Jackson, “mutual assistance” of different sorts: Panama, Colombia and the USA

Cerro Patacon burns, as the huge garbage dump in a northwestern part of the Panama City metro area had repeatedly done. A recent photo by the bomberos.

“What’s in it for US?” in foreign aid

by Eric Jackson

If you read or listen to the discourse against foreign aid that unfolds in the United States, two major currents are apparent.

The larger stream, often flecked with racism, is a usually right-wing stream of consciousness about how resources that ought to be spent on deserving Americans in the USA are instead being wasted on foreigners for no good reason. There is also a common theme, coming mainly out of the left, that recognizes that at least by some measures most US foreign aid is military assistance that represents the costs of a cynical policy of maintaining a global empire of dependent and subservient states.

In the past few days we have seen a couple of illustrations here, and ought to think a bit about what it means for the countries involved.

On March 22 in the Metro Libre, there was a story about how “The United States donates equipment to Panama to reinforce security in the country.” It features Panama’s President Cortizo and US Ambassador Aponte and has the appearance of something written by a publicist at the American Embassy.

Then we see in passing something in the media coverage of the story of a long-running environmental disaster, the conclusions to which will be, among other things, measured in cancer cases for years to come, the recurring fires at Cerro Patacon. In Panamanian news reports it’s brief mention. In the Colombian press it gets bigger play. The Colombian Air Force has been deployed to help fight the fire.

Is it a “national security issue” when a country’s capital is repeatedly covered by clouds of toxic smoke? Perhaps it’s no big deal to those whose thoughts about the matter center upon weapons, geopolitics and ideology. The folks whose thinking lays the cornerstone of “national security” in a country’s ability to feed its people are likely to take a different view.

But look at what the donors say, and think a bit about what it means.

The Colombians? They have a physically much bigger country than ours and when the problems are similar theirs tend to be geometrically larger. Notice, however, the reference in the post on the Colombian Air Force’s Twitter / X account — “incendio forestal.” It’s really not a forest fire, but it’s categorized that way because that’s mostly the stuff with which the Colombian helicopters that came to our rescue deal.

On the Colombian Air Force website they go into more detail, describing two systems that they deployed here. One is that from a helicopter they poured water from “Bambi Buckets” on precise points of the burning dump. The other was that from a fixed-wing cargo plane they released “Guardian Caylym” containers which, once released from the aircraft and in the air discharge their water content over a somewhat larger area as if it’s raining.

As in the Colombians were helping out some neighbors but were also training their forces and experimenting with the application of some technologies to see how they work in a given situation. It’s not as if there was nothing in it for the Colombian Air Force in this gift.

US military aid in another context: in 2014 in Iraq, people displaced and cut off from supplies by an offensive by the Islamic State got these pallets of bottled water air dropped to them from this US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III cargo transport plane. US Department of Defense photo by Staff Sergeant Vernon Young Jr., USAF.

Forget about the MAGA stereotypes about foreign aid going to swarthy criminals whose big ambition in life is to cross the border from Mexico into the United States and rape cute blonde American girls — or at least get on welfare at taxpayers’ expense. Most US foreign aid is military assistance and at the moment it’s highly unpopular with a segment of the American population because its best known face is supplying the munitions for Israeli ethnic cleansing operations against the Palestinians.

But across the seas, on this side of the planet and in this country there are other long experiences with US military assistance. Let’s get analytical, but not too cynical, about such programs and the ways that they are presented to the Panamanian people.

On this occasion, let’s set aside most of the history and motivation of US information control games and just look at something that was recently presented.

It’s about gifts from the United States to reinforce public safety in this country. It’s through the State Department’s international law enforcement and “War On Drugs” apparatus. US Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte describes a mission to “provide timely, relevant and actionable information on threats to border security in the region, especially terrorism, irregular migration, drug trafficking and illicit trade. Since its creation, 1,148 reports of possible security threats have been generated, including: drug traffickers, murderers, document forgers, alerts with pending cases, among others.” She tells of 60 military vehicles delivered to Panama’s SENAN combined coast guard and air patrol, and to our SNF border patrol. She describes the sharing of biometric data and equipment to identify suspects, cooperation against money laundering and training for maritime rescue operations.

Yeah, yeah. Will some Karen protest that when she sees a black person in her neighborhood and calls the cops, it takes forever for them to come, but here the US government is funding law enforcement in a foreign country.

Consider, however, the economic realities of this.

Did Uncle Sam give money for somebody with the right surname and political ties in the Panamanian government to skim, and then order motor vehicles with what’s left? Not a chance. As with most US foreign aid, the money for the cars never left the United States. Uncle Sam bought those military vehicles from US manufacturers and then shipped them to Panama. Just like many of those Fords in which Panamanian cops tool around.

Do we want to get into “first one’s free” pusher economics? Get the Panamanian government hooked on one model of automobile, or computer, or software, through initial gifts, and if all goes as hoped there will be some Panamanian purchases of some of this stuff afterward.

The reality of it is that US foreign aid works as a subsidy to American businesses. As in American jobs in places like the Detroit area and bonuses and stock options for the more privileged strata of management personnel.

The biometric stuff? Does that work like the artificial intelligence that frequently garbles this reporter’s social media posts?

There has been a lot of criticism of erroneous results arising from police use of facial recognition technology in the United States. The market to sell that stuff to big city police departments and such has declined because of the errors and the reputation they generate. But how much of that is about cops acting as if they have an all-powerful magic wand rather than a useful tool that requires verification work to properly employ? And how much unmarketable police and military junk does Uncle Sam dump overseas?

Yet against that, over the past several years a number of criminal suspects have been identified and arrested at Tocumen Airport via the biometric detection equipment they have there. The technology does have its uses and is improving over time.


Contact us by email at thepanamanews@gmail.com

To fend off hackers, organized trolls and other online vandalism, our website comments feature is switched off. Instead, come to our Facebook page to join in the discussion.

These links are interactive — click on the boxes


click to donate via PayPal