The U.S. Invasion of Panama
A week after jubilant crowds had torn down the Berlin Wall, in El Salvador there was a massacre that reminded the world that Eastern bloc nations did not have a monopoly on egregious human rights abuses. In the United States, people active in the movement to end American aid to the Salvadoran government, most notably CISPES and their allies among Catholic organizations, were jolted by the murders of six prominent Jesuit priests at the University of Central America in San Salvador. Included among them was Father Ignacio Ellacuria, the Spanish-born rector of the university, their housekeeper, Elba Ramos, and her 16-year-old daughter. Each victim was marched into a back garden, ordered to lie face down, and shot in the back of the head. Father Ellacuria was a theologian and intellectual the far right in El Salvador despised for trying to broker a peace settlement between the government and the FMLN. Members of a Salvadoran Army unit, including an officer who later became El Salvador’s Defense Minister, covered up the military’s role. They had targeted the educators because of their criticism of the security services. Some of the soldiers had attended the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning, Georgia, (since renamed the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation”). The atrocity touched off a long-standing, largely Catholic protest movement, “SOA Watch,” which organized annual vigils and demonstrations at Fort Benning each November commemorating the 1989 killings.
In Panama, General Noriega had been a valued U.S. “asset” who secured the Canal Zone from the subversion spreading throughout Central America. Noriega’s ties to the United States dated back to the mid-1960s when as a young officer he received training in military intelligence at the SOA. In 1969, after Captain Noriega affirmed his loyalty to General Omar Torrijos by thwarting a coup attempt, Torrijos appointed him head of the country’s “G-2” intelligence service. From that powerful post Noriega built up the Guardia Nacional into a ruthless internal security service. Noriega loathed the Sandinistas and his willingness to do anything to destroy the rising power of leftist guerrillas in Central America made him a useful backer of the contras. The CIA had paid him at least $365,000 for his assistance, and some reports put the amount as high as $200,000 a year.
In 1981, when General Torrijos, with whom President Carter had negotiated the Panama Canal Treaty, was killed in a plane crash it paved the way for General Noriega to consolidate power. (The treaty with Torrijos stipulated that the canal would be transferred to Panamanian sovereignty at the close of 1999.) Noriega’s ties to CIA Director William Casey strengthened his political position inside Panama as a favored U.S. ally in the war against the Sandinistas. Between 1981 and 1986, Noriega’s government served as a conduit for U.S. money and arms going to the contras and the general also yielded airfields and logistical support.
However, by the time George H.W. Bush was sworn in as president Noriega had already become an embarrassment, especially after a federal court in Florida indicted him for drug trafficking and money laundering. The February 1988 indictment linked Noriega to the infamous Medellín drug cartel of Columbia. (A widely-circulated 1976 photo of then Colonel Noriega meeting with George Bush when he was CIA Director added to the President’s embarrassment.) Noriega had been well trained in the techniques of surveillance and intelligence and he used these skills to counter internal machinations against him. He was also good at rigging elections. Reagan and Bush, both critics of the Panama Canal Treaty, approved intelligence operations to oust Noriega, which included an October 1989 coup attempt that Noriega foiled. Democrats and Republicans alike pressed the Bush Administration to be more aggressive in overthrowing the Panamanian strongman. Congress voted for economic sanctions against the regime, which appeared to be going down the same path as Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in Haiti and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, where formerly trusted anti-communist allies were ousted from power after they had become liabilities.
On December 20, 1989, President Bush ordered into Panama 27,500 American troops, along with 300 aircraft (including advanced fighter jets). The stated goals of “Operation Just Cause” were to protect the Canal Zone and Americans living in Panama, stop the drug traffic flowing through the isthmus, and arrest General Noriega. The superior American forces quickly overwhelmed the segment of the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) that remained loyal to Noriega. In Panama City and in Colon, U.S. troops blasted away at targets that served Noriega’s command and communications structure. When U.S. Marines attacked the Commandancia, (Noriega’s headquarters), the fighting spilled over into the neighborhoods of El Chorrillo where the United States unloaded with “smart bombs” and other explosives. The battles destroyed some apartment buildings and El Chorrillo was where most of the civilian casualties occurred. Within a week of the start of the invasion, Physicians for Human Rights estimated that 300 civilians had been killed and another 15,000 were made homeless. Looting broke out in parts of Panama City enjoining the Americans to divert resources to securing the capital.
The Pentagon skillfully managed the news media for “Operation Just Cause” as it had done with great success during the October 1983 invasion of Grenada. Access to the combat zones was strictly limited as journalists were again amassed in “pools” highly dependent upon Defense Department briefings. American authorities disseminated a barrage of damaging information about Noriega’s “fascination with witchcraft” and “black magic,” as well as his sexual proclivities with his mistress. The colorful descriptions of Noriega’s private life, which one anonymous U.S. official called “kinky,” added to the stories about his brutal treatment of rivals and his links to the Columbian drug cartels. This elaborate and titillating narrative took the limelight away from Noriega’s earlier training in U.S. military schools and his former ties to the CIA that had enabled his rise to power in the first place.
From the early morning hours of December 20, when the invasion began, until Christmas Eve, Noriega had eluded his would-be captors among the American Special Forces. They conducted over forty operations across Panama, many of them simultaneously, with the goal of apprehending Noriega, but each time they came up empty. Finally, on Christmas Eve, Noriega arranged for asylum in the Vatican Embassy at Punta Paitilla in Panama City. The papal nuncio, Monsignor Jose Sebastian Laboa, (Pope John Paul II’s emissary in Panama), found himself in the unenviable position of harboring a wanted felon with a $1 million bounty on his head as U.S. military forces ringed the embassy. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, who arrived in Panama to spend Christmas with the American soldiers, told reporters that he was ”delighted that General Noriega has finally been run to ground. I think it’s clear at this point,” he said, ”that the Panamanian people have no use for him, that he had to take sanctuary in a foreign embassy.”
What followed was a series of negotiations between U.S. officials and the papal nuncio to persuade Church officials to hand over Noriega. The Bush Administration wanted Noriega extradited to Florida to stand trial. Secretary of State James Baker III wrote a letter to the Vatican arguing that Noriega’s alleged involvement in drug dealing and murder meant that he didn’t meet the Roman Catholic Church’s moral standards for asylum. To push the process along American military officers tried out some new psychological warfare (“psy-war”) techniques, which involved setting up in front of the embassy a sound system capable of filling an arena and blaring ear-splitting rock ‘n roll and tape-loops of annoying noises to try to flush Noriega out. Klieg lights glared at the facade of the building at night while the loudspeakers crushed the nunciature with sound. Among the songs played were “No Place to Hide,” “Voodoo Chile,” and “You’re No Good.” A crowd of Panamanians gathered outside each day to chant their ridicule of Noriega. American soldiers also shot out a garden light at the compound and harassed Monsignor Laboa every time he came and went. The Vatican officials who lived and worked in the embassy pleaded with the U.S. to cease the racket so they could get some sleep, (they claimed the noise was having little effect on Noriega). Pope John Paul II expressed his strong disapproval of the U.S. military’s heavy-handed “psy-war” tactics outside his embassy and after about a week the audio assault ceased.
Monsignor Laboa meanwhile tried to reason with Noriega telling him that he could not escape the Americans by remaining locked up indefinitely inside the nunciature. Noriega realized that if he tried to flee his life would be in danger, and surrendering to the Americans started to look like a more desirable option. He tried to retain a semblance of dignity by demanding that he wear his PDF uniform as a condition for turning himself in. After an eleven-day standoff, on January 3rd 1990, a shackled and defeated Noriega submissively boarded an American military plane that took off for Homestead Air Force Base outside of Miami. He would stand trial in the United States. At the time of his arrest it was reported that Noriega had stashed away inside a filing cabinet at his home $5.8 million in denominations of 10s, 20s, 50s, and 100s; U.S. authorities confiscated the cash during the invasion.
After being tried and convicted of drug smuggling, as part of a twelve-count racketeering indictment, Noriega was sentenced to forty-years in prison. The lengthy prison term was important for the Bush Administration. The loss of twenty-three American lives, with 300 wounded, along with 600 Panamanians killed and $2 billion in economic damage would have been hard to justify had Noriega won asylum in a third country. Like the Grenada invasion six years earlier, the American people rallied around the President. Lee Atwater, the Chair of the Republican National Committee, called the successful outcome of the invasion a “political jackpot” for Bush.
American and international diplomats oversaw elections in Panama that brought to power a civilian government headed by President Guillermo Endara. A significant amount of the U.S. aid President Bush had promised the new Panamanian government failed to materialize after the appropriations request became bogged down in Congress. In November 1990, a few weeks before the first anniversary of the invasion, the Endara government still had such a tenuous grasp on power that it had to call in the U.S. military to help put down a rebellion by police officers who were protesting their working conditions and low pay. The television footage of American soldiers pointing their rifles at Panamanian police as they lay on the ground with their hands behind their heads were evocative of scenes from the intervention a year earlier.
Throughout the 1980s, the Reagan Administration and its Democratic allies in Congress had argued that the contra war in Nicaragua, the U.S. military aid to El Salvador and Honduras, and the invasion of Grenada, were all vital steps in countering Soviet power in the region. President Reagan had painted a dire picture of the threat: “Using Nicaragua as a base, the Soviets and Cubans, can become the dominant power in the crucial corridor between North and South America. Established there, they will be in a position to threaten the Panama Canal, interdict our vital Caribbean sea lanes and, ultimately, move against Mexico.” In one of his State of the Union addresses Reagan called Nicaragua a “Soviet ally on the American mainland” and asked: “Could there be any greater tragedy than for us to sit back and permit this cancer to spread?” Senator Jesse Helms, who chaired the Foreign Relations Committee until January 1987, expressed his fears about a possible Russian take over of Mexico where millions of “foot people” would flood across the border.
Going back to the 19th Century, Central America and the Caribbean had been seen as the United States’ “backyard.” In the 1850s the American freebooter, William Walker (“the grey-eyed man of destiny”), had inserted himself briefly as the dictator of Nicaragua. The Spanish-American War of 1898 secured U.S. dominance of Cuba and Puerto Rico, and in 1903 Panama became a de facto U.S. protectorate after President Theodore Roosevelt seized the country “and let Congress debate.” The “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine institutionalized U.S. military power in the region; and President William Taft’s “Dollar Diplomacy” sealed its finances in the hands of U.S. investors. President Woodrow Wilson’s 1915 invasion of Haiti set the stage for a string of pro-U.S. governments there. Major General Smedley Butler described his role in this aggressive U.S. policy in his famous essay War Is a Racket (1935). Historians have noted dozens of U.S. military interventions in Central America and the Caribbean long before the Russian revolution of 1917. But in the years following the Cuban uprising that swept Fidel Castro into power in January 1959 the stated purpose of U.S. policy — from the Bay of Pigs and the 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic, to the contra war and the intervention in Grenada — had been justified to “contain” or “roll back” Soviet influence.
But President Bush’s December 1989 invasion of Panama, like the 19th and early 20th Centuries, demonstrated that the United States would not hesitate to protect its interests in its “backyard” with or without the justification of fighting international communism. The drug war accommodated a new rationale well suited for the post-Cold War environment. The Panama invasion, part of this emphasis on combating drugs, occurred at a time when U.S. policymakers were searching for a post-Cold War paradigm for applying the tenets of American global power. The “New World Order” of 1989-90, at least in Central America, looked a lot like the older world order where U.S. military imperatives would be decisive with or without a Soviet menace in the hemisphere.