The Empowerment Project, The Panama Deception had opened theatrically in over sixty cities across the U.S. even before it won an Academy Award this year. Utilizing their past experience in community organizing, the filmmakers created a unique distribution strategy in which post-screening discussion sessions were held in theaters, not only to answer questions but also to redirect the audience's rage over the invasion into positive political action, such as appearing on local radio talk shows or writing letters to the editors of their local newspapers in order to challenge their own sources of information.

Stylistically, the film has several drawbacks. The continuous use of voice-over narration to explain most of the imagery assumes that the audience is not able to make connections on its own. The animated maps and some of the video graphics seem better suited to a didactic instructional film than an investigative documentary. Still, these objections are minor in comparison with the overall significance of The Panama Deception as an impressive source of information on an event our government would sooner have us forget.

(C) Cineaste Publishers Inc., 1993. Reprinted for Fair Use Only

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