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BOOKS AND THE CULTURE Breaking Silence on a Pique in Darien BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN INVASION IN PANAMA Empowerment Project Production Directed by Barbara Trent IBERTY HAS A PRICE , ” Guillermo Ford, second vice president of Panama, tells the camera. “And if you’re not willing to pay for it, you’ll never be free.” Beginning on theevening of December 28, 1989, Panama paid an exorbitant price. Invasion in Panama, a production of the Empowerment Project, a progressive media resource center based in Santa Monica, Calif., raises rude questions about the price, the willingness of Panamanians to pay it, and whether the massive carnage, destruction and dislocation wrought by North American liberators in fact bought them freedom. For a two-month period, in the winter of 19891990, Panama was flavor of the month on the fickle national menu of the United States. We daily dined on stories of injustice against its .citizens and indignity against their Yankee patrons. Though George Bush was not too preoccupied with making war on the isthmus to cancel his annual quail hum in Beeville, everyone in this country was talking about Panama, and 26,000 troops were doing something about it. Invasion in Panama is a sequel of sorts to Destination Nicaragua and COVER UP : Behind the Iran Contra Affair in the Empowerment Project’s series of attempts to expose the folly and villainy of recent foreign policy. Unless American citizens become enlightened and empowered, the EP’s series is likely to spawn more sequels than Rambo. Shot in video and then transferred to film, Invasion in Panama is both technically and emotionally raw. As though concern for the niceties of cinematic texture were a frivolous distraction from the duty to bear witness and as though production values were inversely related to human ones, the film eschews entertainment or even art; this is J’ accuse and not War and Peace. Steven Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. But it exposes the deceptions that made war both possible and pernicious in a tiny Central American country that most know as much about as Grenada or Angola: Invasion in Panama will be released this summer as a 90-minute feature, but even the 35-minute work-in-progress that I previewed was disturbing enough to be honored at festivals in Buffalo, Chicago, Geneva Tand Havana. HE FILM CONTAINS actual battle foot age and images of corpses and orphans, but the most disturbing sequence occurs when director Barbara Trent attempts to interview a few of the more than 10,000 Panamanians made homeless by the combat and by a deliberate policy of razing poorer neighborhoods. As she wanders through a refugee camp administered by the Panamanian Red Cross and the Panamanian government’s Office for Disaster Assistance, Trent is halted by military police from the United States Southern Command. Though she had explicit permission from Panamanian authorities and from the camp’s own governing council and though the United States had no legal jurisdiction over the area, Trent was being forcefully discouraged from compiling her record. What we see on. though, is how the Southern Command relaxed its demand when surrounded by hundreds of angry Panamanians. They wanted their story told, and Trent proceeds to tell it. Invasion in Panama makes use of interviews with and statements by a wide range of personalities, including government officials, military leaders, journalists, academics and local civilians. One of its most striking devices is to juxtapose a fatuous contention with a contradicting image. “I have seen no reports of U.S. troops executing anyone in . Panama,” proclaims Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams, shortly after we see what seems to be precisely that. Williams insists that no houses were deliberately set on fire, despite the evidence presented to us on screen. General Maxwell Thurman estimates that a total of 500 Panamanians died in the entire operation, Guillermo Ford 450, while Panamanian Human Rights Commissioner Olga Melgia insists: “There were more than 4,000 people killed.” While the camera is not a calculator, it does show what appear to be mass graves and at the very least a picture of local catastrophe generally ignored by mainstream media intent on telling the story of tactical finesse and Washington vindication. The operation in Panama was no just cause, insist the filmmakers. They present graphic evidence of deliberate provocations by U.S. troops within Panamanian territory designed to create an incident that would justify armed intervention. Washington’s hidden agenda was to abrogate terms of the Carter/Torrijos Treaty, which calls for termination of U.S. bases in Panama after the year 2000, and to counter Bush’s image as a wimp. Manuel Noriega, one of the CIA’s best-paid clients, was suddenly demonized into a Canal Zone version of Muammar Qaddafi or Saddam Hussein. “I don’t know how Americans could be so stupid to believe this,” says Profes sor Jose Jesus Martinez about the official pretext for the invasion of his country. T IS PROBABLY IGNORANCE rather than stupidity that is most responsible for the fact that the public swallowed the whole affair without dyspepsia. It was not being told the full truth. Invasion in Panama is, if anything, less critical of the White House than of the mainstream media for collusion in a coverup. “To say `coverup’ is an understatement,” states U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-New York. Invasion in Panama cannot be accused of understatement. It attacks the networks, the wire services, and the major dailies for concentrating on the invasion as a tactical feat and for exclusive concern with Yanqui lives. Complaining that reporters were too chummy with their powerful sources, Jeff Cohen, of Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, faults the coverage of the 45-day war for a “failure in the separation of press and state.” No one can accuse the Empowerment Project of being in bed with the state, or of sleeping in any other way. Invasion in Panama is meant to open eyes to the abuse of power, by the Bush administration, and to its abrogation, by the rest of us. Seeing might be believing only to those who already believe, but this film, which cannot count on being as widely distributed as were the versions it attacks, must be seen to release its power. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19