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Panama: Report of the Truth Comission
reviewed by Eric Jackson
The report is an often painful tale of a train of atrocious abuses ocurring over more than 20 years, but mainly in the first few years when the dictatorship suppressed an incipient guerrilla movement and other opposition, with another cluster of cases in the final episode, as Noriega clung to power. It is about 70 human souls snuffed out; another 40 suffering not only that fate but also having left their families with cruel doubts due to their forced disappearances; and of a much larger number of individuals who were tortured and degraded in revolting ways. It's the investigators' report on the fates of Father Gallego, radical leader Floyd Britton, high school student Rita Wald, Dr. Hugo Spadafora and all the rest.
The thick document, which was officially issued at the end of April, is timely. Next year is Panama's centennial as a republic and the corresponding literary celebration is beginning to get underway. Although it was not written for that purpose, the Truth Commission's report is so far the most important of the Panananian centennial historical works.
Why, aside from preachy civics lessons, pay attention to this, one of the more sordid aspects of our history?
For starters, there was a presidential mandate to fulfill, met in the two pages of conclusions and recommendations, by which the commissioners urged the politicians, judges and prosecutors to take actions to discourage and prevent a repetition of such abuses.
This, however, is not your average boring pointless government-sponsored study. Panama has a long history, from even before we were a country, dating back to long before the Europeans came and conquered. There is plenty of material out there for the scholars, and I look forward to seeing other tales of prouder moments in isthmian history in the mix of books that will be appearing over the next year and one-half. However, the abuses of the dictatorship are an important part of that history. With the publication of this report this topic is more than ever a part of the record, and that's a healthy thing.
This report is in Spanish, but a number of the appendices are collections of declassified US documents in their English originals, followed by Panamanian translations. A little more than half of the book, after page 266, is dedicated to the various exhibits and appendices.
In its Spanish original this report has received some national press coverage, but not the widespread international notice of which it is worthy. The presidentially appointed Truth Commission, over which Alberto Almanza presides, also includes Episcopalian Bishop Julio Murray, Juan Antonio Tejada Mora, Osvaldo Velásquez. With them, former commissioner Fernando Berguido G. was also listed as a co-author. The report is based on the work of many researchers in diverse specialties, including mang many others the forensic anthropologists who worked the gruesome digs under the coordination of Bruce Broce; the lawyers, diplomats, archivists and historians who sought and analyzed all those documents the commission received from the Americans; investigative journalist Rafael Pérez Jaramillo; and a mutt who looks more purely doberman than she really, whose sensitive nose is a legend.
This work needs to be translated into English, French and probably several other languages for sale around the world and to our many nationalities of visitors. It is an impressive accomplishment, whose fame deserves notice beyond Spain and Latin America. It is also deserves to be the center of an intensive soul searching inquiry into the nature and quality of human rights here in Panama, not so much for recriminations about the past but as a lesson for the future. But more than anything, it ought to be read as a timely and fascinating history book.
From the Truth Commission's report...
page 53, translated from the Spanish here by Eric Jackson:
"The victim was tied up in the jail's courtyard --- within view of the other prisoners --- and stripped, and in this defenseless position was beaten with rubber hoses and other police implements over 18 hours, by various members of the Defense Forces who took their turns."
"Rita Irene Wald Jaramillo CV-D-103-01
Disappeared, Gallerias Obarrio, Panama City, March 27, 1977
Face of the victim
Rita Wald was 17 years old, a high school student at Colegio Jose Antonio Remon Cantera and leader of the group Democratic Student Solidarity at the same school.
* * *
"... in student politics, she challenged the Panamanian Student Federation (FEP), an organization that supported the regime, to be the students' representatives at the school.
* * *
"...she received telephone calls at her home, warning her that 'You're going to disappear.'"
* * *
"There are sufficient elements of proof to conclude that the disappearance of Rita Irene Wald on the 27th of March, 1977 was politically motivated.
There are sufficient elements to conclude that the state agents responsible for carrying out the investigation did not act with due diligence....
There are sufficient proofs to conclude that a violation of the right to life, which is consecrated in article 17 of the 1972 Constitution; in article 1 of the Inter-American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Mankind; and in artice 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights, has been committed against Rita Irene Wald...."
"... measures like pardons and amnesties, juridical phenomena like statutes of limitations and legal norms that contemplate the principle of due obedience were used to propitiate and permit impunity."
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