Against the background of another manifestation of American aggression against a sovereign state, it is very interesting to turn to the history of such cases. After all, the United States has been practicing interventions against the “wrong” states for many years, and even far from the first decade.
Panama Canal and a country without an army
The end of the 1980s was a time of massive changes in the political life of the then world. The Soviet Union and the entire socialist system were experiencing a grave crisis. The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, the activation of nationalist forces in the union republics, Gorbachev’s experiments in the economy and social sphere showed the West that the Soviet state was finally weakening and could no longer play the role in world politics that it had before.
Against the background of the weakening of the Soviet Union, the American leadership realized that it could act aggressively against any objectionable political regimes, completely without fear of a real reaction from Mikhail Gorbachev and his entourage.
On December 20, 1989, Operation Just Cause began, an armed invasion by the US Army into the small Central American republic of Panama. The operation lasted five days. It took the United States less than a week to overthrow the existing regime in Panama and establish control over the tiny republic.
Recall that the balance of power between the United States and Panama was like that of a 100-kilogram bulwark against a sixth grader. Even now, the entire population of Panama is just over 3.6 million. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Panama practically did not have its own army. This state of affairs is also the result of Washington’s policy. When the Panama Canal was built, the US leadership put pressure on the Panama authorities, arguing that Panama’s own armed forces would jeopardize the security of the canal itself.
For 48 years, since 1904, Panama had only a national police force. However, in 1953, the Panama National Guard was created on the basis of the police – a more militarized structure, which was funded by the United States. The creation of the National Guard was required against the background of the activation of communist rebels in the countries of Central and South America. Therefore, now the Americans did not skimp on funding the Panamanian National Guard. By the way, it was in the Panama Canal zone that the famous “School of the Americas” was located, where instructors from the United States trained officers for the armies and police of almost all states of Latin America.
Life, victory and death of General Omar Torrijos
However, in 1969, a military coup took place in Panama. The 40-year-old Colonel Omar Efrain Torrijos (1929-1981) came to power. A professional soldier, Torrijos entered service in 1947. The son of poor school teachers, he won a competition to study at a military school in neighboring El Salvador. After graduating from college in 1951, he joined the Panama National Police with the rank of junior lieutenant, and from 1953 he served in the National Guard.
Interestingly, Torrijos combined a successful military career with underground activities as the leader of an anti-imperialist officers’ circle. Although outwardly it was an officer quite loyal to the regime. In 1955, with the rank of lieutenant, he became the commander of the National Guard detachment for the protection of Tocumen International Airport, and a year later he was appointed head of the security of the former Argentine President Juan Domingo Peron, who was then living in Panama.
In this capacity, Torrijos was promoted to captain, and in 1960 he became a major and was appointed commander of the 2nd military zone, which included the west coast of Panama in the canal area. Since February 1963, Torrijos commanded the 5th military zone, and in 1966, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, he became the executive secretary of the Panama National Guard.
Having carried out a military coup and seized power in the country, Torrijos appropriated the title of brigadier general and proclaimed himself the leader of the Panama Revolution. The main goal of Omar Torrijos was the nationalization of the Panama Canal and the maximum liberation of the country from the US dictatorship.
On September 7, 1977, in Washington, Omar Torrijos and US President Jimmy Carter signed the long-awaited Panama Canal Treaty and the Treaty on Permanent Neutrality and Operation of the Canal, which provided for the gradual transfer of the canal zone to Panama’s jurisdiction. However, on July 31, 1981, the DHC-6 Twin Otte, which was flown by General Torrijos, crashed under strange circumstances. All seven people on board were killed.
Almost immediately after the death of Torrijos, Colonel Manuel Antonio Noriega became the de facto leader of Panama, who served as head of the Military Intelligence and Counterintelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Panama National Guard. Like Torrijos, Noriega came from a poor family, grew up in a slum block in Panama City, and from childhood dreamed of getting out of poverty. The only way to do this at that time was only military service. While serving in the Panama National Guard, he met Omar Torrijos and earned his trust by becoming his assistant.
In Panama, Noriega was called “Pineapple muzzle” behind the eyes – for the traces of smallpox on his face. Noriega was not distinguished by high morals. He used drugs, led a rather dissolute lifestyle. Noriega, despite the fact that he was an associate of Torrijos in the Panama Revolution, has collaborated with the US CIA on a paid basis since the 1960s. He stopped receiving money from American intelligence, already as the supreme leader of Panama in 1988.
This was due to the fact that Noriega, despite his vices, still tried to conduct a foreign policy as independent of the United States as possible. For example, he refused to grant Panama territory to the United States to conduct subversive activities against the Sandinista government of neighboring Nicaragua. As a result, in July 1987, the United States announced a complete cessation of economic and military assistance to Panama, and in February 1988, Manuel Noriega was accused of drug trafficking by the Drug Enforcement Administration of the United States Department of Justice.
Of course, certain claims to Noriega were justified, the “Pineapple muzzle” was definitely not an angel. But the United States is a master of double standards, and if the dictator Anastasio Somoza at one time was for the Americans “his son of a bitch”, like Rafael Trujillo, for example, then Manuel Noriega was among the “tyrants”, although he was not much different from most other military rulers Latin American states.
In April 1989, the United States imposed economic sanctions on Panama. In May 1989, opposition leader Guillermo Endara won the presidential elections in Panama, but Noriega did not recognize the election results. Pro-American forces tried to stage a military coup, but it failed. That is, we see how the classic scheme of the American leadership was applied – the denigration of the leadership, sanctions, opposition protests.
Thanks to such tactics, the Americans managed to provoke an economic crisis in Panama, but this was not enough – it took the entire armed invasion of Panama by the US army to overthrow Noriega, capture it and show it on the territory of the United States.
Operation “Just Cause”
When facts came to light that the US CIA was trying to carry out a military coup in Panama, Noriega expelled a group of American citizens from the country. Then the US authorities began to evacuate all Americans from the country.
On December 15, 1989, Manuel Noriega announced in the Panama Parliament that the country was actually at war with the United States. And the next day, there was a provocative incident – Panamanian soldiers shot and killed US Marine Lieutenant Robert Paz, and his wife was raped.
This crime actually freed the hands of the American leadership. George W. Bush, then the US President, decided to launch Operation Just Cause against Panama. The operation involved 26,000 American servicemen, 100 armored vehicles, 140 artillery pieces and mortars, 200 aircraft and helicopters. The main role was to be played by the special forces, airborne troops and the United States Marine Corps.
For comparison: At the time of the events described, Panama’s National Defense Forces numbered 12 thousand people, including 11 thousand people in ground units. They had only 30 armored personnel carriers, 50 artillery pieces, 23 aircraft and 20 helicopters.
Operation Just Cause began at 1:00 am on December 20, 1989. American aircraft attacked the cities of Panama, Colon, Rio Hato and David, and 84 transport aircraft dropped parachute troops from the 75th Ranger Regiment into Panama. After that, personnel and armored vehicles of the 82nd US Airborne Division were landed from 27 aircraft by landing method. Already in the morning of December 21, the Americans managed to seize the building of the General Staff of the Panama National Defense Forces. Although the Panamanian military resisted very fiercely, the numerical superiority of the Americans and the best weapons did their job.
As a result of the operation, the losses of the American army amounted to 23 killed and 330 wounded. 515 Panamanians were killed, including 51 soldiers. Manuel Noriega disappeared into the territory of the Vatican diplomatic mission. To force him to leave the shelter, the US military broadcast rock music at full volume around the clock for several days, making the stay at the embassy unbearable. On January 3, 1990, Noriega surrendered and was arrested by the US military. He was taken to the United States.
On July 10, 1992, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison, but then reduced to 30 years. On August 28, 2007, a decision was made to extradite him to France, where Noriega was also facing a sentence. On April 26, 2010, he was extradited to France, and already in 2011 he was extradited to Panama, where in 1995 he was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison.
Noriega’s health, who was already in his 80s, deteriorated significantly. He suffered a stroke in 2012 but remained in prison. Only when he underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor, the elderly man was transferred to house arrest. On May 29, 2017, 83-year-old Manuel Noriega passed away.
Operation Just Cause has become one of the classic examples of US military interventions under the guise of “restoring democracy” and “protecting human rights.” Although before the invasion of Panama, the United States had repeatedly resorted to such actions, including at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the American marines regularly landed in Central America in order to ensure the economic and political interests of the United States.