Eighth-grade teacher Alan Haskvitz always tells his students to get both sides of the story.
So when his current events class at Suzanne Middle School began studying the U.S. invasion of Panama, Haskvitz suggested they write a letter to Gen. Manuel Noriega, asking the deposed dictator for his point of view.
On Tuesday, a handwritten letter postmarked Miami with no return address arrived at the Walnut junior high school.
"Dear students," began the letter, written in Spanish and signed, "With appreciation from General Manuel Antonio Noriega."
After politely thanking the class for its interest, the letter went on to defend Noriega's actions and lashed out at the negative publicity he has received.
Noriega, who surrendered to U.S. forces on Jan. 3, is being held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Dade County, Fla., and is to be tried on drug conspiracy charges. A federal judge has ordered the trial to start March 5, but has left open some possibility of postponements.
"The press of your country . . . has misinformed and distorted the image of a nationalistic and patriotic leader who struggled, struggles and will struggle for the sovereignty of his country, Panama," the letter said.
It also accused the U.S. Army of killing thousands of innocent men, women, children and elderly people during the December invasion.
"That was the Christian Christmas that the troops and government of your country gave to a small country of 2 million people. And still they are there and have one thousand prisoners of war--men, civilians and women under your control," Noriega continued.
Sources have told The Times that 500 Panamanian soldiers and civilians were killed during the invasion and 5,300 Panamanians were detained by U.S. forces, but have since been freed or turned over to local authorities.
The letter was written on a sheet from a yellow legal pad. Haskvitz said he did not attempt to authenticate it, but believes it to be Noriega's response because "the tone of the letter . . . sounds like him."
"It's really wild for the kids," Haskvitz said. "For the first time in their lives, they're in contact with someone in the news, so they're in shock, but they're starting to feel good about it."
Haskvitz said he isn't taking Noriega's letter at face value. Instead, he and the class evaluated Noriega's claims and compared them with known facts about the U.S. invasion.
"I'm certainly not pro-Noriega, but it's important for the students to look at opposing points of view to get at the truth," Haskvitz said. "His letter is the starting point of our investigation."
Already, the project has reaped some desired results.
"Mr. Haskvitz told us there are two sides to everything, but most of us didn't really know what was going on until we got the letter," a breathless Lisa Isomura said Wednesday. "Now we know Mr. Noriega's side as well."
The idea was born last month when Haskvitz, a social studies teacher who has won numerous awards for his innovative approach to learning, heard students discussing some of the outlandish rumors they had heard about Noriega.
"In my class, they always have to back up what they say with fact, so I said, 'Let's find out,' " Haskvitz said.
A committee of students drafted the letter, which was then translated into Spanish and mailed Jan. 31.
"We are interested in getting your side of the story on the Panama invasion," the class wrote to Noriega. "Would you please tell us what happened, how you plan to escape jail, how is the food and your family? The letter will be printed in the school newspaper."
Although hopes for a response were high, pandemonium erupted nonetheless when the letter arrived. Spanish-speaking students were drafted immediately to translate while the rest of the class clustered around, hanging on every word.
On Wednesday, Haskvitz shared Noriega's letter with the rest of the school. But his students have had little time to bask in the glory of their infamous correspondent because Haskvitz has already assigned them another letter.
This one will be addressed "Dear Mr. President." Haskvitz wants the students to ask George Bush to respond to Noriega's allegations.