The Washington Post published a front-page story on U.S. military bases in Panama on Monday, October 16, titled, "Panama Turnaround: Yankee, Don't Go Home." The article continues in the same cynical tenor. Besides being narrowly sourced (only two Panamanians - both conservative cabinet officers - are quoted in a 34-paragraph piece), the article contains some serious errors and distortions. It is very damaging.
If people of conscience do not respond with letters to the editor, this ariticle is likely to define the way many policy-makers in Washington see the issue of military bases in Panama and U.S. obligations under the Panama Canal Treaties.
Please write a letter to the Washington Post that responds to this front-page article. The time is late (the Post is not distributed on the West Coast at all, or we would have written earlier). Letters should be up to 300 words, and sent to: Letters to the Editor, Washington Post, 1150 Fifteenth St. N.W., Washington, DC 20071. The Post discourages faxed letters. Please take an hour TODAY, and write a letter. Make sure that you sign the letter, and give your day and evening telephone numbers and address. Give an organizational affiliation if you have one. Use the following talking points.
Problem of sources -
Most sources quoted by the Post are unnamed "U.S. officials." No Panamanians except for Foreign Minister Lewis Galindo and Economy Minister Guillermo Chapman are quoted, but the ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) is actually divided on whether to negotiate a base agreement. The party's president, Gerardo Gonzalez, outgoing Assembly president Balbina Herrera, and other party leaders oppose keeping military bases. So do many others who have spoken out in recent weeks. The Post treats them with silence.
The Post gives the date for U.S. withdrawal as 1998, but the Canal Treaties give the United States until December 31, 1999 to pull out. "There is no funding scheduled for any U.S. troop presence here beyond 1998," the Post says, an outright fiction. Troops in Panama are funded through 1999.
The Post confuses the move of Southern Command headquarters, the 600 coordinating staff who will transfer to Miami in summer 1998, with the whole U.S. contingent in Panama of 8,800 troops. The Post version gives Panama a year and a half less time to plan for the base transfer than is the case in fact.
Washington Post: "White House aides had to choreograph a 'spontaneous' raising of the issue by President Clinton so that the Panamanian president could then begin discussing it publicly."
Response: This and the article generally imply that it hadnUt occurred to United States officials to keep bases in Panama after 1999. But two weeks before the presidential visit, SouthCom Commander General Barry McCaffrey publicly proposed keeping 5,000 troops after 1999. In March, Pentagon officials testified in Congress that they were interested in keeping three U.S. bases in Panama to assist in the drug war, troop training in tropical conditions and civic action operations.
Washington Post: Panama's "economy desperately needs the 16,000 jobs and $330 million in wages and sales generated by the American military presence, which account for 8 percent of PanamaUs gross domestic product."
Fact: According to official U.S. Southern Command figures, the bases bring $260 million in wages and sales into Panama, not $330 million. Even if you accept the higher figure of $330 million, that represents only 5 percent of Panama's GDP, not the grossly inflated 8% asserted by the Post.
Second, the U.S. is already laying off Panamanian base workers - who number 5,100 - and would keep a thousand workers or fewer if some of the bases stay. The Post fails to mention this.
Finally, Nicolas Ardito Barletta, the former president who directs Panama's agency overseeing the former bases, asserts that civilian use of the bases can generate more than 150,000 jobs and $1.5 billion in income for Panama. Again, the Post neglects this.
Washington Post: "On a U.S. scale, the economic impact from the troop withdrawal would be equivalent to shutting down the Big Three car makers, along with IBM and Exxon."
Response: This is grossly misleading, since Panama will inherit installations valued at $4 billion by the World Bank, and at $15 to $30 billion by other analysts. A better comparison would be if the United States nationalized the Big Three car makers, and received every plant, office, and other real estate they own. Besides, Panamanians can't consume the product of military bases, because they don't produce anything, such as cars or computers.
Washington Post: "While senior Panamanian officials have made this [economic] point in private talks with their American counterparts, they do not say it publicly because of domestic political sensitivities, a U.S. official in Panama explained... Panama is engaging in a ritual dance around the truth..."
Fact: On the contrary, Panamanian President Perez Balladares has been clear that the only reason for Panamanian interest in a continued U.S. military presence is economic. He said this publicly in Washington when he and President Clinton announced talks on continuing the bases, and has said so publicly in Panama. So have other Panamanian officials.
The Post invokes one of the most worn stereotypes of Latinos, that they are devious. The dishonesty and patronizing attitude of U.S. military officials who appear to be interested in keeping U.S. bases in Panama purely for the sake of PanamaUs economic well-being goes without notice.
Washington Post: "If this country's past record of neglect is any indication, the inherited property is likely to fall quickly into disrepair. For example, the U.S.-built Trans-Isthmian Railroad, which enjoyed a 65-year accident-free history under American control, suffered a series of derailments in the five years after it was handed over to Panama in 1979... Today, debris and rusting derailed boxcars litter the edges of the once pristine railroad."
Response: As in U.S. communities where bases close, some properties have been used well and others not. A former U.S. naval clinic transferred to Panama last year serves 500-700 patients a day under Panama's health care administration. Many government agencies are housed in once-military buildings. Some properties are used for housing by poor communities with no other resources.
The railroad, when it was under U.S. control, never operated without heavy subsidies, according to the State Department. Analysts from the University of Panama's Canal Institute say it was transferred to Panama with no skilled administrative guidance, and that even operation manuals were taken away along with U.S. personnel.
Popular opinion: Public opinion polls have consistently asked Panamanians whether they want the U.S. military bases to stay, and Panamanians in the majority have consistently said yes. However, when the question is posed differently, when Panamanians are asked how the U.S. bases should be used, most respond with a variety of civilian uses - housing to meet the country's acute shortage, schools and universities, factories, ship repair facilities, tourism (from hotels to eco-tours), and so on. The Panamanian Center for Research and Social Action recently held a national art and writing competition on how to use the U.S. bases. Of hundreds of responses, not one included a military use; not one gun or tank appeared in the drawings, paintings, poems and essays.
Former Foreign Minister Raul Mulino notes that the economic result of a continued U.S. military presence would be "extremely reduced. That is what must be explained to the people," he says, "not the opposite shown in manipulated opinion polls, where people are asked whether or not they agree that such income should be lost by closing the bases."
For more information, contact John Lindsay-Poland or Andres Mares Muro, Fellowship of Reconciliation, 515 Broadway, Santa Cruz, CA 95060. Tel: (408) 423-9089. Fax: (408) 423-8716.