Upon its release in 1992, “The Panama Deception” was hailed by one critic as being “a cinematic Molotov cocktail.” Claiming an Academy Award in Documentary Feature that same year, the film came as a shocking revelation for its American audiences. “The Panama Deception” deftly chronicles the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 and examines the rarely-scrutinized history of covert military involvement in Central America. In doing so, the documentary reveals the sordid nature of our government’s power-playing role throughout the region. The film also candidly exposes the propagandist techniques employed in order to doctor the information that was fed to the American public through various corporate media outlets. As the U.S. teeters on the brink of yet another invasion, a viewing of “The Panama Deception” promises to offer several particularly relevant messages regarding American foreign policy.
The film opens with a solemn narrative of the actual invasion. Operation “Just Cause” commenced at midnight on Dec. 20, 1989; a total force of 26,000 American troops was mobilized for the simultaneous assault of 27 strategic targets. All manner of weaponry was utilized during the next three days of violence. Panama City and its surrounding areas lay in ruin by Christmas day. The invasion, initiated by President George H. W. Bush, was considered a stunning success by the Pentagon. Stateside, the media perspective collaborated with the Bush administration to portray a clean military strike against a drug-running dictator – Gen. Manuel Noriega. Sadly, the facts behind the strike remained largely skewed until intrepid directors Barbara Trent and David Kasper produced “The Panama Deception.”
The motivations to attack Panama were expertly crafted to appear justifiable to the American public. In the weeks leading up to the invasion, Noriega was cast as a cunning megalomaniac and a murderer who “posed a threat to national security.” His involvement with large-scale cocaine trafficking was well known, both in the United States and in Panama. This aspect of his media portrait was accurate; the networks and the newspapers did, however, neglect to divulge any information about Noriega’s past partnerships with the Reagan and Bush administrations. A graduate of the notorious School of Americas and a one-time CIA operative, Noriega served as a middleman for U.S. interests in Latin and Central America throughout the 1980s. Securing the trust of two Republican administrations, he quickly rose through the corrupt ranks of Panama’s government and was eventually installed as a puppet leader. For his cooperation in helping the United States stage several coups and covert military strikes, Bush turned a blind eye to Noriega’s rapidly-escalating cocaine operations. Only a few years would pass before Bush ironically declared his commitment to a war on drugs a reason to invade Panama.
With Noriega’s shady rise to power came his gradual break with the United States. The general began to incite ill sentiment against the United States and called for an end of American involvement on the continent. Thus began the dissolution of the secret alliance between the Panamanian dictator and the newly elected President Bush in 1988. Later that year, Noriega was indicted by two federal grand juries on charges of money laundering and drug trafficking; it was the first federal indictment of a foreign leader in American history. Media organizations were very quick on the uptake and closely followed Bush’s ever-growing hype of Noriega’s malevolence. Action quickly followed, as well; the United States funneled over $10 million into parties opposing Noriega at the elections. A coup d’