Part of the Global Perspectives on War and Peace Collection. In December 1989, videomaker Andrew Jones was in Panama, working on a documentary about President Manuel Noriega. On the eve of the interview, the U.S. invaded Panama amid rising tensions between the two countries. The United States had been claiming the Noriega was a drug trafficker and dangerous to America. Jones spends time with the everyday Panamanians as well as Panamanian government officials, and as a result, becomes increasingly suspicious of the portrayal of the invasion by the U.S. government and media. The documentary includes powerful on the ground footage during the U.S. attack.
0:04 Image Union opening. Narrator gives background on Andrew Jones’ unexpected witnessing of an invasion.
1:07 Title: Panama: Just Cause? At 4 a.m. in Panama City, Andrew Jones describes how he got where he is now. “For days it dominated the news – the United States had invaded Panama, and Manuel Noriega was on the run. The invasion was swift, surgical, and effective. The Panamanian defense forces were crushed, the people were in a state of shock, and the economy was in ruins. I was in Panama during, after, and before the invasion by American armed forces. The pictures shown in this documentary were shot by me, using a Sony 8mm home camcorder, although some of the news footage was recorded as it aired. I saw a different picture from the one presented to viewers via the news, possibly because I spent most of my time with the Panamanians.”
2:12 “I originally came to Panama to interview this man, Manuel Antonio Noriega Moreno, the only man I’ve known to have a bounty put on his head by the president of the United States. A man wanted by the Bush administration for trafficking drugs. From the beginning, my trip was difficult. I was almost kicked out of the country for not having a visa, my luggage was returned to the States, so I had no clothes, and I never did get the interview with Noriega. But I never regretted coming to this country because what I found there was much different from what I expected. The people I met and the experiences I had, they changed my attitude about their country, and my own country, too. You could say that I lost something in Panama. In fact, a couple of times, I almost lost my life. And although I lived to tell the tale, I will never again not question what is told to me by my country. For I understand now that there is always another side. Judge for yourself whether the invasion of Panama was indeed a just cause.”
3:25 Jones explains the history of former Panamanian military leader Omar Torrijos, who negotiated the treaty between the United States and Panama regarding the Panama Canal. Torrijos also created the district of San Miguelito by forcibly claiming land owned by wealthy white oligarchs and redistributing it among the campesinos. Though this town became famous during the invasion for the fierce riots shown on television, Jones visited this town ten days before the invasion and connected deeply with its people. “It was in this district of Panama City that my feelings for the people of this country started to gel. I identified with them because of their pride, their concern for their community, and each other.
4:30 The residents of San Miguelito dance and sing in a large celebration. Jones interviews a few residents about the political situation.
6:39 Jones explains that Panama is bordered by both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and that Panamanians spend a lot of time at the beach. So he goes to the beach to shoot people partying and relaxing. An American sailor living in Panama, obviously enjoying himself, says, “If I could have any other place, it would have to be Heaven. That’s the only other paradise for me.”
8:38 Jones explains that there is a tradition of confrontation between the United States military (who have bases stationed in Panama) and the Panamanian people. Citizens express their simple wish for peace. The Former Secretary of Labor of Panama explains some of the history of the conflict between the U.S. and Panama.
10:49 December 13, 1989. Jones reports on the special session of the National Assembly, where the word was out that General Noriega was to be named President of Panama. Jones had some of Noriega’s acceptance speech translated: “The North American machinery, through constant psychological and military aggression, has created a state of war in Panama… From this podium, we exhort all the organizations that are still committed to the preservation of national sovereignty, including political parties, the churches, the popular and representative organizations of the country, to seek solutions to our common problems, in order to prevent impositions from abroad.”
13:11 “And then things got a little bit funky.” Jones explains that he interviewed the Attorney General of Panama, who said that Torrijos was also accused of drug trafficking when he refused to do the political biddings of the United States, something that has happened to many former Panamanian leaders. The Attorney General showed Jones many letters and awards from the American D.E.A. commending his and Noriega’s efforts to fight drug trafficking in their country.
14:07 El Chorillos section of Panama City, 3 days prior to the invasion. During a scuffle at a road block, an American citizen was killed, the first American killed in Panama during the countries’ 120 year old history together. Both sides blamed each other, but the Americans responded dramatically. A quote by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney appears onscreen from news footage of the incident, saying “Ultimately, it is General Noriega himself who has encouraged this kind of lawlessness. His own conduct sets an example of cruelty and brutality.” Two days later, a Panamanian transit police officer was shot and wounded by an American soldier, thus upping the tension.
15:36 December 20th, El Chorillos. Jones was shooting b-roll around the city in preparation for leaving the country. “But that night, everything changed.”
16:04 Night of the Invasion. We return to the opening scene: Jones speaking into a mirror at 4 a.m, recounting the facts of the invasion. “At quarter to one in the morning I was awakened – I was in bed – by booms in the distance, which at first I thought were fireworks. But quickly I realized that the situation was serious because I heard the reports of the artillery. It was rapid, and I heard commotion outside and I went downstairs and found people downstairs in a state of confusion, they were locking up the hotel. And I took some pictures on the street. I was told by one of the women that works here that the Chorillo part of the city was burning. I then went up there and took pictures of the city burning.”
16:59 Footage of Jones driving around the burning city in a taxi moments after the invasion. Still in a state of shock, he narrates what he sees and tries to understand what is happening. The camera goes black and we only hear his voice, reporting from a ditch after his car was stopped and he was beaten and nearly shot by Panamanian Defense Forces. “I think the best thing is for me to lay here very quietly, and just lay low. I’m going to try to make my way back to the hotel if I can.” As he whispers into the camera, the screen still pitch black, we can hear angry voices speaking in Spanish, seemingly close by. He manages to escape, but is later spotted by PDF soldiers. He decides his best tactic is to ask questions like a reporter, which works, and the soldiers escort him back to his hotel. “I am absolutely 100% sure that I would not be alive this morning if these people had not escorted me and saved my life.”
23:52 7 a.m. “The morning after the invasion, all was quiet on Via Espana, the usually busy street outside my hotel. In the distance, fires in the Chorillos section of the city, hardest hit during the invasion, burned out of control. I had taken many photographs in that part of the city, and the memory of the children, the older people, houses built so close together, haunted me, for I had no way of knowing how many innocent people had been killed. That day, the streets remained deserted, except for an occasional PDF patrol.” Images of the lighthearted footage of children shot before the invasion contrast with those of people with machine guns running through the streets, fires burning, and people looting stores. The local people began to take security in their own hands, arming themselves and setting up barricades, shooting anyone they didn’t know.
25:59 Jones joins up with the rest of the American media in order to ensure safe passage for his tapes out of the country. He stays on a military base interviewing troops and officers. A Colonel in the U.S. Army: “We have been greeted like conquering heroes.” A Sargeant expressed reservations: “It hurts, not because I know the people that well, but because it hurts to see all these little people gettin’ stepped on again.”
27:15 Jones closes the tape with some final thoughts: “These are the last pictures I took before leaving Panama. My trip ended there as abruptly as it started. I was alive, thank God, but a different person now. Changed, as everyone before me has been changed too, by the witness of my country at war.” Onscreen titles read: “The United States invasion and my participation in it will go down as a singular experience in my life. I grieve for the Panamanians and Americans who were killed in the conflict between the two nations. I indict myself and my media colleagues for not paying closer attention to Panamanian casualties, for literally allowing ourselves to be spoonfed by the military and for not paying closer attention to the situation sooner, for perhaps some manner of protest might have saved lives.”
28:49 Image Union end credits.