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Most Panamanians in L.A. Back Ouster

February 08, 1990|RAFAEL PRIETO ZARTHA | Prieto Zartha is a free-lance journalist based in Los Angeles

Most members of the local Panamanian community are happy about the ouster of Manuel Antonio Noriega, but they generally have ambivalent feelings about how it was achieved: the massive U.S military invasion of their homeland.

"To me, as a Latin American, the invasion posed an ethical dilemma," said Santiago Torrijos, former consul general of Panama in Los Angeles and nephew of one-time Panamanian strongman Omar Torrijos.

"Initially, I didn't know which carried more weight, the intervention of foreign troops in a sovereign nation, or the fall of a bloody dictatorship."

Nevertheless, Torrijos leaned toward supporting President Bush's policy. "Bush exhausted all the diplomatic channels. I was a personal victim of Noriega, and now I know there was no other way out," he said. Torrijos, who was removed from office by Noriega during a political crisis in 1988, said he was tortured during a recent visit to Panama.

For Roger Martinez, who as a Panamanian Defense Forces first sergeant participated in the failed coup attempt against Noriega on Oct. 3, the invasion "was the only way left" to remove him. But he said it was a mistake to have let the strong man survive that October action. "All of that could have been avoided if (U.S. forces) had come to get him when we detained him," he said.

During that coup attempt, the rebels briefly held Noriega, but U.S. military forces did not take that opportunity to capture him.

Martinez, an 18-year veteran of the Panamanian Defense Forces, now lives in Arcadia with his wife and three children. They were among a group of 18 military families that sought refuge in Los Angeles after the coup attempt failed.

The onset of the Dec. 20 invasion kept Southern California Panamanians up all night, glued to their television sets. "We were following the news minute by minute, from the moment President Bush announced he was sending in the troops," said Jorge Cuevas, a Panamanian who has lived in Los Angeles since 1957. "We were very fearful for the fate of our relatives, and for the deaths that could result from the military action."

The telephone became the main source of information. "We were able to get through the next day, but what my relatives were saying the first few days was very sad. They couldn't go out on the street, or go to buy food," said Xiomara Galindo, a KTLA Channel 5 producer.

"What was being shown on television," she said, "was very disquieting: the looting, the activities of the 'Dignity Battalions.' There seemed to be no order. And Noriega had not been caught."

For his part, former Consul Torrijos said that "on the 24th things were quieter, once it was learned that the dictator had taken asylum in the Papal Nunciature."

"Jubilation broke out on Jan. 3" with the announcement of Noriega's surrender to U.S. authorities for trial, said actor Ron Henriquez, a star of the film "Code of Silence" who also appeared in the television miniseries "Drug Wars: The Camarena Story."

"It's easy to talk about national sovereignty when one hasn't lived under a tyrant like Noriega," said Henriquez, who said he favored the invasion from the start. "U.S. help was needed to oust the dictator. The military was abusing its power.

"The only freedom in Panama was that of Noriega's henchmen, to steal and commit atrocities," said the actor, who compared the actions of U.S. troops in his country to those of the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II.

Yet not all Panamanian residents of Los Angeles--estimated at 10,000--feel that the intervention was justified.

"I was against Noriega and his corruption, but nothing justifies an armed operation in my homeland," said attorney and economist Edmundo Valentin Fernandez, who worked in the Panamanian embassy in Washington in 1976 and 1977 helping to negotiate the Panama Canal treaties signed by the Torrijos and Carter administrations.

"I am against the invasion for reasons of sovereignty and respect for the principle of non-intervention established in international law by the U.N. Charter," he said.

The U.S. action drew even harsher criticism from Leonardo Sidnez, main Los Angeles spokesman for the Jan. 9 Panamanian Committee. "The invasion was a typically imperialist act supported by the Panamanian oligarchy," Sidnez said. His group, with about 20 members, took its name from a 1964 protest by Panamanian students against the U.S. presence in the country.

Sidnez said U.S. intervention in December was merely "an excuse to break the canal treaties." He referred to the fall of Noriega as "the overthrowing of a government (that was) legitimate and representative of the Panamanian identity, since there were blacks, Asians and whites in his Cabinet."

In Southern California, Panamanians have rarely made themselves felt as a community. However, members of that community have gained prominence in a number of fields. They include actor-musician Ruben Blades, jockey Laffit Pincay Jr., structural engineer Benito Sinclair and baseball star Rod Carew.

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