The Panama Deception

It’s remarkable that after all these years, and all the revelations to the media lies and propaganda that fed the build up and prosecution of this unjust, and unnecessary invasion of Panama, that a photojournalist like Ron Haviv can still brag about this work, and discuss it as if it ‘made a difference’. It is odd that he doesn’t realise that the US media, with its unquestioning repetition of government propaganda, instigated an invasion that cost the lives of many innocents! What surprises and dismays me about his statements – so entirely ahistorical, is his refusal to understand that his photo was used by the state, by the government propaganda machine, to serve a purpose that the state had already developed. His picture became a weapon of pre-emptive and planned war!


 By the end of the week, they had appeared on the covers of Newsweek, Time and US News & World Report. It was the first time in many years that one photographer had enjoyed such an honour.

Debate started to grow over what the US response should be. But it was only when George H.W. Bush, the then US president, announced an invasion and offered the events captured by my photographs as a justification, that I understood just what role photojournalism can play in such a conversation.

Ron Haviv, Al-Jazeera Magazine

All things are in the grip of inadequate causation; namely, they are partially determined to act by other, external things. The individualistic ethos, which is the continuation of the metaphysics of subjectivity, refuses to the last to consider such an idea. True, at stake is nothing less than its outright dissolution, and a habit of thinking and relating to oneself that is by now so entrenched will not easily give way. Except by the violence of a kind of conversion, the idea of full determination cannot readily defeat the deeply engrained belief in the faculty of self-determination on which individuals rest their identities as ‘subjects’. Yet…Spinoza discloses the genetic principle of this idea, that is, the mechanism of its begetting in the imagination: ‘men are deceived in thinking themselves free, a belief that consists only in this, that they are conscious of their actions and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined.’

Frederic Lordon, Willing Slaves of Capital; Spinoza And Marx on Desire


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It is one thing to be this naive in the heat of the moment, but now, decades later, to repeat this nonsense and frankly infantile clichés, is irresponsible and anti-intellectual. The entire history of this invasion, America’s use and misuse of Noriega, and prosecution of the invasion itself, the lies that were perpetuated before and during and after, are in the public arena. Has Ron Haviv not read a single piece of academic or other work, about that which he so still brags?

And what photojournalist brags about helping instigate an invasion, a war, and the death of thousands? What photojournalists refuses to review his own experiences made in the blindness of the light and sound show of violence, to not try to understand better? How do you call yourself a photojournalist if you even after all these years continue to propagate what was then, and even now, nothing about an abuse of history? I can’t create a complete bibliography of materials here, but there is so much already written about this tragic episode in American history, that we look back on it with a combination of embarrassment, shame and outright regret!

Jeff Cohen and Mark Cook of the FAIR blog, revealed in a piece called How Television Sold The Panama Invasiondetailed American media’s mindless and unthinking parroting of the American propaganda machine’s ‘perspectives during and after the invasion. I quote from their piece:

The incident [Noriega’s apparent declaration of war] symbolises media performance on the invasion–dispense official information as gospel first, worry about the truth of that information later. It’s just what the White House was counting on from the media. The Bush team set out to control television and front-page news in the first days, knowing that exposes of official deception (such as Noriega’s 110 pounds of “cocaine” that turned out to be tamales) would not appear until weeks later, buried on inside pages of newspapers. Rulers do not require the total suppression of news. As Napoleon Bonaparte once said: It’s sufficient to delay the news until it no longer matters.

There was even a remarkable film produced about this entire fiasco. The Panama Deception, remains an excellent way to see the broader context of the situation, and the ways in which the history of American political, economic and regional colonial involvement in Panamanian political and economic issues, determined the direction of the confrontation. Coincidently, The Panama Deception though nominated for an Academy Award, was banned in the new ‘liberated’ Panama!

This is a war that set the stage and was staged managed by personalities and characters that foisted American into a whole host of illegal, unjust and brutal wars for which we, as a nation and as individuals, are still paying the price. To say nothing about the millions murdered for the sake of a delusions political and economic dream. As Professor Grandin, in a DemocracyNow interview, pointed out:

The invasion of Panama took place a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it really set the terms for future interventions in a number of ways. One, it was unilateral. It was done without the sanction of the United Nations, without the sanction of the Organisation of American States, which was a fairly risky thing for the United States. It didn’t occur often, even during the Cold War. Two, it was a violation of national sovereignty, which of course the United States did often during the Cold War, but it was a violation—the terms of the violation changed. It was done in the name of democracy. It was argued—it was overtly argued that national sovereignty was subordinated to democracy, or the United States’ right to adjudicate the quality of democracy. And three, it was a preview to the first Gulf War. It was a massive coordination of awesome force that was done spectacularly for public consumption. It was about putting the Vietnam syndrome to rest.

As recently as last year, Matt Peppe wrote a piece in CounterPunch, discussing this invasion, where he argued:

…the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution condemning the invasion. But the United States – joined by allies Great Britain and France – vetoed it. American and European officials argued the invasion was justified and should be praised for removing Noriega from power. Other countries saw a dangerous precedent.

The Soviet Union and third world council members argued that the invasion must be condemned because it breaks the ban on the use of force set down in the United Nations Charter,” wrote the New York Times.

After this, on December 29, the General Assembly voted 75 to 20 with 40 abstentions in a resolution calling the intervention in Panama a “flagrant violation of international law and of the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the States.”

The Organization of American States passed a similar resolution by a margin of 20-1. In explaining the U.S.’s lone vote against the measure, a State Department spokesperson said: “We are disappointed that the OAS missed a historic opportunity to get beyond its traditional narrow concern over ‘nonintervention.”

In the ensuing occupation, CODEHUCA claimed that “the US has not respected fundamental legal and human rights” in Panama. The violations occurred on a “massive scale” and included “illegal detentions of citizens, unconstitutional property searches, illegal lay-offs of public and private employees, and … tight control of the Panamanian media.

Despite the international outrage, Bush enjoyed a political boost from the aggression. His poll numbers shot to record highs not seen “since Presidents Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower.” The President had authorized crimes against the peace and war crimes. Rather than being held accountable, he benefitted. So did the Pentagon and defense contractors who desperately needed a new raison d’ etre after the fall of Communism.

It is a disappointing to see the degree of hubris, arrogance and bizarre self-reference that allows photographers – and very experienced photographers at that – to make such ridiculous claims that place their images at the centre of history. But photojournalists, and editors who elevate them beyond reality, has had a long tradition of doing this. I have written about this strange, self-referential habit before, where people attribute to a photograph a near shamanistic power to create change, while entirely erasing the larger political context within which the image is exploited and used. It is a style that places ‘us’ at the centre of history, making our ‘consumption of images’ the most important political act, and the most significant historical development. It erases the political history, the social will, and the human reality of ‘the other’, reducing their lives and their experiences as derivative at best, irrelevant at worst. We see, we determine, we photograph, we act. They simply are acted on.

As Edward Said pointed out:

…the plain reportorial style coerces history, process, knowledge itself into mere events being observed. Out of this style has grown the eye-witness, seemingly opinion-less politics – along with its strength and weakness – of contemporary Western journalism. When they are on the rampage, you show Asiatic and African mobs rampaging; an obviously disturbing scene presented by an obviously concerned reporter who is beyond Left piety or right-wing cant. But are such events events only when they are show through the eyes of the decent reporter? Must we inevitably forget the complex reality that produced the event just so that we can experience concern at mob violence? Is there to be no remarking of the power that put the reporter or analyst there in the first place and made it possible to represent the world as a function of comfortable concern? Is it not intrinsically the case that such a style is far more insidiously unfair, so much more subtly dissembling of its affiliations with power, than any avowedly political rhetoric?

Edward Said on George Orwell, “Tourism Among The Dogs”, Reflections On Exile, Page 97

It is shocking to think that rather than seeing that images are used by media, by power, and politics, for purposes that have little or nothing to do with the intent and goals of the photographer, photojournalists are convinced that their images are the movers of history. I expect this from young, arrogance, swaggering toy-soldier type photojournalists. But from one of the most experienced photojournalists it is nothing but confusing and disappointing to say the least. This is a seriously delusional place to arrive at. To say nothing of the immorality of gloating over a war that was unnecessary, and unjust, that led to thousands of unnecessary deaths, and that remains mired in questions of legality.

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