When the United States invaded Panama in December 1989, I felt
personally involved, although I lived in California. The previous
month, human rights coworkers of mine had been arrested and ex-
pelled from El Salvador during a violent spasm that brought the killing
of six Jesuit priests and the bombing of neighborhoods in San Salvador
by armed forces trained and supplied by the United States. Two of
my colleagues ended up with the Central American Human Rights
Commission in Costa Rica, where they typed accounts that arrived on
blurry fax paper of the names of bombed neighborhoods in Panama
City and of the simultaneous combat, chaos, and indiscriminate
The midnight invasion was the largest U.S. military operation at that
time since the Vietnam War, and it led to the killing of at least hundreds
of Panamanian civilians, the loss of homes for fifteen thousand, and
economic losses estimated in the billions of dollars. The invading forces
dismantled Panama’s government and armed forces and arranged for a
new president to be sworn in at a U.S. air base. In twenty-one years of
military rule, Panamanians had never seen anything like it.
President George Bush justified the invasion of Panama partly on the
grounds that an American woman had been threatened sexually by
Panamanian soldiers. But the very next day, another human rights
coworker in Guatemala City, a twenty-seven-year-old woman from
Virginia, was stabbed in an attack that the president of Guatemala
later said had been carried out on military orders. My friend’s stabbing
wounds did not invoke Washington’s rage. During the 1980s, the
United States gave considerable support to the same militaries of Gua-
temala and El Salvador that were attacking international humani-
tarian workers—not to mention civilians from those countries. To me,
President Bush’s rationale for the invasion rang false.
Aware before the invasion of the growing tensions between the gov-
ernments in Washington and Panama, my organization, the Fellow-
ship of Reconciliation, had invited a Panamanian human rights leader,
Nicolasa Terreros, to do a two-month speaking tour of the United
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