Gangsters Movie Night 4: Hands of Stone
Panama! Boxing! Colonialism! De Niro! De Armas!
“Spheres of influence” are hot again these days. Here’s what Secretary of State Anthony Blinken had to say about the controversial geopolitical concept, as it regards the showdown with Russia over Ukraine:
But look, the President’s been extremely clear for many, many years about some basic principles that no one is moving back on: the principle that one country does not have the right to change by force the borders of another; that one country does not have the right to dictate the policies of another or to tell that country with whom it may associate; one country does not have the right to exert a sphere of influence. That notion should be relegated to the dustbin of history.
And he’s right, it should be! The problem is that when you sift through that dustbin you find that U.S. power was built on all the things Blinken mentioned. That is especially true in America’s original—and still primary—“sphere of influence”: Latin America. (The U.S.’s continued dominance over the hemisphere is obvious to everyone outside our borders, including Vladimir Putin, which is why he appears so eager to seed discord in the region).
Take Panama. The Central American republic was created by the U.S. military (including, of course, Smedley Butler). In short, we intervened there on behalf of Panamanian separatists, hewing the isthmus Crimea-style from Colombia for the purpose of building the Panama Canal—the waterway through which much of America’s global military and commercial power would ultimately be established. Over the century since, U.S. presidential administrations have most certainly dictated our de facto client state’s policies, as well as deciding “with whom it may associate.” When Panamanian dictator Manuel Noreiga tried to pivot toward the Soviet bloc, President George H. W. Bush (who was, not for nothing, Noriega’s former boss at the C.I.A.), ordered a full-scale invasion to overthrow him in 1989.
This week on Gangsters Movie Nights we discuss that history and more through the lens of … a boxing movie. Namely, Jonathan Jakubowicz’s 2016 drama Hands of Stone. A biopic of famed Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán, the film tries to divine the complex interior life of a man who grew up on the wrong side of U.S. imperialism (and the Canal Zone) and fought his way to becoming a four-time champion of the world. In so doing, the movie deals with—and in some cases re-enacts—some of the themes and scenes I talk about in Gangsters of Capitalism.
I’m joined for the conversation by my friend and political scientist Michael Paarlberg, a terrific thinker on Latin American policy and migration who spent much of his childhood living in Panama City.
To listen, just click the play button above. You can also download it, as well as past episodes, by searching for The Racket wherever you get podcasts (and please leave us a review if you do). A transcript is below. Thanks for listening.
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Thanks to everyone who has spread the word about Gangsters of Capitalism: Thanks to you, the book has now appeared for two straight weeks on the American Booksellers Association’s national bestseller list, as reported by independent stores nationwide. Please help keep the momentum going by buying the book from your favorite local indie.
The book is also being noticed by policymakers, including Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democratic congressman from California, who had this to say:
Jonathan M. Katz @KatzOnEarthYou write a book, and just hope an author and scholar you respect like @rauchway will read it. And then he does, and he likes it, and he *gets* it, and it’s great. https://t.co/4SHxaptLUd
Episode transcript (may contain transcription errors)
Marine: Get off the fence.
Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro): Excuse me?
Marine: Get off the fence.
Arcel: Ah. Shut up, schmuck.
Marine: Who do you think you are, old man?
Arcel: I'm Ray Arcel from Harlem, USA. You know who that is? This is the future world champion you're talking to. [Beat] He's in a jail and he thinks he's in charge.
Roberto Durán (Edgar Ramírez): We in jail.
Arcel: No, he's in jail.
Durán: They put jail. Here.
Arcel: No, he, it's all in the head. Boxing is a mental sport.
Jonathan M. Katz: Que xopa, raqueteros. This is The Racket, a podcast and newsletter that you can find at theracket.news. I am Jonathan M. Katz. My book, Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America's Empire is out in stores. Please go buy it. Tag me @katzonearth on Twitter and Instagram to share your photos of yourself and the book, or you and your dog in the book, or you and the kid in the book, or just you and multiple copies of the book, whatever you like.
The book is built around a biography of the imperialist Marine turned anti-war activist, Smedley Butler. It's gotten some great reviews, and Jacobin, Jonah Walters calls it an exhilarating hybrid of studious history and adventuresome travel log. Thank you, Jonah. Yes, that's what I tried to do for five years. I split my time between the archives and the airports traveling around the world, following in the footsteps of Butler and his generation of Marines and trying to explore the ways in which the memory of that era still influences attitudes and events today. Around the rollout, we here at The Racket are holding what we call Gangsters Movie Nights, in which I and a guest talk about a movie that deals with some of the themes and some of the places that I went in the book.
Today, we are going to Panama, a country that Smedley Butler not only went to, and not only lived in with his family, but helped create, as the United States helped Panama secede from Colombia in 1903, for the purposes of building the Panama Canal. As part of that deal, the American conspirators and one French guy wrangle control of a 10-mile wide colony surrounding the canal in which the United States would have all the rights, power, and authority, that's a quote from the treaty, as if it were "the sovereign of the territory." This new American colony essentially split the new country of Panama in half and it also created a deep sore in the Panamanian psyche, which is still in many ways open today.
To explore that history, we are of course watching a film about boxing. What other topic could you use to explore the issues of sovereignty and nationalism and imperialism? This one is Hands of Stone, a 2016 movie about the career of the legendary, and somewhat infamous, world champion boxer, Roberto Duran. The movie was directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz, a Polish-Jewish-Venezuelan. It stars Edgar Ramirez as Roberto Duran, Robert de Niro as his trainer Ray Arcel, Ana de Armas, as the love interest and Duran's wife, and the great leftist salsero Ruben Blades as a wealthy Panamanian backer. The Panamanian government actually helped finance the creation of the movie, which I think influenced the way that it got made and some of the content, as we will be discussing soon.
It's a boxing movie, but it deals with a surprising amount of Panamanian-American, Panama-US history in the 20th century, although a bit sloppily. To talk about it, I have invited Mike Paarlberg. Mike is an assistant professor in the Political Science Department at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. He's written for a whole bunch of places, including the Guardian, Washington Post, and Foreign Policy on immigration, Central America, and topics like that.
He is currently writing a book on transnational elections and diaspora politics in Mexico, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic. Mike is an old friend of mine who I know from when I lived in Washington many decades ago. He helped me with Gangsters because he helped introduced me to some people when I went down to Panama to do the research, because he lived in Panama for a time. Mike, welcome to The Racket.
Michael Paarlberg: Yeah. Thank you. It's a real pleasure to be here.
Jonathan: Can you tell us a little bit about your time in Panama, what you were doing there, and how you identify and what your relationship is with the country?
Michael: Yeah. Sure. I'm a political science professor. I do focus on Latin America and Central American, in particular. I lived in Panama as a kid. My father was a foreign service officer. He was a posted US Embassy, Panama. I was there for middle school and part of high school. I have to say, I am not Panamanian. I am American. I'm Korean-American, if that matters. I am coming at this as someone who has lived there, has some lived experience in Panama, but also as an outsider and someone who studies the region from a researcher's perspective. That's where I'm coming from and that's my interest. I'm glad I was able to help out in a small way with your book. It's really fascinating. Congrats on that.
Jonathan: You did. As I noted, my entire experience at Panama was going there for the book, other than I think once before that, I connected through the Panama City airport, as one often does. But when I was there, I traveled around. In my travels, I went to the neighborhood of El Chorrillo, which is the neighborhood that Roberto Duran grew up in. It's featured in this movie in Hands of Stone. I actually went to the gym that he trained in, which I believe I recognized, I think made a cameo, that gym in this movie.
Real fast, just to get everybody up to speed, and again, blanket warning, spoilers, if you want to go see Hands of Stone and not have it ruined for you, and you don't know anything about the history of Roberto Duran or the Panama Canal, go watch that. Hit pause. Come back. We're moving forward with some spoilers here. The plot of the movie is not particularly intricate. Basically, Roberto Duran grows up in El Chorrillo, which is a working class, poor neighborhood of Panama City, right next to the canal. And Ray Arcel, Robert de Niro sees him boxing, is enamored with his ring sense and his fighting style, chooses to help train him.
Duran initially refuses because he refuses to work with an American, but he eventually accepts de Niro's help. He becomes a champion of the world. He defeats Sugar Ray Leonard, who's played by Usher, and then Sugar Ray, Usher challenges him to a rematch. He's not ready for it because he's entered his decadent period of life. Most notoriously, the one thing that some people, at least people who don't remember him in his prime maybe know about Roberto Duran, is that he quits in the middle of that fight and says, or is said to have said, "No más," like he doesn't want to fight anymore. Then he redeems himself at the end, and there's an epilogue, and the movie is over.
Look, we could talk about the boxing, and I think there are actually some things to talk about there. But one of the more interesting things about the movie is that... And this surprised me. I knew that it would touch at least indirectly on themes of colonialism and American imperialism and Panama, but it does it very, very blatantly. There's a flashback at the beginning of the movie to January 9th, 1964. Mike, I don't know, for people who either haven't read Gangsters, I talk about the events of that day in the book, or seen the movie or know about it, tell us a little bit about what happened that day. Then let's talk about the way the movie dealt with it.
Michael: Yeah. That is, I'd say, the most notable event in the mid 20th century history of Panama and Panamanian relations with the US, because it is the event that led to the handover of the Panama Canal to the Panamanians. It is at this point not particularly controversial, but at the time, especially around the Carter administration, beginning the Reagan administration, it was a controversy. It was something that was seen as, I don't know, decline of US empire. Why is the US giving away this thing that they built?
In retrospect, it isn't a controversy, mostly, because the Panamanians at this point run the canal much better than it was ever run under the Americans. I think that's not just me saying this. I think any objective observer would say so. They actually improved the canal. They widened it so that larger ships can go through it. But what precipitated all this was famous moment in 1964, which is butchered, rather, by the movie, in which a number of patriotic Panamanian high school students went to raise a Panamanian flag on what was then US territory, the Panama Canal Zone.
A fight ensued between them and a number of American high school students who we would call Zonians—well, we can get into this—who did not want them to raise a flag on this territory. In the process, the Panamanian flag, which is a historic flag that had been used in previous protests, was torn. This became a huge controversy, led to an uprising by many Panamanians that did lead to a number of deaths, including of civilians, but also some Americans on the American side as well. As a result of this, the United States entered into negotiations with the Panamanian government, which eventually resulted in the signing the Panama Canal treaties between President Carter and Omar Torrijos, who was the military dictator of Panama at the time, but also a populist, and well-loved to this day by many Panamanians.
Jonathan: Let's talk really fast about Zonians. It's a really interesting thing. It's something that you see in other colonial spaces all over the world, the Pieds-Noirs war, the French in Tunisia, British Hong Kongers. I think that there are cousins of this elsewhere. During the lead-up to these flag riots, the US Army general who's in charge of the canal zone, Major General Robert Fleming, he says this, I guess maybe a notorious, reductive quote, he's really come to resent them, and he says, "They've been isolated so long. They've developed a reactionary mentality. The zone is the perfect place for the guy who's 150% American and 50% whiskey." You knew some Zonians. You introduced me to some Zonians who were lovely people. Tell me a little bit about them and what they represent to Panamanians as well.
Michael: Right. Again, I can't speak for Zonians. I knew a lot of them growing up, went to school with them. The school I went to, it was called Curundu Junior High School, which was roughly, roughly about a third Zonian, a third Panamanian, maybe a third US military. Actually, the time in which I was going there, there was a dividing line because the kids who were born in the '70s before the treaty were signed, were Zonians and therefore American citizens. They were born in the territory, which at the time was US territory, on 10 miles on either side of the canal. Then in the '80s, those who were born in the '80s were no longer American citizens. They would be given US residency, but would be Panamanian citizens, which mainly they resented because they were hypernationalistic.
I'm making generalizations here. But most of them had this settler colonialist mentality, which was they believed themselves to be the defenders of the United States in an outpost of what was once the US empire. They very much strongly identified with the United States as Americans, despite the fact—from my perspective, as someone who is not Zonian and coming from the United States—they didn't seem that American to me. At this point, they had been living in Panama for three generations or more. They were perfectly fluent in Spanish, spoke both Spanish and English, were mostly Catholic, and were intermarried with the elite of Panamanian society.
They identified with United States that they never actually really lived in. In many ways, what they'd lived in, in the Panama canal zone was a strange Disneyland socialist mockup of the United States. They really lived in this paradise where everything was paid for. They got free housing. The salaries they made, as people who were engineers or piloted the ships through the canal, were in the six figures. Many of them, they had these traditions, like the Cayuga Boat Races. It felt like a summer camp.
The way in which everything was taken care for them was very much not like it is in the mainland United States. When all of this officially ended, most of them stayed, but a number of them did end up migrating to the United States, mainland United States. With the handover the canal, a lot of them ended up in Florida. My understanding is a lot of them did stay in a kind of enclave communities, because I think at the time that they finally moved to the US, they realized, "We actually aren't quite as American as we thought."
Jonathan: It's interesting. In the movie, as you said, the way that the 1964 riots are... this precipitating event is portrayed, is a bit fanciful. It's very much historical memory, real events getting thrown into the Vitamix of time and memory, and coming out on the other side. First of all, it shows the child version of Roberto Duran being on the front lines of this thing.
Michael: I'm not sure about that. I can't say he wasn't there, but I had not heard of him being there.
Jonathan: It seems very unlikely, especially because what happens is, the Panamanian students, they're from the Instituto Nacional, right? It was like the most prestigious Panamanian school.
Michael: It's a prestigious technical school.
Jonathan: And he was not. He didn't go to school. And he wasn't old enough to be a high school, anyway.
Michael: He was famously illiterate for much of his life.
Jonathan: Right. Which the movie makes a big deal about. The class differences between him and Ana de Armas, they make a big deal about that in the movie. Instead of setting it up Balboa High School where this confrontation actually happens, they put it at the administrative building, which is a much more grandiose setting. It's got big steps, so the filmmakers could shoot up in a much more imposing way. They show it like the riot has started even before this flag exchange happens. Do we even explain that... what's happened here is basically that John F. Kennedy, the year before, had issued an order saying that the Panamanian and the American flags should both fly in the Panama Canal Zone.
The way that Robert Fleming, the general who had that quote about the guy who is 150% American and 50% whiskey, the way he blunted that order was just by saying that no flags would be flown in the zone. The Americans, especially high school students, both in Cristobal, which is the zone town next to Colon on the Atlantic side and Balboa, which is the zone town next to Panama City, obviously, both of these named for Spanish conquistadors, not subtle, they decide to fly the American flag. These students from the Instituto Nacional say, "Well, if you're going to fly your flag, then we're going to enforce this American edict and fly our flag as well." And shit gets crazy.
In the movie, they show a Panamanian student shimmying up the flag pole with the flag, and then getting shot down off the pole, which there's a historical memory of people, of them trying to fly this flag on the pole. There's a historical memory of people getting shot. There's historical memory of people, I think, it was on the cover of Life Magazine, climbing up... See, it's a streetlight, I think. Not a flag pole on-
Michael: Right. That was during the riots themselves, not in the original flag incident.
Jonathan: Exactly. And then, there's a big moment in the movie where they take this super Aryan blonde girl, and they take this moment where there was a scuffle and the Panamanian flag did at some point get ripped. I don't think it's clear to anybody exactly how that happened. There's sort of competing views of that. But the movie answers it and says that this blonde girl, she just takes the Panamanian flag and just holds it in front of the camera and just tears it.
Michael: It's imbued with symbolism. As you said, the movie shows someone literally getting shot off the pole by a US soldier. In reality, they didn't actually make it to the flag pole. They had actually negotiated with the US authorities and with the military to allow them to enter. It wasn't actually the soldiers who didn't want them there. It was the students who, in many ways, and this says something about the dynamics of colonialism in many ways, it was the settlers themselves. It was the Zonians themselves who didn't want any kind of negotiation or any kind of equal demonstration, to which the US from Kennedy down to the governor general were okay with.
Of course, the symbolism of the Zonians, again, I don't want to make too many generalizations. There are Black Zonians. There are Zonians who are entirely of Latino descent. It's not that they were all white, but the stereotype there was definitely the racial difference, which was reflected in the movie too, with Duran's relationship with his future wife, who would have been termed in Panamanian terms of the rabes blancas class. These were the upper-class Panamanians who were literally called in Panamanian slang, well, white butts.
Michael: They identified kind of as such. They flew the color white, white flags and wore a lot of white when they were protesting against the Noriega dictatorship. There are definitely strong racial overtones in the movie, which maybe are exaggerated a little bit, but also do reflect dynamics in Panama.
Jonathan: Ana de Armas, she dyes her hair blonde for the role to even accentuate that. Well, one thing that I was going to say in terms of that racial aspect is that, certainly, by the time you were living in Panama, things had changed and there had been a lot of marriage and cross-cultural co-appropriation and things like this. But the color line aspect of it, it comes from somewhere like. I talk about this extensively in Gangsters. When the Canal Zone is founded by the Americans starting in 1903 and then construction of the canal takes until 1914, and all through this period and then the decades after, the Americans introduce essentially Jim Crow segregation to the Canal Zone.
It is introduced as a mark of modernity as the Americans see it. They called it the Gold and Silver System, where officially, it was separated by the payroll. It was basically the people who got paid more were white. They were on the gold roll. Basically, the white people got paid more. The people who got paid less, almost all of whom were Black because the Americans brought in West Indian, almost uniformly Black workers to do the actual digging of the canal. This was baked into the zone. Also, in addition to that, you had the separation between the zone and Panama, which is something that this movie makes a big deal about.
There's a scene where Robert de Niro or Ray Arcel and Roberto Duran go to the Panama Canal Zone, and they're sitting along, I guess, the valle de verguenza, the fence of shame. They have an exchange with a Marine who's like, "Get off the fence." And Ray Arcel, Robert de Niro is like, "He's the one who's in jail because he's trapped in his colonialism on the other side of the fence." This and the way in which the Americans refused to make reparations and actually demanded an indemnity on the Panamanian side for the death of their own people, all of these things are sort of baked in.
Again, it's like this movie, even if people don't really remember the specifics, maybe they don't remember exactly where did this riot take place and do the guys who get shot, were they on the ground or on a flag pole, they remember what it felt like. They remember the way in which they were discriminated against. They remember these hierarchies in which the white Zonians were at the top. I think that's a thing that we're seeing in this movie. In the film, they really use that kind of psychic trauma that inherited psychic trauma as a plot point, which among other things, they end up using it to explain Roberto Duran's, his famous "No mas" moment.
Announcer: He said no más.
Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro): What are you doing? You're going to get canned. What are you doing? You got to fight him.
Roberto Durán (Edgar Ramírez): No. Stop it.
Arcel: You got to fight him.
Durán: No. No. Close it. Just close it.
Arcel: Listen, you have to go in there and fight him. You can't do this. Why are you doing this?
Jonathan: When he's clearly losing to Sugar Ray Leonard, and they flash back again to this scene that we're talking about, of the flag riots at the beginning. Basically, it's like, "Oh god, I've been so traumatized by colonialism. I can't fight anymore."
Jonathan: Because this movie is made with the cooperation of the Panamanian government, it seems like this is a genuine thing that explains the way that some Panamanians look at history and look at the United States and look at themselves.
Michael: Yeah. I will have to point out, the director is Venezuelan.
Michael: And the star of the movie is Venezuelan, too. But there's a lot of, I'd say, speculative psychoanalysis going on in this movie about what was driving Duran and particularly his nationalism. It portrays his nationalism as something that's ferocious, primal, basically pathological, as you say, the result of childhood trauma. It's not something that's informed by much political analysis, rather this gut reaction to bullying by the Canal Zone. He's treated as irrational, almost animal-like, anti-American, and then a foil to the affable Sugar Ray Leonard, played by the affable Usher.
It's just a little odd. This does reflect the way Duran has been portrayed in US media. There's an ESPN documentary about it. It's actually quite good, but they definitely set this up as Duran as the heel in contrast to the cool, collected, good natured manner of Sugar Ray Leonard. Certainly, Duran's brawling style of boxing is in contrast to Leonard's more technical style. In the US side of this, this narrative, his win over Sugar Ray Leonard in Montreal serves as a second act, leading up to Sugar Ray Leonard's redemption in the rematch.
Now that's not how he's generally seen in Panama, I have to say. I've never met the man myself, but I know know people who've met him. Generally, he's seen as just a patriot. He's not seen as an extremist or anti-American, but just proud to be Panamanian, just the way Sugar Ray Leonard is proud to be American. He's definitely famous for his brawling style of boxing and his heavy hands. He once notoriously knocked out a horse with a punch. I guess that's impressive.
Jonathan: Mongo in Blazing Saddles. That's what—
Michael: Exactly, but in real life. But not someone who's necessarily driven by rage. He's seen as this nice, fun, loving guy. His main problem is that he's too generous. He opened up a restaurant in Panama City, which was failing for years because he gave away too much of his food for free. His son later took it over and wanted to run it like an actual business, and then created a lot of conflict with his dad. It does in some ways, despite being a Panamanian production, reflect many ways that the US media have portrayed Duran in contrast to Sugar Ray Leonard.
Jonathan: There's another scene, this moment that is just like such a freighted moment in the middle of a movie that propels the action forward where the Carter-Torrijos Treaty is being announced, again, in this completely ahistorical manner. They're sitting around like Duran's pool. This is the treaty that leads to the eventual handover, the dissolving of the Canal Zone and the eventual handover of the Panama Canal in, what is it, '77, '78.
Michael: Yeah, '79.
Jonathan: '79, okay. Right.
Michael: The handover was in '99, but then the canal, the treaty were signed '79.
Jonathan: They act as if like they learned that the treaty was going to be signed at the moment that it is signed. They show Torrijos being Por firmar este tratado by signing this treaty and then Duran is like, "He's signing the treaty," and then they all start cheering as if they didn't know that this ceremony was just a formality. Then he goes into the bedroom with Ana de Armas, whose name, I totally forget her name in the movie, because as I'm watching it, I'm just like, "That's Ana de Armas." He's really excited. She, as the more educated, literate partner in this relationship, is like, "You idiot. They're not going to hand this canal over actually for 20 years."
Never trust the Yankees. Just because they say they're going to do this doesn't mean it's going to happen. If you want this treaty to mean anything, she says, you're going to have to basically prove Panamanian sovereignty by beating Sugar Ray Leonard. And she shows him a magazine cover with Usher, I think, as Sugar Ray on it. It's basically like you have to show with your machismo that Panama deserves the canal.
Michael: They make it out to be his wife sexually taunted him into wanting to win the championship. Duran was a professional boxer. He didn't need to be taunted sexually or otherwise in order to want to be the world champion. Of course, that's what every boxer dreams of. Another thing I'd like to point out, Duran is famous for winning the world championship in four different weight classes, and well past what most people would consider their prime years, well into his late '30s. Again, this is something despite being about Duran, it really doesn't do him justice, as a boxer.
He is someone who many professional boxers consider to be their favorite boxer. It was Duran who Mike Tyson actually credits for inspiring him to be a professional boxer. Floyd Mayweather once listed his favorite boxers of all time and put Duran as number two behind of course, Floyd Mayweather, but ahead of Muhammad Ali. So, Duran was a legendary boxer, a legendary boxer for many generations of boxers. Again, this is a little bit unnecessary psychoanalysis of this guy who was a professional and very good at what he did.
Jonathan: There's a movie about colonialism and there is this racial stratification aspect in the way that they portray the zone and in the flag riots at the beginning. But most of the Americans who appear in the movie, just as most of the Panamanians are not Panamanian, they're from other parts of Latin America, most of the Americans, they're minorities, either racial or ethnic, which I just thought was interesting. You've got de Niro playing Ray Arcel. He's playing like a Jewish character.
Michael: Barely playing it. He throws in a couple Yiddish words, but clearly he's doing the same character he always does.
Jonathan: Robert de Niro as the Irishman as this Jewish boxing trainer. Then you have Usher as Sugar Ray Leonard, and you have mafia guys, who John Turturro is clearly supposed to be read, I think he's Italian, maybe Jewish. I don't know. I thought that was interesting. I don't know if it's just that those were the characters that they had to work with, because those were the characters who were there. It was interesting that there's this, the Latinos are kind of Pan-Latino and the Americans tend to not be at least members of the WASP elite. Do you think that they were trying to make some kind of argument there or were those just the characters they had to work with?
Michael: Yeah, I'm not sure. Obviously, some of that took place outside of Panama and certainly when they were portraying both Zonians and the wealthy Panamanians, they were portraying them as white, which there's some truth to that. Actually, to get back to your conversation about Jim Crow, as you pointed out, the Jim Crow system was very much in place in the Panama Canal Zone until it ended in World War II. But when I went to middle school, high school there, there were T-shirts that were being printed by Balboa High School students that had racist caricatures of Black Panamanians on there, making fun of them, portraying them as windshield washers and service workers.
Look, these were high school kids. These were teenagers who were stupid. It did cause a bit of a stir. There was a complaint by the Panamanian government about these shirts. And I'm not saying everyone felt this way. But it is just to say, even well decades later, decades after the signing of the treaty and everything, there were some residual racist attitudes that were very much products of old-school colonialism.
Jonathan: It's baked in. You go back to 1903 to the foundation of Panama, the reason why Panama is a country. I know that there's different feelings about within Panama, about how much they like to identify the United States as having been integral to their formation as a country. But it was because American military power, without the Americans, essentially invading in 1903. But at this moment, the reason why this happens is because the United States is negotiating a treaty to dig a canal with the Colombian government, and the Colombian government refuses over the issue of sovereignty, over this issue that is also this animating thing that goes right through this movie, and in Panama today.
The national park that is the former Canal Zone is Parque Nacional Soberania, Sovereignty National Park. Soberana is the national beer, right? It's like sovereignty beer. It's very clearly on people's minds. And I think is part of why this is maybe such a controversial topic to bring up. But what happens is, it is very clear that the Colombians are not going to give the Americans everything they want. The Americans decide to take it, and they are 100% on the record influenced by racism.
Teddy Roosevelt, who's the one who's more than anybody else responsible for this, he says the idea that the Colombians would think that I would negotiate with such, I believe, he uses the term like corrupt pithecoid community, this corrupt apelike community in the same way that I would negotiate a treaty with, I think, he says like Switzerland or Denmark. They're nuts. He's like they are not our equals. They're not white. It was very clear that the reason why the United States felt empowered to intervene militarily and sever a state of Colombia from the rest of the country was because they thought these are not our equals, that these are not people who deserve equal rights.
It's also worth noting. There's a lot of talk right now with everything that's happening in Eastern Europe, about spheres of influence and the Monroe Doctrine. But Roosevelt at this moment, really, he's pretending like this goes back to the Monroe doctrine, but it's really an entirely new concept that the United States can intervene whenever we want in Latin America. That is based entirely on the idea that these people are inferior to white Americans. It's baked in. Those T-shirts that the high school kids were making when you were growing up, they almost come out of the soil. It's built into the society that they live in.
Michael: The role of the United States in inventing Panama essentially is undeniable, as you detailed in the book. It is true that Panama, when it was part of Colombia was a largely neglected province. It was the hinterlands. And it's not like there weren't genuine pro-independent sentiments in what became Panama. There was a thousand day war between the liberals and conservatives, Panama being a liberal stronghold. It's just that independence would not have been achieved without US intervention. Of course, as you write about notoriously the Panamanian Declaration of Independence, the constitution were written in New York City in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel by Bunau-Varilla. He even tried to design the Panamanian flag, which looked too much like the American flag, echoes what we tried to do in Iraq, incidentally, after Hussein was overthrown.
It's pretty clear that this would not have happened without US intervention. In terms of the racial line, again, there's a lot of irony in the sense that as you pointed out, the Panama Canal was built with Black labor. It was West Indian workers from Barbados, from the Anglophone Caribbean, who ended up moving to Panama because so many... first under the French attempt and later, under the early years, the American attempt, so many canal construction workers were dying of dengue and malaria and yellow fever, and took a long time for them to figure out that they need to drain the pools of water, where the mosquitoes lay their eggs so that they wouldn't get wiped out.
This changed the makeup of Panama. Panama is very much a Caribbean country. When I was living there, they put the word Centroamerica on the license for the first time ever in the '90s. I always thought Panama is a country that is historically South American, because it's historically part of Colombia, geographically, Central American, but culturally very much Caribbean. You see this in the music, in the accents, especially on the Caribbean side. Panamanians will claim they invented Reggaeton, which is not true. Puerto Ricans invented Reggaeton. But they had a style of music called reggae rap, which was very popular when I was living there.
There was the big artist, this guy named El General, who had that famous song “Muevelo.” He dressed as a military dictator, which was very odd because Panama was military dictatorship up until just before I lived there. A lot of people trace their family lineage to the Caribbean and to the Anglophone Caribbean as well. A lot of people speak some English. Panamanians are notorious for speaking bad Spanish with a lot of English words mixed into it. And part of that is the history of US presence, US imperialism. Also, it is the history of these roots in Barbados and Jamaican. What I say, I speak Spanish, but I speak Spanish imperfectly, and my explanation is because I learned it in Panama.
Jonathan: You mentioned a military dictator. That's a thing that's interestingly kept out of this movie. I'm interested to know what you think about that. Manuel Noriega, the movie shows the death of Omar Torrijos, which is then followed by the rise of Noriega, who does not, I think until the very end, actually become in any titular sense the head of Panama. But he is very much the de facto head of Panama for about two decades until he's essentially overthrown by the US in the invasion in 1989, which destroys El Chorrillo, the neighborhood that Roberto Duran comes from, and that Noriega has his Comandancia, his headquarters. I was wondering. I don't think the name Noriega is mentioned in this movie once.
Michael: I did not see it.
Jonathan: Thought that this movie has to be a comprehensive history of Panama, but it's interesting. I was just wondering what you make of that, and then also if you can talk a little bit about Noriega. The pretext for this invasion was Noriega involvement in narco trafficking.
Michael: It was an interesting, a notable absence in the film. Everyone loves Torrijos because he was the one who rested the Panama from the Americans in a way. No one wants to talk about Noriega. Noriega is an embarrassment, I think, to both sides, to the US and to Panama. Certainly, the legacy invasion is not a nice one. When I was living there, it was several years after the invasion, but still I took the bus past El Chorrillo on my way to school and that was a neighborhood that's still largely destroyed and had not been rebuilt years later. This is the neighborhood, a famously tough working class neighborhood that Duran grew up in and as well as Noriega.
But the invasion was ostensibly a police action. The US did not want to call it a war. Noriega was famously a US asset, literally a CIA asset for many years. Panama was an important ally of the US. It was the base of the US Southern Command, which is the command of the US Armed Forces of the Pentagon for the Western Hemisphere, which has since been relocated to Florida. But this is the jumping off point for a lot of imperial adventures of the United States in other parts of Latin America.
Noriega personally allowed the US to, for example, finance the Contras in Nicaragua, in fact, even offered to try to assassinate key Sandinista figures. In return, Noriega basically was given a free pass to be involved in drug trafficking, basically, as the Cold War was winding down and Noriega was no longer as valuable an asset to the United States. And he was genuinely a brutal guy. He pulled off the torture-murder of Hugo Spadafora. He definitely did some horrible things as the ruler. This was something that the US eventually could no longer turn a blind eye to.
They turned on him and they decided they were going to take him out as a drug trafficker. But then, the invasion itself was shrouded in a lot of myth that didn't go the way the US wanted to. There were a couple really bad battles. There was one incident in which a bunch of Navy Seals were stranded at the end of the old Panama airport runway without air cover and were mostly killed. The whole thing was originally dubbed Operation Blue Spoon, and then they had to re-dub it Operation Just Cause to make it a little sexier for the media. Then, of course, the way that Noriega was eventually captured is famous and a bit notorious. They used essentially audio torture. They blasted rock music. I forget which... Do you remember bands they were playing?
Jonathan: It was Twisted Sister, Black Sabbath and Lee Greenwood's “God Bless the USA,” I think were three of the ones that stood out to me.
Michael: Yeah. But they blasted this at the Vatican diplomatic mission where Noriega was hold up. This is of course a precursor to the use of audio torture in the US war on terror. There's a lot of things that I think both the Panamanian side and the US side would rather not remember, and is also conveniently swept another rug in this movie.
Jonathan: Well, I guess they couldn't find a way to pin Duran's boxing decisions on anything that Noriega did. So, maybe he just wasn't useful, narratively. What do you think bottom line? Is this a movie that you would show your students to teach them about Panama, or the Panama Canal Zone? Would you recommend people watch it? What did you think of the movie?
Michael: I don't think it was a good movie. I have to say, I don't think there are many good boxing movies. Maybe the first two Rockies, maybe Raging Bull, but that's about it. So, it's a very cliched movie. It does have some interesting things to say about colonialism. But I have to say there are other Panamanian movies that are a little harder to find, but one Panamanian movie I would recommend is called Chance, which is a dark comedy about a couple of domestic workers, live-in domestic workers who take the family that they work for hostage, but it's also a satire about the lottery in Panama. It's what the title refers to.
This is something I think also is telling about Panama. Panama is famously a tax haven, a fiscal paradise. They have the secret banks, just like in Switzerland, the Cayman Islands. Successful Panamanian presidents have said that they have tried to clamp down on this. It's not quite a secret, but they effectively are. If you are a foreign investor, you don't have to pay any corporate taxes, capital gains taxes, anything like that.
One way that the Panamanian government funds itself is through the national lotteries. We know this as like any lottery, it's a regressive tax. It's a tax on the poor. When I was living there, the tallest building in the country was the national lottery building. It's not necessarily a very impressive skyscraper, but it was one and it was the only really tall building in this neighborhood. I remember going past it, and even as a kid thinking, it looked like it was this tall office building is sucking up what little wealth existed in the neighborhood and putting it all in this one building.
It's symbolic in, I'd say, a cynical way that successive governments have taken advantage of the poor and turned Panama into, in some ways, a very glitzy Dubai in the Western Hemisphere. But that's not the reality, the lived reality for most Panamanians. If you look at the statistics, Panama is, by per capita GDP, the richest country in Latin America. I use this to show my students. This is why you should not use per capita GDP as a measure of economic wellbeing, because it just means that there is a handful of billionaires in the country, and many of them are laundering their money through Panama for shady businesses, drug cartels, and whatnot. And Noriega was definitely not the only one.
Jonathan: Speaking of shady businesses when I was there, the tallest building was Trump Tower.
Jonathan: I would say basically the same. It was enjoyable in parts. I laughed. I would say if you have anything else to watch, if you have nothing else to do, Hands of Stone. It's one of the only portrayals that I've seen on film of the 1964 flag riots. As somebody who really went down that rabbit hole and researching it for Gangsters of Capitalism, that was a really cool thing to see on screen, even if they did it in a very ahistorical way.
Michael: One coda that I think is illustrative is, as I said, US Southern Command, SOUTHCOM was based in Panama. Then, with the treaty being signed and the Canal Zone, eventually the canal being handed over, the military presence left, but the commander of SOUTHCOM at the time that I lived there was a guy named Barry McCaffrey. And at the very end, McCaffrey was making a last-minute bid to convince the Panamanians to let the US military stay and he failed.
But his bid was, "Okay. Let's not call this a military presence anymore. Let's call it a counternarcotics presence. And let's make this a site of coordinated anti-drug measures between the US and Panama, and maybe all of Latin America." The Panamanians didn't go for it. But McCaffrey went back to the US and he was later named the drug czar. And I think this is illustrative of the way that the US imperial project, colonial project morphed into the anti-drug project, but in many ways kept the same infrastructure, the same tactics, the same personnel in many ways, and has been the continuation of the US imperial project in hemisphere ever since.
Jonathan: Well, Mike, thanks for coming on The Racket and talking about Hands of Stone.
Michael: Of course. It was a pleasure.
Jonathan: Michael Paarlberg is an assistant professor in the Political Science Department at Virginia Commonwealth University. Thanks for coming on today. Please sign up at theracket.news or hit the subscribe button at Spotify, Downcast, iTunes, wherever you listen to podcasts. I know a lot of people are using Tidal now because of certain things happening at Spotify. If you get podcast there, look us up as well. While you're there, please leave us a review. It helps people find us. Thank you to The Racket Podcast team. This episode was produced by Evan Roberts, Annie Malcolm, and Sam Thielman. Our theme music is by Los Plantronics. Thanks for listening. Don't forget to buy Gangsters of Capitalism. Nos veremos, compañeros.