Lila’s New Year’s Celebration With “the Enemy,” 1988-1989

Posted on December 30, 2013


A little respect and genuine interest goes a long way toward setting tensions aside, at least for one night.

In February of 1988, two US grand juries indicted Panama’s de facto military dictator, Manuel Noriega, on drug trafficking charges.  It was a messy situation.  Noriega had been on the CIA payroll in the 1970s, until his drug trafficking caused the Agency to remove him from the payroll in 1977.  In 1981, with a US need for some help working against the Nicaraguan Sandinista movement, Noriega went back on the payroll.  All along, he was building his own secret police system, and by 1983, he had maneuvered himself into de facto control of a country with a puppet president.  In 1986, his unsavory history of crimes and abuses came to light along with allegations that he was a double agent for the Cubans and Sandinistas.  And that led, in the end, to his indictment.

Displeased dictators are never a good thing.

So Lila arrived in Panama in the summer 1988, to a general atmosphere of harassment of Americans, distrust between the American military and the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF), and just all-around bad juju.  Yet, strangely, I was charmed.  I traveled freely, often alone.  I improved my Spanish (or at least, made it more Panamanian).  I interacted with local people and took in the local sights and activities.  Whenever we weren’t locked down on post under “Personnel Movement Limitations” due to confrontations, demonstrations, or the activities of the so-called “Dignity Battalions” (read: thugs), I was out doing things:  scuba diving, shopping, seeing the old Spanish forts, boating on Lake Gatun, or just looking for shells on the beaches.  When the politics could be escaped, Panama was a paradise.

Lila’s quarters were also on a joint post, Fuerte Espinar (previously named Fort Gulick).  So every day, I went to work on neighboring Fort Davis.  When I came home, I drove by a PDF guard at the Espinar gate; I always gave them a “Buenas,” and usually got a reply of “Tonce.”  I also had to drive past the PDF’s 8va Compañia Infanteria Policia Militar (8th Infantry Company Military Police) which was stationed on Espinar.  It occurred to me that if the shit ever really hit the fan, this might one day be a problem.

But for the moment, it wasn’t a problem.

As 1988 drew to a close, with a growing history of harassment and negative propaganda about the Yanquis, I was driving home one day and noticed a sort of scarecrow sitting out on the basketball court near the 8th Infantry MP barracks.  I got curiouser and curiouser.  I’m not shy.  So after parking at my quarters, I walked back down there and asked about it.


It was the Año Viejo, the Old Year.  At midnight on New Year’s, it would be burned, and all the ills and troubles of the past year would go with it.  It was a symbol of letting go of past wrongs for a fresh start to the coming year.

Well, this I had to see.  As was typical, my friends told me not to go down there.  Anything could happen.  The PDF were “the enemy” in the politically charged atmosphere.

Being me, I went anyway.  I went about 30 minutes before midnight; I was respectful; I spoke what Spanish I could, and asked for permission to watch and take pictures.  I think it was obvious that I was interested in the custom.  The 8th Infantry MP soldiers not only allowed my presence, they posed with their handiwork!




Maybe there was some little hope that night that 1989 really would be better than 1988, but it was not to be.  Hostilities escalated throughout the year, culminating in the US invasion on 20 December 1989.  I didn’t get a chance to see any Año Viejo burnings for New Year’s 1990; the country was in a shambles and the PDF disbanded.

But in the spirit of the Año Viejo, most Panamanian troops went right back to their jobs in the newly formed Panama National Police.  In early 1990, as I drove home through the Espinar gate, I was surprised and pleased to see the same guards back on duty who had always been there before the invasion.  It’s hard not to care at least a little about someone you exchanged greetings with on a daily basis.  I stopped with a big smile and a “Buenas,” relieved that they were all right.  They smiled back.