The 1989 US war against Panama set the template for future US invasions

AFP photo



Rupen Savoulian


In May this year, former Panamanian military strongman and long-term CIA asset, General Manuel Noriega, passed away after brain surgery. He was 83 years old. The death of General Noriega, the former ruler of Panama unseated by the 1989 US invasion, was announced by current Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela. The latter, referring to Noriega’s passing, made the pointed comment that Noriega’s death closes a particular chapter in Panama’s history.

In a way, President Varela is right – there are events that serve as bookends if you will, closing off a chapter of history. Noriega’s death received minimal attention in the corporate press, and the events leading up to the 1989 US invasion have faded from collective memory. However, this is an unfortunate situation, because the issues of the 1989 attack on Panama have contemporary relevance. The political and economic causes of the US intervention – named “Operation Just Cause” – require careful consideration in order to understand the pattern of US invasions over the last 28 years.

Writing in Jacobin magazine, Jonah Walters states that the 1989 American invasion of Panama set the template for imperialist wars; unilateral military intervention became an accepted measure not only on the conservative side of US politics, but also on the supposedly softer, liberal side. He writes that:


The invasion of Panama inaugurated a new period of American empire-building. The worst of the Cold War tension finally relieved, conservatives and liberals alike accepted unilateral military intervention as a core feature of American foreign policy, deploying specious appeals to humanitarianism to override historical claims to sovereignty.


As Walters elaborates, perhaps the current President of Panama can close the chapter on that particular turbulent episode in Panama’s history. However, the targets of US interventions and victims of the US military-industrial complex, must regard the 1989 invasion as the opening salvo in an ongoing story. It is interesting to note that the US incursion into Panama occurred just as the rival superpower, the Soviet Union, was withdrawing from its traditional ‘buffer zone’ of Eastern Europe. This change in international relations allowed US imperialism to go on an ideological and military offensive.


Let us be clear – there are no tears for the passing of the former general. Noriega began his career under the tutelage of the United States – or more correctly, the American military-intelligence apparatus. Informing on leftist students in the 1950s, Noriega went on to attend the US Army School of the Americas – the academy that has churned out murderous despots, criminal officers and uniformed thugs throughout Latin America.

Noriega’s rule in Panama was characterised by the repression and torture of dissidents. He closely aligned his administration with the objectives of US foreign policy in the Central American region. When, in 1979, the Nicaraguan Sandinista revolution toppled the hated rule of the pro-American dictator Somoza, Noriega did not hesitate to come to the aid of the Nicaraguan Contras, the collection of former Somoza regime rebels, killers, torturers and drug traffickers.

Noriega was one of many players embedded in the clandestine network that helped to carry out the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra affair – the political scandal that involved the secret funnelling of American arms to Iran, and the use of the proceeds to surreptitiously fund the Contras. General Noriega’s abuses of human rights did not trouble his American patrons. Noriega’s Panama was a necessary and valuable conduit for American money, armaments and military personnel.

Noriega’s value as an unswervingly loyal American asset began to change in the late 1980s – he became the man who knew too much. He asserted that the Panama Canal zone, an important arterial waterway in Central America, should revert to the control of the Panamanian authorities. The dutiful servant began to make demands of his own – and this political disloyalty had to be punished. Increasingly bombastic, Noriega’s paymasters decided to take action against their wayward asset.

The invasion and subsequent war were reasonably short – and the Bush Senior administration had domestic political considerations on their mind when conducting this war. In the immediate aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States now had a chance to vanquish the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’– namely, the reluctance of the financial-military oligarchy to launch wars overseas. This military intervention was meant to demonstrate an unmistakable change in America’s view of the world – that it was no longer constrained by anti-war opinion at home.

The 1989 invasion was intended to reverse the series of military defeats and debacles that the US military had suffered in the 1970s and 1980s, namely in Vietnam, but also the defeats of US-backed regimes in Central America, and the withdrawal of US Marines from Lebanon. The assault on Panama set the template for subsequent US invasions around the world. The attack on Panama was promoted by the United States as a reluctantly undertaken but necessary military action to stop a regime engaged in narco-trafficking and criminal activities.

The Panama attack was the earliest contemporary example of a ‘television war’; the main American media outlets basically served as adjuncts of the US military and administration. Churning out images and pretexts uncritical of the invasion, it was an exercise in corporate propaganda – and we will come back to that later in this article. The corporate media invited its audience to marvel at the new range of high-tech weaponry deployed by the US military.

One American general quipped that his soldiers were mesmerised by firepower – all these computer-software guided missiles and stealth fighters were required to minimise the chances of civilian casualties. The 1989 Panama invasion was almost the first real-life computer-game war, with the audience bedazzled with the supposedly sophisticated weaponry mimicking the fictitious counterparts in computer games of the time.

Greg Grandin explained in his article about the Panama invasion that high-tech weapons or not, Panamanian casualties amounted to between 300-500 combatants. For the United States, 20 soldiers died. Until today, the civilian death toll is unconfirmed, because the US military did not bother to count the civilian casualties.

What is known is that the US air force indiscriminately bombed the Panamanian barrio of El Chorrillo, a predominately poor area. The University of Panama, using their seismographic equipment, monitored 442 explosions in the first 12 hours of the invasion. Fires engulfed the barrio, and countless civilians were burned. Bulldozers were deployed after the invasion to bury the corpses in mass graves.


The defeat of Noriega was a foregone conclusion; with his defeat, a more compliant Panamanian financial kleptocracy has been installed – compliant with the aims of the United States that is. If Operation Just Cause was undertaken to stop a regime from carrying out criminal activities, then that invasion must be judged to be a failure. The recent revelations of the Panama Papers reveal the extensive and clandestine network of financial crimes and corporate conspiracies that have found a safe haven – a tax haven – in Panama after the overthrow of Noriega. Panama was, and is, a suitable location for money laundering – one of the principal practices of capitalist neoliberalism.

Earlier in the article, we used the word propaganda to describe the ideological leadup to the Panama invasion. This word has ugly connotations – something that happens exclusively in Communist countries, or in totalitarian dictatorships where the state controls the media outlets and the flow of information. This definition is too narrow in scope and simplistic.

Propaganda is deployed very effectively in capitalist societies – only it is not called by that name. Public relations, advertising and perception management are the tools of the corporate propagandist, the financial speculator and militarist war-maker. This propaganda is subsidised by the private sector, and engulfs public space with images and messages designed to disguise the financial motives of the sponsor.

John Pilger has written that much of what masquerades as journalism today can be accurately described as propaganda; the so-called ‘information age’ has truly become warfare by media. The US invasion of Panama, cloaked by noble intentions, was an exercise in super-charged militarism. We must dig deep into contemporary history to uncover the deceptions deployed by the US for that war, and subsequent invasions. We require, to use John Pilger’s words, not a journalism that serves as a mouthpiece for the rich and powerful, but an insurrection – an uprising of subjugated knowledge.





Rupen Savoulian

I am an activist, writer, socialist and IT professional. Born to Egyptian-Armenian parents in Sydney, Australia, my interests include social justice, anti-racism, economic equality and human rights.

Editor review


No Comments Yet!

You can be first to comment this post!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.