Under the Sun in Panama

It is peculiar how often the first words spoken to you when you land in a new place turn out to be prophetic. Straight off the airplane, luggage in hand, I weaved my way toward the public bus stop through a pack of taxistas who wanted the equivalent of my daily food budget for a ride to Panama City. One taxista, refusing to believe any gringo could be so cheap (he’s obviously not met many free-lance reporters), jumped in his car and chased after me.

He pulled up alongside and asked, "Panama City?" I declined. Putting on a sardonic smirk, he gave me words to live by: "Watch out. The sun gets very hot here. It will exhaust you." He then accelerated off, leaving me to fight the elements alone.

Panamanians, it seems, know all about exhaustion—and survival. After passing through 25 years of military governments, their reward was a large-scale foreign assault on their country. Twenty-five thousand U.S. Marines poured into Panama City in 1989 to depose Gen. Manuel Noriega and his puppet government. Thousands of civilians were killed in the fighting.

But, hey, justice was served. Or was it? Noriega is now an evangelistic preacher in a Florida prison. The man the Bush administration chose to "clean up" Panama’s drug problem, Guillermo Endara, is the chief officer of a number of off-shore corporations that are alleged fronts for laundering drug money. More cocaine passes through Panama today than during Noriega’s regime, according to a recent Drug Enforcement Agency report.

Of course, the U.S. invasion of Panama had about as much to do with Noriega’s drug dealings as the Gulf war had to do with liberating Kuwait. In 1524, Hernan Cortes told King Carlos V that the acquisition of Panama would be "even more valuable to the throne than Mexico," given its strategic link between two major oceans. Cortes then wasted no time in deposing the indigenous population whom, no doubt, were up to their eyeballs in drug trafficking.

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Sojourners Magazine July 1994
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