How the 1989 War on Manuel Noriega's Panama Super-Charged US Militarism
Publisher: The Nation
Date Written: 30/05/2017
Year Published: 2017
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX20843
Manuel Noriega is dead at 83. He seems like a sad footnote to the last disastrous quarter century, but the December 1989 US invasion of Panama really was a permission slip for Washington -- led by both Republicans and Democrats -- to waste whatever potential benefits the end of the Cold War might have brought.
More than 20 US soldiers were killed and 300-500 Panamanian combatants died as well. We still don't know how many civilians died, since US officials didn't bother to count the dead in El Chorrillo, a poor Panama City barrio that US planes indiscriminately bombed because it was thought to be a bastion of support for Noriega. Grassroots human-rights organizations claimed thousands of civilians were killed and tens of thousands displaced. The University of Panama's seismograph marked 442 major explosions in the first 12 hours of the invasion, about one major bomb blast every two minutes. Fires engulfed the mostly wooden homes, destroying about 4,000 residences. Some residents began to call El Chorrillo "Guernica" or "little Hiroshima." Shortly after hostilities ended, bulldozers excavated mass graves and shoveled in the bodies. "Buried like dogs," said the mother of one of the civilian dead.
The campaign to capture Noriega, however, didn't start with grand ambitions. For years, Panama's corrupt and brutal dictator had been an ally of the United States, providing such important services that the Carter administration in 1979 blocked a federal prosecutor from indicting him on drug charges. He was a CIA asset, and, in the 1980s, a key player in the shadowy network of anti-communists, tyrants, and drug runners who made up what would become Iran-Contra (the conspiracy involving President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council to sell high-tech missiles to the ayatollahs in Iran and then divert their payments to support anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua in order to destabilize the Sandinista government there). Much of the illegal funding raised to support the Contras was routed through Panama. Noriegas usefulness to Washington came to an end in 1986, after journalist Seymour Hersh published an investigation in The New York Times linking him to drug trafficking. It turned out that Noriega had been working both sides. He was "our man," but he was also passing on intelligence to Havana.