Panama still scarred from U.S. invasion

December 20, 1990|By Newsday

PANAMA CITY, Panama -- At noontime the hot Panama sun cooks the fetid pools of mud in the vacant lots that were once the bustling slum of Chorillo. Outside the three high-rise cinder block buildings that survived the U.S. invasion, men sit idly, staring at the few cars that chance down the barren road.

Across the street workmen race to complete three other U.S.-funded structures that will house some of the 1,800 people still living in a U.S. Air Force hangar a year after Panama City's poorest neighborhood was shattered by the Dec. 20, 1989, U.S. assault on Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega's nearby headquarters. Maybe, officials said, the buildings will be ready in April.

Discontent and misery are everywhere. The invasion "was an extremely bitter experience for us," said Rafael Olivardia, who lives in one of the high-rises, all still bearing the scars of battle. The nearby military headquarters building was bulldozed, as RTC were the devastated, ramshackle buildings around it.

A year after the U.S. invasion, with Noriega awaiting awaiting trial in Miami on drug trafficking charges, there is no reliable figure on how many Panamanians died. The U.S. military defers comment to Panamanian officials, whose tally of 570 war deaths has been criticized. Opponents have charged that there are still undiscovered mass graves and that possibly 4,000 people died.

Cynicism about the official death count is only part of the legacy of the U.S. invasion.

Retired Gen. Fred Woerner, who had argued against the invasion, said that the acrimony and suspicion surrounding the death count are a prime example of U.S. errors.

Woerner fears that the legacy of the invasion is a longterm U.S. commitment to protecting Panamanian security, along with continued unrest.

"The easiest mission you could give me was to invade Panama," he said. "The most difficult is how to get out."

Panamanian government opponents now march regularly to demand that $500 million pledged in U.S. aid and credit filter down to the grass roots.

Labor unions have been protesting the firing of more than 1,600 public workers over the past year. The government says that layoffs have taken place to ease the budget deficit. But with unemployment of at least 20 percent, working-class Panamanians see themselves increasingly isolated from the small group of white businessmen put into power by the United States.

A growing number of Panamanians also see their leaders as ineffective, a feeling brought home when U.S. troops were called in again this month to quell a mutiny in the demoralized Panamanian police forces.

The Roman Catholic Church, a Noriega foe and formerly a solid backer of Endara, now calls his government "inflexible."

Among Panamanians there is fear of going out onto the streets, anger about lack of jobs and high prices, and cynicism about the U.S. role in the nation's affairs.

Endara conceded, "We have many problems and few resources."

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