The U.S. at War - A History of Shame

The U.S. Invasion of Panama 1989: The Injustice of "Operation Just Cause"

Revolution #017, October 9, 2005, posted at

This is the second article in this series.

On December 20, 1989, over 27,000 U.S. troops invaded the small Central American country of Panama. The world’s most powerful military overwhelmed the Panama Defense Force (PDF) and its 3,000 soldiers. AH-64 Apache helicopter raked the country, both military bases and working class communities. After the PDF crumbled, fighting by irregular Panamanian militia lasted a few days.

The invaders called this "Operation Just Cause."

What were the reasons given for this invasion? They are all too familiar:

The U.S. President, then George Bush, Sr., said he was removing an evil dictator, General Manuel Noriega, who was brutalizing his own people. Noreiega was portrayed on TV as a madman waving a machete. After a concocted incident provoked by U.S. troops, Bush claimed that an invasion was needed to "protect American lives."

Meanwhile, this same Noriega was actually on the CIA payroll (right up to invasion), and the main reason for the invasion was to make sure that the Panama Canal remained under U.S. imperialist conrol.

Saving Panama’s People from Brutality?

The U.S. has never had qualms about brutalizing the Panamanian people--not during this invasion and not during the previous 83 years of U.S. domination.

In the 1989 invasion, heavy U.S. firepower was turned on civilian communities. The poor working class neighborhood of El Chorillo was burnt to the ground and quickly got a new nickname--"Little Hiroshima." Panamanians estimate that between 2,000 and 6,000 people were killed in this invasion. Many of them were dumped into mass graves. Witnesses reported that U.S. troops used flame-throwers on the dead, the bodies shriveling up as they burned.

This invasion was obviously NOT done to protect Panama’s people!

Protecting American Lives?

A U.S soldier was killed by PDF troops. Bush said this meant all 35,000 Americans stationed in Panama were in danger.

In reality, the U.S. government had been working hard to provoke such an incident for months--by running military "exercises" through the streets of Panama City. A schoolteacher was killed by U.S. troops in one exercise. In this artificially charged climate, U.S. soldiers ran a Panamanian checkpoint near a sensitive military installation--and one of them got shot.

And what, after all, were all these 35,000 Americans doing in Panama? They served the U.S. economic, military, and political domination of Panama. And what did it mean to "protect" their safety? It could only mean tightening that domination.

Freeing a Country from a Thug?

General Noriega was a military officer handpicked and trained by U.S. to run Panama. He became a paid CIA operative in 1967 and attended the U.S. Army’s notorious School of the Americas (also known as the School of Assassins). When the previous Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos fell out of U.S. favor (and then fell out of the sky in a 1981 plane crash), Manuel Noriega was hoisted into power with U.S. backing.

Noriega certainly was a corrupt and vicious thug. This was (in part) why Noriega was seen as a valuable "asset," as a ruthless man whose loyalty could be bought, who would do whatever was needed to serve U.S. interests (including suppress the Panamanian people).

Under Noriega, U.S. military operations expanded in Panama. Bush, Sr. personally met with Noriega in 1967 (when he was head of the CIA) and in 1983 (when he was vice president). In the early ‘80s, Noriega helped set up the CIA’s "drugs-for-guns" trade that used cocaine trafficking to finance their secret Contra war against Nicaragua. All during the Reagan ‘80s, Noriega got personal CIA and Pentagon payments of nearly $200,000 a year.

So it was complete hypocrisy for the U.S. government to claim that they were liberating the Panamanian people. The U.S. government (and Bush Sr. personally) had after all imposed this brutal agent on Panama for many years.

When Noriega stole the 1984 Panamanian election, Reagan’s Secretary of State praised the farce for "initiating the process of democracy." But then (with more hypocrisy) the Bush administration suddenly started claiming by 1989 that their invasion was now needed to overthrow Noriega and "restore democracy."

And so what did the invading U.S. force replace Noreiga with in 1989? More handpicked puppets!

Elite U.S. forces seized Noriega and flew him to the U.S. to stand trial--and to take care that he was never allowed to spill all the secrets he knew about the CIA and George Bush 1.

Meanwhile, Guillermo Endara--the U.S. government’s hand-picked choice--was sworn in as president of Panama on a U.S. base in the U.S.-controlled Canal Zone. The new Panamanian president and others in his government were tied to Panamanian banks deep into drug trade and money laundering. And none of them, of course, came to power to serve the Panamanian people.

Elections were held later--under conditions that guaranteed results that would closely serve what the U.S. wanted and needed in Panama. And the main "guarantee" of those results was, of course, the soldiers, guns, and planes of the U.S. military packed all around Panama--forces who had just proven, in case anyone had doubts, that they could be merciless in enforcing U.S. interests.

So What was the Invasion Really About?

The U.S. interest in Panama has always focused on one main thing: the strategic importance of the Panama Canal. The Canal was crucial to U.S. global operations--its capitalist penetration of Latin America and Asia, and its ability to shift its military forces aggressively around the world.

The U.S. stole Panama from Colombia in 1903. They colonized the Canal Zone and packed it with U.S. bases--so that no one (including Panama’s people) could challenge U.S. control. And after World War 2, it became the headquarters of SOUTHCOM--the U.S. military command center for gathering intelligence, carrying out intrigues, and suppressing insurgencies throughout Latin America.

In the 1970s, faced with defeat in Vietnam and growing challenges from its Soviet rivals, the U.S. ruling class decided to change how they exercised control over the Panama Canal Zone--from direct U.S. colonial control, to control through the Panamanian neocolonial government.

As that changeover approached, Noriega looked less and less like the man-for-the-job. Just ten days before much of the administration of the Canal was scheduled to go over to Panama (on January 1, 1990) the U.S. invaded to get rid of Noriega.

Thousands of Panamanians were killed so that Washington could be confident it would keep control of the Canal--and so a new set of corrupt rulers could imposed.

It represented a tightening of the U.S. grip on Panama and all of Latin America. It was one of the first new global moves (after the collapse of the Soviet Union) to push forward the U.S. as the world’s "only superpower"--soon to be followed by the first Gulf War in 1990 (against that other, estranged U.S. ally Saddam Hussein!).

This invasion of Panama was a U.S. war of lies and shame.

This series is available online at