During December 2019, UWCHR Director Prof. Angelina Snodgrass Godoy and undergraduate research intern Maya Green [International Studies, Art History] traveled to Panama City to share research into U.S. government archives regarding the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, dubbed “Operation Just Cause” by the U.S. military. Here Maya shares reflections on the visit and the significance of her work to make U.S. documentation of the invasion publicly accessible:
30 years after the conclusion of Operation Just Cause, the identity and number of local victims remains unknown. Depending on the source, the estimate of civilian casualties ranges from 200 to over 1000. U.S. officials point to the Panamanian Institute of Legal Medicine’s list of 157 civilian deaths as having the final say on the matter. This official list of victims, until very recently, had gone without scrutiny. At least one man on the official count remains very much alive – a few years ago he was issued a new driver’s license and voted in national elections.
This case points to the larger issue surrounding the 1989 invasion: significant gaps remain in the information that is available to lawyers, journalists, and government commission workers concerned with the case. For the last year, the UW Center for Human Rights has worked with organizations in Panama to make pieces of this vital information available and accessible to the public of both nations. Over the last three decades, the vast majority of writing on the invasion has been centered on the U.S. military; books and dissertations analyze hundreds of “lessons learned” regarding everything from commissary stocking issues to the role of women in combat. What is often left out of the U.S. narrative are the unnamed and un-numbered victims of the invasion: Panamanians killed and wounded, their families and friends, neighborhoods destroyed and livelihoods lost across the isthmus.
Our initial partner in this project, Concolón, is a collective of journalists and an online newspaper dedicated to telling the untold histories of Panama, including that of the 1989 invasion. In December, Concolón invited CHR director, Professor Angelina Godoy and myself, to attend and present at their “Memoria Lab” in Panama City. The Lab included a Wikipedia edit-a-thon, a presentation by Eliezer Budassof of El País, and a crash course by Professor Godoy on how to use the Freedom of Information Act and analyze U.S. government documents. Duelo: Memorias de una Invasión, a project directed by Concolon’s co-founder, Sol Lauria, has been published as both a graphic novel and as an interactive webpage. More recently, the Panama Files project has been made live, making our shared database of U.S. documents available and searchable online.
We also spent time at the headquarters of the Commission for the 20th of December, where we met with student volunteers, the board of commissioners, and the director of the project, José Luis Sosa. The Commission was formed in 2016 to identify the victims of the invasion and to archive the stories of the families of those lost. The work of Commission volunteers is incredible, consolidating the existing documentation of those who died in the invasion to aid legal cases and provide some answers to the yet unsolved question of civilian casualties. The creation of the Commission, in itself, is a step forward for those impacted by the invasion. It was evident that, among the Panamanian public, there are competing narratives about the nature of the 1989 invasion. Officially acknowledging the losses cannot undo them, but can be a source of validation for loved ones.
However, the Commission is working with limited and sometimes unverified information, further complicating the already arduous task of excavating decades-old medical and electoral records. The documentation held by the Institute of Legal Medicine, the branch of government handling mortuary affairs, was initially supplied with information by the U.S. Army’s Southern Command. During the invasion, U.S. soldiers buried hundreds of Panamanian civilians, but the records kept were sparse, and in many cases they remain classified and inaccessible. As part of my internship with the UW Center for Human Rights, I am working to access and declassify these records regarding civilian casualties, to help advance the work of the Commission in providing closure to the victims of Operation Just Cause.
In addition to the Commission’s archival work, the legacy of U.S. interference in Panama has been the subject of art in a number of forms. We were lucky to see the opening of the multi-artist exhibit Invasión en Cuatro Tiempos at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC) Panama, which combined artwork created before, during, and after the invasion. Paintings, drawings, and collages created contemporaneously to the arrival of U.S. forces. A wall was dedicated to showcasing the various print media portrayals of the invasion in real-time, from American and Panamanian sources. Multimedia installations, combining projections, video, and sounds reflected on the impact of U.S. intervention on Panamanian political memory. At the Spanish Embassy’s cultural center, the site of the Memoria Lab, was an exhibition of the work of photo-journalist Juantxu Rodriguez. Juantxu was killed in Panama City during Operation Just Cause, likely by U.S. forces. We had the privilege of meeting with Juantxu’s family who are still fighting for justice and the rights of journalists and witnessed the inauguration of a new memorial in his honor.
The neighborhood El Chorrillo embodies the memory of the invasion, as well as the need for continued research surrounding the Operation. The primary target of U.S. military forces – the Command center of the Panamanian Defense Forces – was located in El Chorrillo, and as a result, the neighborhood was almost entirely destroyed in the fighting. El Chorrillo has a long, rich history, that makes its destruction during Operation Just Cause all the more complicated. After its founding as a community of freed slaves, El Chorrillo was the only neighborhood where Afro-Carribean workers could live while constructing the nearby Panama Canal. El Chorrillo has historically been a working-class area, and most of the civilian victims of the invasion were low income, non-white Panamanians. While the neighborhood’s official monument to the invasion bears signs of weather and time, graffiti shows clearly that the people remember: “something happened here.”
Despite spending the last year reading government documents about nearly every aspect of the invasion, this method of research insulated me from the lasting pain of losing family members, friends, homes, and businesses. Death and destruction reported by the U.S. military are always placed in the context of necessary losses for strategic victories, a point of view that ignores the local, long-term impacts of the invasion. By meeting with real people and visiting places hurt in the name of protecting American interests, the work I’m doing became grounded in reality. The Panamanians killed are not statistics to be argued over in public messaging memos: they are individuals whose families still mourn their loss every day, who can never forget the feeling of waking up to their neighborhood under attack. My work at the Center is still focused on accessing available documents and filing to declassify those that remain hidden, but I returned from the trip with a deeper appreciation of our local partners. We need each other to gather data, support those directly impacted, and to construct a history of Operation Just Cause that considers its complex local legacy.
Read more about the Panama Files project and other work to uphold Access to Information as a Human Right.