Encircling Empire: Report #25 — Remembering Panama


This and previous issues have been archived on a dedicated site—please see: ENCIRCLING EMPIRE.
For frequent updates, please “like” our Facebook page and/or follow on Twitter.

“Operation Just Cause”

25 Years after US Invasion of Panama, Death Toll Still Unknown,” TeleSur, December 19, 2014:

On December 20, 1989, over 27,000 U.S. soldiers invaded the small Central American country of Panama.

The “cruel dictator” the U.S. troops overthrew had been working for the CIA for years.

Under the name “Just Cause,” the operation left thousands of victims in its wake, with many unidentified bodies burnt and piled up in the streets, according to many witnesses.

The military invasion, launched by then President George H.W. Bush, came 10 years after the small country had finally gained its independence over its canal. Ten days after the invasion, the canal, which belonged to the United States until 1979, was finally due to return to partial Panamanian control in 1990, and fully in 2000. In order to try to maintain a government that supported U.S interests, and to maintain U.S. hegemony in the region, Washington had previously tried economic sanctions, and even a failed miltiary coup attempt, before resorting to a full-scale invasion.

As the Cold War had just come to an end with the fall of Berlin Wall, the United States could hardly use communism as a pretense to invade other countries as it had many times before, like it did with Vietnam. Nevertheless, the fear that their authority over the canal could be transferred to a government that didn’t completely submit to U.S. interests prompted the United States to claim it would be “saving” the Panamanians from a suddenly “cruel dictator,” who was also a drug-trafficker – an activity that they were aware of but did not seem to mind while President Manuel Noriega was collaborating with the CIA, in Washington’s fight against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas for instance.

Read more here.

December 20, 2014, marked 25 years since the US invasion of Panama. A few articles, most notably by Greg Grandin, helped to encourage a critical review of the Panama case. Grandin, following Chomsky (see below), made the interesting argument that to understand what would would be applied to Iraq, and in a host of numerous other US aggressions since the end of the Cold War, we need to look back to Panama in 1989.

Grandin’s argument is good, but it is based on overlooking some previous cases, in particular that of Grenada in 1983. Some of the key characteristics used to class Panama as the war that would establish the foundations for post-Cold War interventions, can in fact be traced to earlier US invasions. In terms of “democracy promotion,” one of the pretexts for the US invasion of Grenada in 1983, also preceded Panama. The invasion of Grenada was, like Panama, a US-led action that was sanctioned neither by the UN nor the OAS. To a limited extent, as with any trial, the US media also helped to make a public spectacle of the invasion of Grenada, with glowing reports of troops greeted as heroes (a motif later to be used by Dick Cheney in forecasting Iraqis’ responses to the US invasion in 2003). As for getting over the “Vietnam syndrome,” that was almost exclusively the property of the Grenada invasion, as witnessed by the public boasts from Washington–that ice could only be broken once. The point is not to minimize Panama, but to not “remember” by in fact forgetting.

Grandin is technically correct when he writes that, “every single country other than the United States in the Organization of American States voted against the invasion of Panama,” except that the resolution was about expressing “regret” for the invasion. What he misses is that Panama started a new turn in Canadian foreign policy, which would see it increasingly tagging along with the US in its interventions. While Canada expressed “regret” that the invasion happened, its recorded presentation at the UN (see page 397 of this document), shows that it actively endorsed the US’ justifications for invading. The US has not been as totally isolated as many of us would wish. This was the start of the dual isolation of Canada and the US in the OAS, that would see both excluded from the hemisphere’s newest multilateral forum, CELAC, established with the leadership of Hugo Chávez.

In other ways the invasion of Panama was reminiscent of earlier “gunboat diplomacy,” with its stated aim of protecting American lives and interests, a long-standing excuse used by the US for attacking other nations. The claims about democracy building were added to ones about national security and self-defence. In reality, what we witnessed is the rise of the convoluted cluster bomb rationale: an excessive bundling of multiple, sometimes mutually contradictory, and rarely prioritized rationales, so that an invasion can be said to represent X, Y, or Z, depending on which government official is speaking to which audience on a given day. It is about blurred lines, blurred visions, and the mass media. It is also a vain effort: to many outside the US (and maybe even inside), seeing the lines of helicopters flying over Panama City, the bombing of poor neighbourhoods to oblivion, the outrageous arrogance, hypocrisy, lies, and the outright racism that accompanied American brutality, Panama became a lasting motivation to despise the US.


In a much broader theoretical sense, however, depending on one’s understanding of imperialism and neoliberalism, the Cold War historical dividing line can be overstated, and we should be careful about taking official justifications at face value when deciding on historical classifications. It is that dividing line that really marks the key difference between Panama and Grenada, the former happening after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Thus Grandin’s emphasis is not without its own justification. However, if we consider Grandin’s list of innovations applied in the US assault on Panama, we can see them deployed earlier in Grenada (see the section titled, “Grenada, a Template for the New Wave of International U.S. Assaults,” on this page). If we take US intervention and place it back within the context of militarized neoliberalism (the shortest possible definition of the new imperialism), then this era was inaugurated with the rise of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and arguably earlier in Chile with General Augusto Pinochet and the importation of Milton Friedman’s recipes. The emphasis on “democracy” and “humanitarianism,” were not post-1989. In a world that saw the rise of decolonization movements just two decades earlier, the justificatory rhetoric of aggression had to change–no longer could it be a forthright appeal to white superiority and an overt proclamation of imperial intentions, as Colin Mooers has argued. Aggression had to instead appear be for the good of all humanity. Reagan called aid to the CIA-backed mercenaries in Nicaragua, “humanitarian aid”. Everything the US did, in contrast with the USSR, was sold as promoting democracy and freedom. If anything, what Panama proves is how the distinction between Cold War and post-Cold War can obstruct careful analysis, not that it should be dismissed altogether. The point is that “democracy,” “freedom,” and “humanitarianism,” all contain within them the basic principles of neoliberal restructuring.

eer25_noriega-mugshotWhile I agree with Grandin that the US invasion of Panama occurred during the rapid decline of the USSR and the impending end of the Cold War, I would argue there are further points that set the stage for the style of US aggression to follow. One was to establish the idea of the US as a world court, with the power to accuse, judge, and convict foreign heads of state, or heads of government, as if they were domestic wards: Noriega was abducted and tried in the US; Saddam Hussein was executed under the US’ watch; Muammar Gaddafi was repeatedly targeted by bombs and missiles; other foreign leaders were to be told that they “must go,” because Washington decided they had lost local legitimacy. The second was to use each military aggression to test new weapons systems. The third was the dedicated production of ever grander media spectacles. In that vein, let’s look more closely at the paths leading from Panama to Iraq.

Panama and Iraq (and Libya)

“No fewer than six times since he was elected,” President George H. W. Bush said, “The day of the dictator is over.” As The New York Times added, “He said it when he invaded Panama to overthrow Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, and again when he prepared to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.” The 1980s saw the coming together of military and political figures who would be collaborating once again, two decades later, during the occupation of Iraq. In the case of Panama,

In late 1989 Cheney was in charge of the US invasion of Panama to overthrow their once favoured son, General Manuel Noriega. Cheney picked [Jim] Steele to take charge of organising a new police force in Panama and be the chief liaison between the new government and the US military.

Steele would head a secretive death squad in Iraq and his unit was also implicated in torture. He was selected by General David Petraeus, who had visited with him in El Salvador during the mid-1980s, during the US-backed counterinsurgency war. (Read more here.)

Some other familiar faces include that of the current US Secretary of State, John Kerry, who supported both the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as he supported the invasion of Panama in 1989. George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense during the invasion of Panama was General Colin Powell, later resurfacing during the following Bush administration as Secretary of State. Yet even Ronald Reagan opposed the idea of invading Panama: “When pressed by his vice president—a fellow named Bush—to invade Panama and arrest its corrupt dictator, Reagan bridled. As historian James Mann recounts, the Gipper cited the potential loss of life from a Panamanian invasion and the fallout across Latin America, replying, ‘I just think you are as wrong as hell on this.’ Reagan’s preferred strategy was to deploy American firepower as a last resort, relying instead on covert action and native liberation movements to achieve regime change. He would put pressure on our enemies’ armies and treasuries, not on our own”.

Then there was the purported Libya-Panama link: Libya in 1991 “began funneling more than $100 million to General Noriega’s struggling regime in Panama….Mr. Qaddafi lost his primary Caribbean base of operations when the United States invaded Panama in 1989”.

Panama also helped to make the fortunes of the Rendon Group. The Rendon Group, “a secretive public relations firm that has assisted a number of U.S. military interventions in nations including Argentina, Colombia, Haiti, Iraq [both during the Gulf War and after 2003], Kosovo, Panama and Zimbabwe,” its activities also included “organizing the Iraqi National Congress, a PR front group designed to foment the overthrow” of Saddam Hussein. John Rendon’s “‘career took an unlikely turn in Panama, where his work with political opponents of Manuel Noriega kept him in the country straight through the 1989 American invasion. As U.S. forces quickly invaded and quickly pulled out, he helped broker the transition of power.’ This in turn led to contacts with the CIA, and in 1990 the government-in-exile of Kuwait hired him to help drum up support for war in the Persian Gulf to oust Iraq’s occupying army”.


US Violence in Panama, from the Virtual to the Chemical

By one count, the US used military force in Panama on 13 occasions since 1856. In more recent times, and on a different plane, the “capture” of Manuel Noriega is immortalized and rendered into virtual fun for would-be hunters of Third World “big game,” something to be enjoyed by millions of racists who immerse themselves in Call of Duty where they too can hunt for Noriega. On a much more sinister level, Panama has also been used as a chemical weapons testing ground by the US.

“From the 1940s to the 1990s the United States used various parts of Panama as a testing ground for chemical weapons, including mustard gas, VX, sarin, hydrogen cyanide and other nerve agents in … mines, rockets and shells; perhaps tens of thousands of chemical munitions.” (William Blum: Rogue State, 2002.)

Further, on departing Panama at the end of 1999 they left: “many sites containing chemical weapons. They had also: “conducted secret tests of Agent Orange in Panama …” In the 1989 invasion, the village of Pacora, near Panama City: “was bombed with (chemicals) by helicopters and aircraft from US Southern Command, with substances that burned skin, caused intense pain and diarrhea.” (source)

Another source speaks of TCDD, a toxic component in Agent Orange, that was sprayed over Panama, “even near a lake that provided water for the capital,” and in 1999, “the Panamanians finally sued our [US] government for damages”.

Articles and Videos on the 1989 US Invasion of Panama

How Television Sold the Panama Invasion: The media go to war,” by Jeff Cohen and Mark Cook, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, January 1, 1990.

Cohen and Cook outline in some detail the extreme degree of jingoism in the US media in support of the war against Panama, the manufactured pretexts, the distortion of the history of the US’ relationship with General Manuel Noriega, and the cover up of vast numbers of civilians killed by US forces during the invasion. US reporters began their first major experience as “embeds”, faithfully reproducing the US military line.

In covering the invasion of Panama, many TV journalists abandoned even the pretense of operating in a neutral, independent mode. Television anchors used pronouns like “we” and “us” in describing the mission into Panama, as if they themselves were members of the invasion force, or at least helpful advisers.

In addition, the authors cite evidence that the US knew all along that General Noriega was involved with drug cartels, going back to the 1970s. He was placed on the CIA payroll, and the US benefited from his drug links:

When, as vice president, Bush met with Noriega in Panama in December 1983, besides discussing Nicaragua, Bush allegedly raised questions about drug-money laundering. According to author Kevin Buckley, Noriega told top aide Jose Blandon that he’d picked up the following message from the Bush meeting: “The United States wanted help for the Contras so badly that if he even promised it, the U.S. government would turn a blind eye to money-laundering and setbacks to democracy in Panama.”

In 1985 and ’86, Noriega met several times with Oliver North to discuss the assistance Noriega was providing to the Contras, such as training Contras at Panamanian Defense Force bases (“Noriega Could Give Some Interesting Answers,” Kevin Buckley, St. Petersburg Times, 1/3/90). Noriega didn’t fall from grace until he stopped being a “team player” in the U.S. war against Nicaragua.

Most of the US media, busy in shrill commemorations of dead US soldiers, passed over the monumental death toll suffered by Panamanian civilians (at least 3,000 dead, hundreds buried in mass graves) and the ongoing political repression conducted by US military squads. Others instead did report items such as the following:

“Neighbors saw six U.S. truck loads bringing dozens of bodies” to a mass grave. As a mother watched the body of her soldier son lowered into a grave, her “voice rose over the crowd’s silence: ‘Damn the Americans.'”

The invasion of Panama, along with fabricated pretexts also produced fabricated spectacles of support for invading US troops, and staged protests against Noriega:

Panamanian opposition to the U.S. was dismissed as nothing more than “DigBat [Dignity Battalion] thugs” who’d been given jobs by Noriega. And it was hardly acknowledged that the high-visibility demonstration outside the Vatican Embassy the day of Noriega’s surrender had been actively “encouraged” by the U.S. occupying forces (Newsday, 1/5/90).

Few TV reporters seemed to notice that the jubilant Panamanians parading before their cameras day after day to endorse the invasion spoke near-perfect English and were overwhelmingly light-skinned and well-dressed. This in a Spanish-speaking country with a largely mestizo and black population where poverty is widespread. ABC’s Beth Nissen (12/27/89) was one of the few TV reporters to take a close look at the civilian deaths caused by US bombs that pulverized El Chorillo, the poor neighborhood which ambulance drivers now call “Little Hiroshima.” The people of El Chorillo don’t speak perfect English, and they were less than jubilant about the invasion.

Read more here.


Humanitarian Imperialism: The New Doctrine of Imperial Right,” by Noam Chomsky, Monthly Review, 2008, Volume 60, Issue 04 (September).

Chomsky lays out the case for comparing and linking the US invasion of Panama, and the first Gulf War:

Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 was the second case of post-Cold War aggression. The first was Bush’s invasion of Panama a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in November 1989. The Panama invasion was scarcely more than a footnote to a long and sordid history, but it differed from earlier exercises in some respects.

A basic difference was explained by Elliott Abrams, then a high official responsible for Near East and North African Affairs, now charged with “promoting democracy” under Bush II, particularly in the Middle East. Echoing Simes, Abrams observed that “developments in Moscow have lessened the prospect for a small operation to escalate into a superpower conflict.”8 The resort to force, as in Panama, was more feasible than before, thanks to the disappearance of the Soviet deterrent. Similar reasoning applied to the reaction to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. With the Soviet deterrent in place, the United States and Britain would have been unlikely to risk placing huge forces in the desert and carrying out the military operations in the manner they did.

The goal of the Panama invasion was to kidnap Manuel Noriega, a petty thug who was brought to Florida and sentenced for narcotrafficking and other crimes that were mostly committed when he was on the CIA payroll. But he had become disobedient—for example, failing to support Washington’s terrorist war against Nicaragua with sufficient enthusiasm—so he had to go. The Soviet threat could no longer be invoked in the standard fashion, so the action was depicted as defense of the United States from Hispanic narcotrafficking, which was overwhelmingly in the domain of Washington’s Colombian allies. While presiding over the invasion, President Bush announced new loans to Iraq to achieve the “goal of increasing U.S. exports and put us in a better position to deal with Iraq regarding its human rights record”—so the State Department replied to the few inquiries from Congress, apparently without irony. The media wisely chose silence.

Victorious aggressors do not investigate their crimes, so the toll of Bush’s Panama invasion is not known with any precision. It appears, however, that it was considerably more deadly than Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait a few months later. According to Panamanian human rights groups, the U.S. bombing of the El Chorillo slums and other civilian targets killed several thousand poor people, far more than the estimated toll of the invasion of Kuwait. The matter is of no interest in the West, but Panamanians have not forgotten. In December 2007, Panama once again declared a Day of Mourning to commemorate the U.S. invasion; it scarcely merited a flicker of an eyelid in the United States.

Also gone from history is the fact that Washington’s greatest fear when Saddam invaded Kuwait was that he would imitate the U.S. invasion of Panama. Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that Saddam “will withdraw, [putting] his puppet in. Everyone in the Arab world will be happy.” In contrast, when Washington partially withdrew from Panama after putting its puppet in, Latin Americans were far from happy.

The invasion aroused great anger throughout the region, so much so that the new regime was expelled from the Group of Eight Latin American democracies as a country under military occupation. Washington was well aware, Latin American scholar Stephen Ropp observed, “that removing the mantle of United States protection would quickly result in a civilian or military overthrow of Endara and his supporters”—that is, the regime of bankers, businessmen, and narcotraffickers installed by Bush’s invasion.

Even that government’s own Human Rights Commission charged four years later that the right to self-determination and sovereignty of the Panamanian people continues to be violated by the “state of occupation by a foreign army.” Fear that Saddam would mimic the invasion of Panama appears to be the main reason why Washington blocked diplomacy and insisted on war, with almost complete media cooperation—and, as is often the case, in violation of public opinion, which on the eve of the invasion, overwhelmingly supported a regional conference to settle the confrontation along with other outstanding Middle East issues. That was essentially Saddam’s proposal at the time, though only those who read fringe dissident publications or conducted their own research projects could have been aware of that.

The War to Start All Wars: The 25th Anniversary of the Forgotten Invasion of Panama,” by Greg Grandin, TomDispatch, December 21, 2014:

you can’t begin to fully grasp the slippery slope of American militarism in the post-9/11 era — how unilateral, preemptory “regime change” became an acceptable foreign policy option, how “democracy promotion” became a staple of defense strategy, and how war became a branded public spectacle — without understanding Panama….

Operation Just Cause was carried out unilaterally, sanctioned neither by the United Nations nor the Organization of American States (OAS). In addition, the invasion was the first post-Cold War military operation justified in the name of democracy — “militant democracy,” as George Will approvingly called what the Pentagon would unilaterally install in Panama….

Here’s the lesson Powell took from Panama: the invasion, he wrote, confirmed all his “convictions over the preceding twenty years, since the days of doubt over Vietnam. Have a clear political objective and stick to it. Use all the force necessary, and do not apologize for going in big if that is what it takes… As I write these words, almost six years after Just Cause, Mr. Noriega, convicted on the drug charges contained in the indictments, sits in an American prison cell. Panama has a new security force, and the country is still a democracy.”


The Panama Deception:
“The Panama Deception documents the untold story of the December 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama; the events which led to it; the excessive force used; the enormity of the death and destruction; and the devastating aftermath. The Panama Deception uncovers the real reasons for this internationally condemned attack, presenting a view of the invasion which widely differs from that portrayed by the U.S. media and exposes how the U.S. government and the mainstream media suppressed information about this foreign policy disaster.

“The Panama Deception includes never before seen footage of the invasion and its aftermath, as well as interviews with both invasion proponents like Gen. Maxwell Thurman, Panamanian President Endara and Pentagon spokesperson Pete Williams, and opponents like U.S. Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY.), Panamanian human rights workers Olga Mejia and Isabel Corro and former Panamanian diplomat Humberto Brown. Network news clips and media critics contribute to a staggering analysis of media control and self censorship relevant to any news coverage today, particularly during times of war” (source).

From Democracy Now, December 23, 2014:

“How the Iraq War Began in Panama”: 1989 Invasion Set Path for Future U.S. Attacks (Full Interview)

PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH: One year ago, the people of Panama lived in fear under the thumb of a dictator. Today, democracy is restored. Panama is free.

JOSÉ DE JESÚS MARTÍNEZ: We are to say we invaded Panama because Noriega. I don’t know how Americans can be so stupid to believe this. I mean, how can you be so stupid?

MICHAEL PARENTI: The performance of the mainstream news media in the coverage of Panama has been just about total collaboration with the administration. Not a critical perspective. Not a second thought.

PETE WILLIAMS: Our regret is that we were not able to use the media pool more effectively.

REP. CHARLES RANGEL: You would think, from the video clips that we had seen, that this whole thing was just a Mardi Gras, that the people in Panama were just jumping up and down with glee.

VALERIE VAN ISLER: They focused on Noriega, to the exclusion of what was happening to the Panamanian people, to the exclusion of the bodies in the street, to the exclusion of the number dead.

REP. CHARLES RANGEL: The truth of the matter is that we don’t even know how many Panamanians we have killed.

PETER KORNBLUH: Panama is another example of destroying a country to save it. And the United States has exercised a might-makes-right doctrine among smaller countries of the Third World, to invade these countries, get what we want, and leave the people that live there to kind of rot.

ROBERT KNIGHT: The invasion sets the stage for the wars of the 21st century.


GREG GRANDIN: That the invasion of Panama took place a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it really set the terms for future interventions in a number of ways. One, it was unilateral. It was done without the sanction of the United Nations, without the sanction of the Organization of American States, which was a fairly risky thing for the United States. It didn’t occur often, even during the Cold War. Two, it was a violation of national sovereignty, which of course the United States did often during the Cold War, but it was a violation—the terms of the violation changed. It was done in the name of democracy. It was argued—it was overtly argued that national sovereignty was subordinated to democracy, or the United States’ right to adjudicate the quality of democracy. And three, it was a preview to the first Gulf War. It was a massive coordination of awesome force that was done spectacularly for public consumption. It was about putting the Vietnam syndrome to rest.