I Am Duran: Panama’s Golden Boy

Para la versión en español, cliquea aquí

This week I will be writing about Panama with a specific focus on the heroes of Panama City. Learning about the building of the Panama Canal is extremely interesting. I highly recommend researching this!


I Am Duran (2019) tells the story of Roberto Duran, Panama’s most successful boxer. The documentary goes over his career highs and lows and the ways his image became more enveloped in the politics of the nation.

From Torrijos to Noriega: The History of Panama in the 20th Century

The Panama Riots of 1964

Since the creation of the Panama Canal, there has always been tension between the citizens of the American Canal Zone and the surrounding Panamanians, but after Kennedy’s death, tensions escalated. The Canal Zone governor, Robert J Fleming Jr. issued a moratorium on flying the American or Panamanian flag in the zone. Infuriated, a large number of Zone citizens raised US flags in defiance without Panamanian flags. On January 9, 1964, a group of students from the University of Panama peacefully entered the Zone determined to fly their flag. A riot erupted and the US police opened fire and several students were shot. The fighting continued for days and 28 people were left dead. The riots unified the diverse population of Panamanians against US rule. The Panamanian National Guard which had been peripheral in politics became much more involved. By March 1969, Omar Torrijos promoted himself to the rank of brigadier general and assumed dictatorial powers. Torrijos was trained at the US military’s School of the Americas in the Canal Zone, which became infamous for using training manuals that advocated execution, torture, and blackmail. He was even recruited as a part-time spy for the CIA, a relationship that lasted until his dictatorship began. By that time he made it known “I do not want to enter into history. I want to enter into the Canal Zone.” 

Omar Torrijos

For this, he won the support of many Panamanians. Social programs grew over 700% resulting in some impressive results: infant mortality dropped by 40%, the number of public schools increased by 50%, literacy increased by 20%, and social security was expanded to cover 60% of the population compared to 12% before his rule. Torrijos also co-opted labor by making union membership mandatory and creating a workers’ bank to provide low-cost, income-adjusted loans. But still, his most important reform actually became his expansion of commerce and the banking sector. A 1970 law stated that funds borrowed abroad could be loaned to foreign borrowers without being taxed by Panama. Sadly, in order to keep up with these programs, the government kept borrowing money. To enhance the regime’s surveillance capabilities, Torrijos appointed Manuel Noriega as chief of the G-2, Panama’s military intelligence agency.

Torrijos often referred to Noriega as “my gangster”. It was around this time that Torrijos started renegotiating treaties for the canal in 1971. The Panama Canal was one of the few subjects that galvanized Latin America’s usually nationally focused leaders against the US. The treaty was finally signed in 1977 though Torrijos was not entirely happy with it. 

Concretely, the treaty called for the number of skilled Panamanians working on the canal to be steadily increased via US-funded training and for employees’ right to join labor unions and to engage in collective bargaining to be guaranteed. It also ensured the neutrality of the canal and both countries’ right to defend it. Unfortunately with the canal now to become Panama’s at the end of 1999, and Panama’s economy on the brink of collapse, Torrijos was losing popularity. Torrijos began aiding the Sandinistas and became the target of Reagan’s criticisms as well and by 1981, he died in a plane crash which many believe was an assassination and his gangster, Noriega was the leader of Panama. Noriega was a CIA informant.

Manuel Noriega

Though temporarily dropped from the CIA payroll during Jimmy Carter’s administration, Noriega was reinstated at the beginning of the 80s by Reagan and even received a raise to $200,000 annually. Instead of Torrijos’ stern father-figure persona, Noriega was more of a street thug and Panama’s calls for change were stamped out by his new anti-riot police force nicknamed the Dobermans. 

The US Invasion of Panama

Under Noriega’s direction, the money for the Iran Contra affair was laundered through Panama’s banks and the Medellin Cartel found a safe haven. But it was the Spadafora incident that changed everything. Hugo Spadafora was a Panamanian who lived in Costa Rica and disapproved of Noriega. When Spadafora learned of Noriega’s drug trafficking in 1985, he publicly denounced Noriega and planned to return to Panama to lead a protest against him. Upon entering the country, he was arrested by a G-2 agent. He was tortured and ultimately decapitated. With that event, most Panamanians turned against Noriega. The US began to distance itself from Noriega and tales of his involvement in the drug trade started coming out. American conservatives even started saying Panama was too unstable to take over the canal. The US cut off aid to Panama and by December 1988, Bush declared unequivocally that “Noriega must go.” The US invaded on December 20, 1989, with 24,000 troops in its largest military operation up to that time since the Vietnam War. In the ensuing invasion, 3,000 were killed and 20,000 Panamanians lost their homes. Noriega was sentenced to jail in the US for drug trafficking and later charged in Panama for the murder of Hugo Spadafora.

Duran Under Torrijos

I Am Duran

This documentary easily splits into two parts: Duran shaped by Torrijos and Duran shaped by Noriega. But it is easy to say that Duran identifies much more Torrijos. In the documentary, Duran details that they were connected from very early on when Torrijos hired him to take his son to the local boxing gym. From then on, Duran always felt a great deal of love for this Panamanian leader. His image was very clearly shaped by how Torrijos wanted the world to see Panama. In that time, it was imperative that every Panamanian do their part and show the world they deserved sovereignty. The documentary shows how interconnected Duran’s own fighting was to this struggle for independence. When Duran chose to fight America’s boxing sweetheart, Sugar Ray Leonard, he was punching at US imperialism and for that, his return to Panama was marked by a parade. Torrijos may have gotten Panama their canal, but Duran got them their self-respect. His “hands of stone” asserted Panama’s power the same way Torrijos’ cunning diplomatic and military skills did. His series of knockouts could almost make up for the unnecessary Panamanian deaths at the hands of the US. For the Panamanians, he was God that they could also see themselves in, not dissimilar to how they saw Torrijos.

Duran Under Noriega

I Am Duran

Unfortunately, after living like a God, Duran was poised for a spectacular downfall. Right before Torrijos’ death, Duran signaled the end of Panamanian pride. In a rematch with Sugar Ray Leonard that Duran was ill-prepared for, Duran gave up and uttered the most infamous words “No Mas”. No More. With that phrase, Panama had lost a hero and a year later they would lose a president. Some of the subjects in the film posit that Noriega and Duran are actually closely linked. They are both poor mestizo kids who grew up tough. Maybe the “No Mas” moment was him giving in to that side of him. It exposed him to the same level of anger thrown at Noriega and left him with a choice. Will he continue down Noriega’s path or stick with his Torrijos roots. That is the real drama of the documentary. Rather than becoming Noriega’s puppet, he sticks with the people. In order to get back in shape, Duran trains at the Coiba Prison, the same prison that housed Noriega’s dissidents. These dissidents become a part of his rebuilding process which climaxes with a spectacular fight against Davey Moore, the up-and-coming favorite. Intercut with Duran’s wailing fists are images of the US invasion and Noriega takedown. Duran’s victory didn’t unite the people with their president but against their president. His punches at Moore were not at US imperialism but at Noriega himself. The documentary makes it clear that no matter who his fists are pointed at, they bring with them the strength and love of the Panamanian people.

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