1989: Panama Occupation Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The generally amicable relations between the United States and Panama began to falter after Panamanian general Manuel Noriega came to power in Panama in 1987. Despite his history of involvement in drug trafficking, gun running, and money laundering, Noriega had been receiving support from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as a friendly resource in Panama. However, relations between the two countries deteriorated rapidly after Noriega arranged the ouster of Panama’s legally elected president Eric Delvalle and annulled the subsequent election of Guillermo Endara. The U.S. government continued to distance itself from Noriega as both Panamanian domestic unrest and international opprobrium rose against Noriega.

The generally amicable relations between the United States and Panama began to falter after Panamanian general Manuel Noriega came to power in Panama in 1987. Despite his history of involvement in drug trafficking, gun running, and money laundering, Noriega had been receiving support from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as a friendly resource in Panama. However, relations between the two countries deteriorated rapidly after Noriega arranged the ouster of Panama’s legally elected president Eric Delvalle and annulled the subsequent election of Guillermo Endara. The U.S. government continued to distance itself from Noriega as both Panamanian domestic unrest and international opprobrium rose against Noriega.

Background

Growing instability in Panama raised American concern about the security of the Panama Canal, which was vital to international shipping. On December 20, 1989, President George Bush ordered U.S. troops into Panama with the ostensible purpose of seizing Noriega on drug-smuggling charges. Code-named Operation Just Cause, the invasion was undertaken with the primary goal of capturing Noriega. General Maxwell Thurman commanded forces that included paratroopers, amphibious assault units, attack helicopters, and jet fighters. Thurman’s invasion overwhelmed the Panamanian Defense Forces within a few days. About twenty-five thousand U.S. military personnel were involved, and their weapons included two advanced Stealth fighter-bombers.

In spite of their superior technology, Thurman’s forces did come upon some difficulties. Their attack on Noriega’s military headquarters was effective, but this multistory building was located in a densely populated part of Panama City. After American attack helicopters and artillery set the building ablaze, the fire spread until almost two thousand surrounding homes were destroyed. Fifteen thousand people were left homeless, and a number of civilians were killed or injured.

For several days Noriega succeeded in hiding from the U.S. forces. Finally, he took refuge in the Papal Nunciature–the office of the pope’s representative in the country–where he stayed until January 3, 1990. After officials of the Roman Catholic Church informed the Bush administration where Noriega was hiding, General Thurman decided to use psychological weapons: He surrounded the Nunciature with large numbers of troops and played rock-and-roll music over powerful loudspeakers.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officers taking deposed Panamanian president Manuel Noriega aboard the Air Force transport plane that took him to the United States, where he was tried and convicted of drug dealing. (U.S. Air Force)

Noriega finally surrendered to the U.S. military. After an overnight airplane flight to Miami, he found himself in a Florida jail awaiting trial. On April 9, 1992, he was convicted of eight out of ten drug and racketeering charges, and in July he was sentenced to forty years in prison.

U.S. Embarrassments

Several aspects of the invasion held the potential for embarrassing the U.S. government–not least of which was Washington’s earlier support for Noriega. Moreover, the military operation itself had a number of embarrassing problems, including civilian deaths, and there were instances of Panamanian civilians protesting the American effort to “liberate” them. Despite these problems, the American news media were unusually supportive of the invasion, portraying it in a positive light–even in comparison with the media’s coverage of the following year’s Persian Gulf War. More significantly, there was little official effort to restrict or manage news coverage of the Panama invasion. The “press pool” system that would be used in reporting on the later Gulf War was not utilized in the Panama operation. American reporters and photographers were present at the invitation of the invasion force and had relatively free access to cover events. American press coverage might therefore have been partly a product of self-censorship.

Although the U.S. government did not overtly hinder media access, there is some evidence that the Endara government–which the U.S. military returned to power after removing Noriega–worked to limit negative portrayals of the military intervention by its American benefactors. Also, Noriega’s numerous moral and political faults may have made portraying the invasion as a morality play almost irresistible. Finally, the relative swiftness of Noriega’s defeat provided little time for antiwar sentiment to materialize.

Noriega’s capture was a victory over brutal dictatorship and international lawlessness, but it also raised some controversial issues. Using military force to capture a citizen of one country for criminal charges in another country was a dangerous step to take, for in other circumstances it might bring greater bloodshed, even war. A gutted, burned-down area of Panama City remained as a sad illustration of the risks President Bush had taken in ordering the invasion. Also, Latin American countries remembered how the United States had used its military forces to get its way in their countries earlier in the twentieth century. They were unhappy to see the pattern repeated.

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