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‘On This Day’ 1989: US Invades Panama after Backing Dictator Manuel Noriega for Decades

Although it was called ‘Operation Just Cause,’ the December 20, 1989 American invasion of Panama that resulted in the ouster and imprisonment of Panamanian military dictator Manuel Noriega was anything but “just.” Just Cause must have come as some surprise to many people in the region, being that Noriega was actually one of Washington’s closest allies in the Western Hemisphere until shortly before his ouster. The United States had even helped him become dictator.

Yesterday’s friend, tomorrow’s prisoner.

The tumultuous relationship between Noriega and the United States began back in 1959 when he was recruited by the US Defense Intelligence Agency. By 1967 he was working for the CIA. That same year, he was a student at the notorious  US Army School of the Americas, also known as the School of Assassins and the School of Coups.  He was the most famous of eleven brutal  Western Hemisphere dictators to graduate from the school.

At the same time, Noriega was establishing himself as a major player in the international drug smuggling business. The US knew all about this but turned a blind eye. After all, Noriega was a valuable asset for Washington as America sought to dominate the hemisphere, especially the region around the Panama Canal. Noriega’s value increased even further when he became head of Panama’s intelligence service after a 1968 coup. When the US Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs tried to indict him for drug trafficking in 1971, the CIA stepped in to protect him.

By 1976, the CIA (under the direction of future Panama invader George H.W. Bush) was paying Noriega hundreds of thousands of dollars for his assistance. As his power increased, many in Washington took notice and disapproved of America’s collaboration with an international drug trafficker. By 1983, Noriega was the country’s de facto ruler, with the full backing of the Reagan administration and a CIA salary of $200,000.

Even though he stole the country’s 1984 election and ordered the torture and murder of Panamanians who opposed his rule, he was more important than ever to the Reagan administration, which needed his help in fighting the leftist Sandinista regime in nearby Nicaragua. Despite a 1985 House Foreign Affairs Committee report that labeled Panama as “a drug and chemical trans-shipment point and money laundering center of drug money,” assistant secretary of state Elliot Abrams (an Iran-Contra criminal and prominent Bush II lackey) stood up for Noriega and convinced Reagan to work with the murderous tyrant.

 In 1988 the US Senate called supporting him “one of the most serious foreign policy failures for the United States” and lamented the fact that Noriega had been allowed to establish “the hemisphere’s first ‘narcokleptocracy.'” No matter; Reagan stood by his main man in Panama.

But by 1989 Noriega had fallen out of favor in Washington. George H. W. Bush had replaced Ronald Reagan in the White House. The handover of administrative control of the Panama Canal from the US to Panama was scheduled for January 1, 1990, and Manuel Noriega, who had been indicted in Florida on money laundering and drug trafficking charges, found himself a marked man. US sanctions followed, then the usual saber-rattling that precedes an American invasion. The dictator was shown on US television waving a machete and acting menacingly. President Bush “suddenly realized” he was a brutal dictator who must be stopped at all costs. Noriega’s days were numbered.

Then, on December 16, 1989, a group of off-duty US Marines provoked Panamanian soldiers by approaching a sensitive checkpoint, flipping them off, and speeding away. The Panamanians opened fire on the Marines’ car, killing one of them. Bush used this incident to suggest that all American troops and civilians in Panama were in imminent danger.

The next day, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Secretary of State James Baker III, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and the military chiefs of staffs decided to invade Panama. Bush, like every other American president to initiate a war, claimed that the invasion was a last resort, absolutely necessary to protect American lives and free the people of Panama from a brutal dictator. Of course he never mentioned that that brutal dictator was largely a product of American backing, or that the United States had supported one brutal Panamanian dictator after another since Washington stole Panama from Colombia more than 80 years earlier.

And so, on December 20, 1989 more than 27,000 US troops invaded the small Central American country. The world’s most powerful military unleashed overwhelming force against Noriega’s tiny armed forces. The Americans also carried out horrific atrocities, including the murder of unarmed civilians at El Chorrillo, where they allegedly burned the bodies of their victims with flamethrowers before burying them in mass graves.

It wasn’t long before Noriega was defeated, captured, tried and imprisoned in the United States. Bush replaced him with Guillermo Endara, his hand-picked choice, who was sworn in on a US military base in the Canal Zone. It wasn’t long at all before the Endara administration was itself tied to Panamanian banks with ties to drug trafficking and money laundering. But the country was once again firmly under American control. And in the end, that’s all that really mattered to Washington.

Trailer from 1992’s The Panama Deception, winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature:

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