Remembering the U.S. Invasion of Panama, a Landmark on the Timeline of Lethal U.S. Hypocrisy

Belén Fernández


In the runup to the December, 1989 United States military invasion of Panama, the name of the operation underwent a drastic revision. No longer would it be known by the random moniker Operation Blue Spoon; henceforth, it would be called Operation Just Cause. Then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell would later explain that, not only did the updated title have an “inspirational ring,” it also meant that “even our severest critics would have to utter ‘Just Cause’ while denouncing us.”

Thirty years on, Just Cause still ranks up there with the military’s greatest hits of perverse euphemism—think Operation Iraqi Freedom, more realistically denominated as the decimation of Iraq. Just Cause, the largest U.S. combat effort since the Vietnam War, involved more than 27,000 U.S. troops and entailed a brief but maniacal battering of Panama, leaving up to several thousand—primarily poor—Panamanian civilians dead, according to human rights groups. (The U.S. has preferred to lowball casualty counts, claiming only a few hundred civilian deaths.) The impoverished Panama City neighborhood of El Chorrillo saw such a level of devastation that ambulance drivers began referring to the area as “Little Hiroshima.”

The target of the operation, Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega—a longtime U.S. crony who had fallen afoul of his gringo masters and been spontaneously recast in the role of Super-Narco Menace and Public Enemy Number One—took refuge in the Vatican embassy but was driven to surrender following prolonged auditory torture from American tanks outside, which blasted clever musical selections like Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” and Van Halen’s “Judgement Day.” Noriega was then hauled off to the U.S. to face drug trafficking charges—clearly a great triumph for justice as, just two days after Just Cause began, the army had announced the apprehension of “50 pounds of cocaine” in a house he was known to frequent. 

The commander of the Panama-based U.S. Southern Command subsequently boosted the quantity to 110 pounds—before the Pentagon admitted a month later that, actually, the cocaine had not been cocaine at all but rather tamales in banana leaves. Lest anyone question the overall justness of the cause, a Pentagon spokeswoman revealed that these seemingly innocuous comestibles were in fact “a substance they use in voodoo rituals.”

A Just Cause commemorative dispatch appearing at the U.S. army’s official website reminisces about how the operation “represented a clear understanding of immediate military and political goals of rapidly destroying the enemy’s ability to fight without needlessly endangering Panamanian lives or property.” So much, then, for “Little Hiroshima,” whose residents suffered such indiscriminate bombing that  the seismograph at the University of Panama “marked 442 major explosions in the first 12 hours[,] about one major bomb blast every two minutes,” as historian Greg Grandin writes

“Fires engulfed the mostly wooden homes, destroying about 4,000 residences,” Grandin continues. “Shortly after hostilities ended, bulldozers excavated mass graves and shoveled in the bodies.” Even U.S. General Marc Cisneros candidly admitted in 1999 on the invasion’s tenth anniversary: “I think we could have done it with less troops and less destruction. We made it look like we were battling Goliath… We are mesmerized with firepower. We have all these new gadgets, laser-guided missiles and stealth fighters, and we are just dying to use that stuff.” The inhabitants of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the dozens of other countries where the U.S. has chosen to lethally showcase its mesmerization would presumably agree. Grandin called Operation Just Cause the “war that started all of Washington’s post-Cold War wars.”


But why Panama? Among the advertised reasons for Just Cause was the restoration of “democracy” in the country, something the U.S. had literally thwarted at every turn—even applauding Noriega’s transparent theft of elections in 1984—not to mention the gringos’ indefensible anti-democratic track record of backing regional right-wing dictators and death squads. There were other preposterous arguments, too, such as that the invasion was somehow necessary to protect American lives. 

As usual, the U.S. media was dutifully trumpeting the official line. Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), the national media watchdog group, took U.S. news outlets to task for their enthusiastic leap onto the bandwagon of war and their shameless portrayal of Panamanians as almost orgasmically overjoyed by the U.S. onslaught. A CBS-sponsored public opinion poll in Panama, for example, found that “80 percent of those whose homes had been blown up or their relatives killed by U.S. forces said it was worth it.” Even more conveniently, perhaps, was that “82 percent of the sampled Panamanian patriots did not want Panamanian control of the Canal, preferring either partial or exclusive control by the U.S.”

Which brings us to the real reasons for Just Cause. Noriega, long seen as a valuable ally in the U.S.-sponsored terrorist Contra War on Nicaragua—another of those Very Democratic Moves that managed to leave tens of thousands dead—had as of late become less useful and less subservient to U.S. interests, even going so far as to collaborate with the Cubans. As Noam Chomsky details in his book What Uncle Sam Really Wants, Noriega’s ouster “restored power to the rich white [Panamanian] elite… just in time to ensure a compliant government for the administrative changeover of the Canal” from the U.S. to Panama on January 1, 1990.

Of course, the invasion was also an opportune moment to test out all the “new gadgets” mentioned by General Cisneros, and to pave the way for future international deployments of stupefying firepower for the benefit of the U.S. arms industry—pardon, on behalf of democracy and freedom. Relatedly, the lightning-quick success of the operation helped the U.S. public overcome that troublesome affliction known as Vietnam Syndrome—a reluctance to endorse U.S. military involvement overseas—while additionally serving as a warning to Nicaragua to kick its Sandinista habit tout suite and embrace the empire. 

To be sure, every war needs a good villain—hence the U.S. conversion of Noriega into a diabolical drug trafficker and threat to civilization itself. Among the numerous problems with this approach, however, was that the United States had known of Noriega’s links to the drug trade since at least 1972, when he was Panama’s director of military intelligence and a key CIA asset (and, incidentally, the counterpart of my own grandfather, who was then director of intelligence for SOUTHCOM). In their book Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press, Alex Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair note that, when William Webster assumed the post of CIA director a full 15 years later, in 1987, he “promptly certified… Noriega as an ally in the drug war.” 

Needless to say, the justness of Just Cause could have been argued with more of a straight face had the president who launched it—George H. W. Bush—not been the same creature who, as CIA director in 1976, saw to it that payments to narco-Noriega continued unabated. Even more so if the invasion hadn’t propelled Panama’s role in the drug trade to exciting new heights, with the Medellín cartel of Colombia simply replaced by the Cali one. Chomsky explains: “The U.S. put the bankers back in power after the invasion. Noriega’s involvement in drug trafficking had been trivial compared to theirs.”

And yet, given the United States’ own solid credentials in the field of drug trafficking, none of this was surprising. Take, for example, a 1993 article on the New York Times website titled “The CIA Drug Connection Is as Old as the Agency,” in which the author traces U.S. narco-activity from the Korean War to Vietnam and Laos—where heroin was “ferried out on the planes of the CIA's front airline, Air America”—to Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

In Central America, too, the U.S. has been intermittently up to its ears in the drug business—like that time in the 1980s when U.S. officials facilitated the enrichment-by-drug-trafficking of Nicaraguan Contra mercenaries. The fruits of those efforts were soon on display in a crack cocaine epidemic in South Central Los Angeles. So much for the “war on drugs.”

In the end, though, the whole drug war is nothing more than a war for the control of the drug trade—as well as a highly malleable concept that is easily exploited to justify U.S. militarization of the hemisphere. Consider Elliott Abrams, Iran-Contra convict and the State Department’s man in Central America for much of the death squad era, who went from fervently defending Noriega—in all of his drug-running, Contra-assisting glory—to advocating instead for the establishment of an anti-Noriega “Panamanian government in exile” on a U.S. military base in Panama (useful information, no doubt, in assessing Abrams’ present role as U.S. special envoy to Venezuela).

Indeed, the landscape of imperial hypocrisy hasn’t changed much; our allies can be as anti-democratic as they want so long as they work in our favor. Case in point: Honduras, former home of the CIA-trained death squad Battalion 3-16 and site of the 2009 U.S.-enabled coup against left-leaning President Manuel Zelaya—an event that brought a surge in homicides, impunity, and rampant repression by U.S.-backed state security forces. But, hey, at least Honduras was “open for business,” as per the slogan of the illegitimate right-wing government that supposedly delivered the country back into the arms of “democracy.”

And what do you know: current right-wing Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández—“reelected” in 2017 in a fraudulent affair that saw security forces once again unleash their murderous wrath against protesters as the United States helpfully certified that Honduras was doing just fine on the human rights front—is now directly implicated in drug trafficking charges. The president’s brother was convicted in New York in October—but suffice it to say that, for the moment at least, the United States sees narco-sponsored state brutality as a “just cause.”

Belén Fernández is the author of Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World (OR Books, 2019) and The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work (Verso, 2011). She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.

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