The Panama Deception is a 1992 American documentary film that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. The film is critical of the actions of the US military during the 1989 invasion of Panama by the United States, covering the conflicting reasons for the invasion and depicting the US media as biased. It also highlighted media bias, showing events that were unreported or systematically misreported in the news, including downplaying the number of civilian casualties. It was directed by Barbara Trent, written and edited by David Kasper, and narrated by actress Elizabeth Montgomery. It was a production of the Empowerment Project.
The film asserts that the U.S. government invaded Panama primarily to destroy the PDF, the Panamanian Defense Forces, who were perceived as a threat to U.S. control over Panama, and to install a U.S.-approved government. The film includes footage of mass graves uncovered after the U.S. troops had withdrawn, burned down neighborhoods, as well as depictions of some of the 20,000 refugees who fled the fighting.
United States invasion of Panama
The United States long maintained numerous military bases and a substantial garrison throughout the Canal Zone to protect the American-owned Panama Canal and to maintain American control of this strategically important area. On 7 September 1977, President of the United States Jimmy Carter and the de factoleader of Panama, General Omar Torrijos, signed Torrijos–Carter Treaties, which set in motion the process of handing over the Panama Canal to Panamanian control by the year 2000. Although the canal was destined for Panamanian administration, the military bases remained and one condition of the transfer was that the canal would remain open for American shipping. The U.S. had long-standing relations with General Noriega, who served as a U.S. intelligence asset and paid informant of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1967, including the period when Bush was head of the CIA (1976–77).
Noriega had sided with the U.S. rather than the USSR in Central America, notably in sabotaging the forces of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, and the revolutionaries of the FMLN group in El Salvador. Noriega received upwards of $100,000 per year from the 1960s until the 1980s, when his salary was increased to $200,000 per year. Although he worked with the Drug Enforcement Administrationto restrict illegal drug shipments, he was known to simultaneously accept significant financial support from drug dealers, because he facilitated the laundering of drug money, and through Noriega, they received protection from DEA investigations due to his special relationship with the CIA.
In the mid-1980s, relations between Noriega and the United States began to deteriorate. In 1986, U.S. President Ronald Reagan opened negotiations with General Noriega, requesting that the Panamanian leader step down after he was publicly exposed in The New York Times by Seymour Hersh, and later exposed in theIran-Contra Scandal. Reagan pressured him with several drug-related indictments in U.S. courts; however, since extradition laws between Panama and the U.S. were weak, Noriega deemed this threat not credible and did not submit to Reagan’s demands. In 1988, Elliot Abrams and others in the Pentagon began pushing for a U.S. invasion, but Reagan refused, due to Bush’s ties to Noriega through his previous positions in the CIA and the Task Force on Drugs, and their potentially negative impact on Bush’s presidential campaign. Later negotiations involved dropping the drug-trafficking indictments. In March 1988, Noriega’s forces resisted an attempted coup against the government of Panama. As relations continued to deteriorate, Noriega appeared to shift his Cold War allegiance towards the Soviet bloc, soliciting and receiving military aid from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Libya. American military planners began preparing contingency plans to invade Panama.
In May 1989, during the Panamanian national elections, an alliance of parties opposed to the Noriega dictatorship counted results from the country’s election precincts, before they were sent to the district centers. Their tally showed their candidate, Guillermo Endara, defeating Carlos Duque, candidate of a pro-Noriega coalition, by nearly 3–1. Endara was beaten up by Noriega supporters the next day in his motorcade. Noriega declared the election null and maintained power by force, making him unpopular among Panamanians. Noriega’s government insisted that it had won the presidential election and that irregularities had been on the part of U.S.-backed candidates from opposition parties. Bush called on Noriega to honor the will of the Panamanian people. The United States reinforced its Canal Zone garrison, and increased the tempo of training and other activities intended to put pressure on Noriega.
In October 1989, Noriega foiled a second coup attempt by members of the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF), led by Major Moisés Giroldi. Pressure mounted on Bush as the media labeled him a “wimp” for failing to aid Panama, in spite of campaign rhetoric that called for a tough stand against drug traffickers. Bush declared that the U.S. would not negotiate with a drug trafficker and denied knowledge of Noriega’s involvement with the drug trade prior to his February 1988 indictment, although Bush had met with Noriega while Director of the CIA and had been the Chair of the Task Force on Drugs while Vice President. On 15 December, the Panamanian general assembly passed a resolution declaring that the actions of the United States had caused a state of war to exist between Panama and the United States.
The next day, four U.S. military personnel were stopped at a roadblock around 9:00 PM outside PDF headquarters in the El Chorrilloneighborhood of Panama City. Marine Captain Richard E. Hadded, Navy Lieutenant Michael J. Wilson, Army Captain Barry L. Rainwater, and Marine First Lieutenant Robert Paz had left the Fort Clayton military base and were on their way to have dinner at theMarriott Hotel in downtown Panama City. The U.S. Department of Defense reported that the servicemen had been unarmed, in a private vehicle and that they attempted to flee only after their vehicle was surrounded by an angry crowd of civilians and PDF troops. The PDF asserted later that the Americans were armed and on a reconnaissance mission. The PDF opened fire and Lieutenant Paz was fatally wounded by a round that entered the rear of the vehicle and struck him in the back. Captain Hadded, the driver of the vehicle, was also wounded in the foot. Paz was rushed to Gorgas Army Hospital but died of his wounds. He received the Purple Heartposthumously. According to U.S. military sources, a U.S. Naval officer and his wife witnessed the incident and were detained by Panamanian Defense Force soldiers. While in police custody, they were assaulted by the PDF. The U.S. Naval officer spent two weeks in hospital recovering from the beating. PDF soldiers sexually threatened his wife. The next day, President Bush ordered the execution of the Panama invasion plan; the military set H-Hour as 0100 on 20 December.