Tuesday, May 30, 2017

May Panama Never Forget

Today I heard the news of the passing of Manuel Antonio Noriega. I don’t expect that name to mean anything to many reading this post, but to me, the name still stirs a violent combination of fearful memories, deep anger and an age-old frustration mitigated only by the almost thirty years that separate his last political actions from the people of Panama.

Noriega, known to Panamanians as El General Cara de Piña, is responsible for countless acts of terror against his own people. He breathed his last just hours ago… and my heart was conflicted, I have to admit.

The news of his death brought to my mind the still vivid scenes of my witnessing of the dramatic invasion of Panama in December of 1989 by the United States under Operation Just Cause. It was, indeed, a Just Cause operation because otherwise the people of Panama would not have been able to get rid of Noriega, but that does not deny the fact that experiencing it was horrifying. Being the recipient of the punishment of the USA’s military force is not to be taken lightly regardless of how just the operation is. The panic of realizing the lights you see in the sky are not fireworks is not easily forgotten. But neither are the years of living under the ruling of a ruthless dictator that treated the country as his personal farm and the people as his slaves.

I was born under a military dictatorship. General Omar Torrijos was in power at the time. Although more benevolent than Noriega, Torrijos taught me to live without the ability to be completely free. It is said that Noriega planned the “accident” where Torrijos died. After a quick succession of rulers, Noriega rose to power when I was a sophomore in High School. By the next year, hearing about people who had been thrown in jail for speaking their mind, disappeared or/and brutally murdered for disagreeing with Noriega’s rule were a common occurrence. Once I graduated from High School and moved to Panama City to attend college, things were so bad my sister and I lived in a constant state of worry that caused us to fear even buying white toilet paper… every day at noon, in Panama City, people from the tallest buildings in downtown would unroll white toilet paper from the windows like streamers of protest as others banged pots and pans in hopes of being heard by a world that seemed to be asleep to the plight of the people of Panama.

Anything white was banned. Nurses had to carry a special permission to walk about wearing their uniforms.

The night of the US invasion of Panama, I remembered I called my Dad and told him what was happening, since the heavy fire was only in Panama City. Back in our hometown, 4 hours away, things were still quiet at that time. My Dad would talk about that phone call for the rest of his life: “Dad, can’t you hear it? The sound… the sound you hear over the phone… that’s bombs, Dad, bombs from the sky!” He would repeat what he remembered as my words when I called every time the conversation revolved around the events of that December night…

That night, he quickly gathered my Mom and whatever he could, got in the car and drove away to seek refuge at one of my Mom’s brother’s house because our neighborhood had been targeted as one that would receive retaliation from Noriega’s forces if the US ever decided to invade…besides, our house was around the corner from the military headquarters of our province…easy target either way.

I remember my Dad saying how he locked the gate at the bottom of our driveway, got in the car, and looked back thinking that’d be the last time he’d see our house standing…

I owe all these memories and many more I don’t have time to relate here, to General Noriega. Mine are happy compared with those of the people directly at the other end of his gun. After the invasion, Noriega landed in prison in the USA and later in Panama, where he was when he got sick last month and later died last night. There is a whole new generation of Panamanians who do not share my history either because they were too young to be affected by it or were not even born. I pray that they do know it, however, so they are not bound to repeat it.

As for me, when I heard of his passing my heart was conflicted… then I read a devotional reading which heading says: “Expect and Extend Mercy.” The title made me shudder… but as I read it, the Holy Spirit manifested Himself into my heart showing me that the right thing to do is to forgive and to pray for God’s absolution. I am not his judge. God is. May He have mercy on this man’s soul. And may the people of Panama never forget.

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