From the Invasion of Panama (1989) to Recolonization (2009): Other Forms of Imperial Terrorism

Stella Calloni
https://www.greenleft.org.au/sites/default/files/widerimages/us_soldiers_in_panama.jpgOn December 20, 1989, over 27,000 soldiers, including Special Forces and former combatants from Vietnam, part of the Fleet and dozens of helicopters, in addition to testing new planes and weapons on the small, practically defenseless country, delivered a brutal message to Central America and the entire region.

The recently created Panamanian Defense Forces (FDP) had only four thousand troops, with no air force or any possibility of defense to face the largest army in the world, which with its AH-64 Apache helicopters and the new silent Stealth aircraft, bombed and swept the military bases, its small Central Headquarters installed in the most popular community of the city: the neighborhood of El Chorrillo.

The use of this invasion scheme against Panama and the deployment of such a force was named “Operation Just Cause” utilizing false arguments to justify the unjustifiable which would also serve as a “deterrence model” for Sandinista Nicaragua which was resisting a terrorist war waged by the “Contra” mercenaries managed by the U.S. CIA, using Honduras, a country occupied by U.S. bases and troops, as a launching platform for their attack.

If we analyze the strategic position of Panama, the isthmus that unites Central America with South America, where the Panama Canal had been built and where the US Southern Command was established, with 20 military bases, including naval and air bases, with which they controlled the entire region, it is not difficult to understand why they decided to invade this country at the end of 1989, as part of their plans for the 1990s.

February 1989 had begun with the first anti-neoliberal rebellion that was the Caracazo in Venezuela, where a people silenced under false democracy, took to the streets to resist the increase in transportation fares, the straw that broke the camel’s back of this reality: 80 percent of the population of the region’s oil producing country was living in poverty.

At that time, the US “think tanks” of the U.S. were working on the theoretical elements that would sustain the so-called “commandments of the Washington Consensus” in a scheme that would mark the 90’s neoliberal dictatorships, which caused so many deaths and so much destruction, to subjugate Latin America and the Caribbean, by new avenues of action.

In order to invade Panama, President George Bush (Sr.) created the necessary conditions. In my book “Panama: Little Hiroshima,” which I wrote while still suffering the emotion and pain of having witnessed that brutal invasion that left between four and seven thousand dead, I describe the actions of U.S. foundations, such as the National Endowment Foundation (NED), known as the Foundation for the Development of Democracy, that have done so much damage in recent years throughout the Americas.

The NED was created under Ronald Reagan’s administration in 1983 and was instrumental in reorganizing the opposition in Nicaragua, and also worked on the so-called Cruzada Civilista in Panama, the basis for action that made the invasion possible.

The NED was destined to replace the CIA by creating a modus operandi that allowed direct communication and the sending of funds for supposed “democratic development”. Millions of dollars came in for the alleged “democratic opposition”, absolutely dependent on Washington, especially in Nicaragua and Panama.

Of course USAID – tragically well known in Latin America as the Agency for International Development – was also involved, as were other US Foundations setting the stage for the invasion.

The media campaign with which they had stigmatized Panamanian leader General Omar Torrijos -whose death in a plane crash in his country in May 1981 was blamed on the US CIA- who signed with former President James Carter, the Treaty (1977) that would put an end to the Southern Command and the presence of US troops in the Canal, would be key to the invasion.

Torrijos’ name had appeared together with that of the then Ecuadorian President Jaime Roldós, who died in another “plane crash” in May of that same year, in the Santa Fe 1 Document, where they were accused of being “leftists” and of being an obstacle and a “danger” to the security of the United States.

Thus Washington “cleared” the path of two important leaders in the history of Latin American emancipation, as revealed in documents on the actions of the CIA.

Torrijos was portrayed as a brutal “dictator”, “communist” and U.S. President James Carter suffered a harsh action from the Republicans who accused him of having handed over “his canal” and “his” country, even when the Treaty – signed on September 7, 1977 – suffered modifications due to heavy pressure, which affected Panamanian sovereignty.

After Torrijos died and several presidents of the pro-Torrijos Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) succeeded him, in 1983 the United States tried to keep the School of the Americas open, a tragic trajectory for the continent.

However, General Manuel Antonio Noriega, who was in charge of the Panamanian Armed Forces during the entire Torrijos administration as successor to General Rubén Darío Paredes – the real CIA strongman in the Panamanian Armed Forces – categorically refused in 1983 to allow the School of the Americas to remain open.

Along with this, Noriega was instrumental in the formation of the Contadora Peace Initiative (Panamanian island where the meetings began) which was formed with the governments of Mexico, Panama, Colombia and Venezuela in 1983.

It was one of the most important events of that time, when the wars of liberation were taking place in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, while this country had been converted into the launching pad for the US covert war against Sandinismo.

The Contadora Peace Initiative exposed the true origin of violence in countries subjected to long-standing military dictatorships, as was the case in the aforementioned countries, and also sought to halt the terrorist war against Nicaragua.

It highlighted the serious conditions of the populations in the face of the dictatorships supported by Washington and recognized as just the rebellion of the peoples in those circumstances.

It was a strong challenge, which the United States tried to sabotage as a peace initiative that proposed a scenario different from their plans. I witnessed all the meetings and the U.S. attempts to prevent the initiative from advancing. In a book co-authored with Uruguayan journalist Rafael Cribari: “The Covert War against Contadora” published in Panama at the end of 1983, we denounced everything that was done against this initiative.

Without remembering these situations, it would be impossible to understand the fierce campaign against General Noriega, who had dealt them two heavy blows and changed the name of National Guard to Defense Forces, a project of General Omar Torrijos. This was intended to exercise the right of Panamanian military to guard the Panama Canal, after the departure of the Southern Command and the U.S. troops stationed in the Zone, which happened at the end of 1999. These Defense Forces were in training at the time of the invasion.

As explained in the book, the whole scenario was set up with false incidents to convince the U.S. public that this decision was inevitable. The deposed Manuel Noriega of Panama, refashioned into a narco-criminal when he was no longer useful to Washington’s interests in 1989.

Noriega was accused of being a dictator, although he was never president of Panama. Three days before the invasion, the Assembly of Representatives declared him as Head of Government (chief of staff), to accompany as such President Francisco Rodriguez who was Comptroller General of the Republic and occupied the presidency on a provisional basis.

He had been appointed by the General Council of State, when the elections of May 1989 were annulled, where the opposition declared itself triumphant, but had kept its minutes in the Church in an action that prevented a recount of the votes. This would later be used by the United States.

The Cruzada Civilista played the same role as the current opposition in Venezuela, installing chaos, with violent actions and implying the need for a U.S. invasion to “save democracy”,

So, among the thousands of falsehoods that were and are said about Panama, especially in Wilkipedia where an astonishing amount of false data is accumulated, Noriega is mentioned as a student of the School of the Americas, together with Jorge Rafael Videla and Augusto Pinochert. It is astonishing that Noriega can be compared to these dictators who left thousands dead and disappeared.

Several U.S. media claimed he was a CIA agent, providing a convenient pretext, as they also discredited him in the eyes of the regional left. However, an investigation in the U.S. magazine Rolling Stone on the situation in Panama as well as the Iran Gate and Contra Gate scandal, warned that the CIA considered Noriega a “double agent”. Meaning that in reality they suspected that he was working more for the Torrijos government.

Otherwise it could not be understood how, for example, the arms that left Panama for the Sandinista liberation war against dictator Anastasio Somoza, which led to the triumph of the Sandinista Liberation Front (FSLN) in 1979, passed through Noriega’s hands.

BEHIND THE INVASION

In fact, one of the motives for the invasion was to secure control of the Panama Canal. The occupation of this zone and the installation of the Southern Command, converted the whole country into a colonial settlement.

During the invasion, civilian communities were attacked and even El Chorrillo with its old wooden houses that remained from the construction of the Canal and were quickly burned. This attack was called “Hiroshimita”.

So far only a few mass graves could be opened of the many that have not yet been excavated and where corpses of Panamanian civilians and military were found shot in the back of the head. Many bodies were burned with flamethrowers by the invaders.

What were Noriega’s repressions in the country? He was not taken to the United States because he was a drug trafficker, nor a “dictator” but because he knew too much about Bush and what was happening in Southern Command and because he had refused to allow Panama to be a base for the “Contra acting against Nicaragua” in 1985, a subject I covered as a press correspondent in Panama.

And it is worth noting that having attended the School of the Americas did not mean that strictly everyone became a dictator. The School was attended by military men who stood out, as was the case of Luis Augusto Turcios Lima and Marco Antonio Yon Sosa, Guatemalan military men who, after passing through this sinister institution, rose up against the dictators in 1960, in the first guerrilla uprising in their country, after the U.S. invasion in 1954.

General Torrijos and other military men, who passed through this school, later headed anti-imperialist movements in their countries. Of course, they were exceptions in the group of sinister characters.

Among the falsehoods is that Noriega helped the CIA to send cocaine to finance the Contra war in Nicaragua, but the truth is that the planes with drugs were leaving the bases of the Southern Command, as was proven in the Narco-Gate investigations.

When one studies what happened in Narco-Gate, it is evident what the ” task” of the US troops in Colombia was and the role of Israel in the sale of arms and advice to the Colombian paramilitaries.

Guillermo Endara, the president who was sworn in on December 20, 1989 on a US military base, while the Panamanian people were victims of the invasion, did have a long relationship with the CIA and was a lawyer for the Chola Corporation in Chile, a company that served the needs of the Pinochet dictatorship. [2]

CONSEQUENCES

“U.S. interest in Panama has always focused on one point: the strategic importance of the Canal. It has been crucial to its global operations, such as the capitalist penetration of Latin America and Asia, and its ability to aggressively move military forces around the world.”[1] The report also assesses that “the U.S. has been a key player in Panama’s global operations.

The article also states that “through the invasion, the United States intensified its domination in Panama and throughout Latin America”. It was one of the first U.S. maneuvers to impose itself as the sole superpower (after the collapse of the Soviet Union). The following year, it would launch the first Persian Gulf War (1990-1991). The same article refers to Operation “Desert Storm” against Iraq, which left thousands dead, and anticipated what would become the 2003 invasion to occupy that country.

Expressing the opinion of U.S. researchers, the article mentions that “The invasion of Panama was a shameful and mendacious U.S. war”, referring to the fact that U.S. troops did not make the slightest attempt to limit themselves to military targets.

The large number of homes and buildings affected by the invasion demonstrates that they did not make the slightest attempt to prevent damage to the lives and property of the Panamanian civilian population..
The U.S. aggression against the civilian population of Panama and Colon City was disproportionate and cruel.

“The invasion had covert political objectives. The U.S. military followed the tactics of General Colin Powell, Chief of Staff in Washington of maximum use of force to overwhelm the enemy. In the case of Panama, the tactic was unnecessary and, moreover, cruel since the Defense Forces had no air defenses or combat troops” wrote-Marco A. Gandásegui, Jr. (professor at the University of Panama and CELA research associate, 20.-12-2007).

The destruction and looting that dismantled businesses of all kinds, and the loss of homes for thousands of families in the cities of Panama and Colon, added to the tragedy. The United States also waged a covert war to destroy the Contadora Initiative (Panama, Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela) of 1983, which later became the Esquipulas Initiative, in an attempt to reduce valuable elements that were aimed at ending the real and unjust causes that originated the conflicts in Central America.

“In narrow circles, both in Panama and the United States, myths were woven into the reasons why the world’s largest military power launched itself against Panama. The most repeated myth refers to the person of General Noriega who made an enemy of the U.S. after decades of supposedly being found in CIA spreadsheets, which no one ever saw. The resemblance to Iraq is all too obvious. The same movie with the same actors in a different scenario.

Another myth circulating among CIA friends is that Panama declared war on the US (?). Another story is that then President Bush (Sr.) invoked a supposed treaty to justify the attack. Finally, there are those who allege that the UN approved the invasion. Each of these myths must be debunked:

The alleged declaration of war by the Assembly of Representatives on December 15, 1989 has been used as an excuse to “legitimize” the US military invasion. This approach is both legally and historically ridiculous.

George Bush (Sr.) did not invoke any treaty to militarily invade Panama. In his public statement of December 20, he stated four reasons. The first was to protect American lives (which were not in danger). Second, he said that the Canal had to be protected. Third, to defend democracy. Fourth, to arrest Noriega, accused of drug trafficking. At no time did he mention any treaty or law.

On December 23, the UN Security Council, made up of 15 countries, accepted Yugoslavia’s proposal condemning the US military invasion of Panama. Only the US, Great Britain and France opposed it. However, all three defeated the proposal with their veto power. The vote was 12 to 3 in favor of the dignity of Panama denouncing the invasion. The reason for the invasion can only be found by studying the internal contradictions of U.S. policy, the weaknesses of an insecure president, harassed by the opposition and unable to raise a coherent government program.

DEMOCRATIC CHANGE?

20 years after the invasion of Panama, and after a succession of governments of the right (and the Democratic Revolutionary Party), Ricardo Martinelli took office and signed an agreement with the United States to build between 4 and 9 military bases in Panama along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. This would constitute a covert recolonization of the Isthmian country. This not only established Panama as an occupied country, but also integrated into the entire network of bases of Plan Merida and Plan Colombia.

Ricardo Martinelli, a millionaire businessman through shady business dealings, would be the ideal president for Washington’s new projects in the region. When he announced his government program, he stated that he would not sign any treaty with the United States, neither military nor commercial.

Nevertheless, only three months after taking office in 2009, he announced: “We will initiate conversations to bring back to Panama the presence of the FOL (Forwar Operating Location) mechanism to combat drug trafficking and terrorism, among others. Martinelli intended to collaborate with the United States in the fight against terrorism, insurgency and drug trafficking, according to international analyst, former foreign policy advisor and writer Julio Yao Villallaz, who asked the U.S. embassy in 2009:

Does the U.S. have the right to freely enter Panama’s land, air, lake and maritime space?

Does the U.S. have the right to pursue, capture and/or destroy vessels or aircraft within the national territory, including the right to take detained crew members directly to U.S. territory and to keep the seized cargo, without bringing them into our territory or requiring authorization from Panama?

Does the U.S. have the right to board Panamanian flagged vessels on the high seas without Panamanian approval?

Does the U.S. have extraterritorial rights and immunity from Panamanian jurisdiction?

Does the U.S. have rights, privileges, exonerations and other powers superior to those granted to foreign diplomats?

Does the U.S. have the right not to submit its civilian and military officials accused of war crimes to our courts, and to prevent Panama from submitting them to third States or to the International Criminal Court?

Does the U.S. have the right to apply the 2002 Supplementary Agreement (Salas-Becker Treaty) to obtain access to the naval air bases to be built in both oceans?

Does the U.S. have the legal authority to enter and maintain armed forces in Panama under the Neutrality Treaty?

What agreement with Panama authorizes the Panamax Maneuvers that have been carried out here, every year, since 2003?”

And continues :

U.S. Rights in Colombia

President Alvaro Uribe has said that the military bases he agreed with the U.S. on October 30, 2009, will be used ‘only within Colombian territory’. However, a U.S. Air Force document delivered to the U.S. Senate states otherwise:

That the Palanquero military base ‘guarantees the opportunity to conduct full spectrum operations throughout South America’ (U.S. Land, Sea and Air forces);

That the military bases will serve to combat ‘the constant threat of anti-U.S. governments’ (Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil);

That the October 30 agreement allows ‘access to and use of all other facilities and locations’ throughout Colombian territory, without restrictions, including the use of commercial airports;

That the U.S. will invest some $46 million to upgrade the airstrip, ramps and other facilities into a Cooperative Security Location (CSL), from which to address threats from anti-U.S. governments;

That ‘access to Colombia will deepen the strategic relationship with the U.S. The strong security cooperation relationship also offers an opportunity to conduct full spectrum operations throughout South America’. The Palanquero base ‘helps with the mobility mission because it guarantees access to the entire continent of South America with the exception of Cape Horn’.

The invasion and its obvious consequences now constitute the greatest betrayal of the people who fought so hard to free themselves from the colonialism of the 20th century.

The military bases would turn the entire territory of Panama into a colonial zone, and signify a virtual annexation like that of Colombia, and the continuity of an occupation that is beginning to extend more and more, since the Merida Plan imposed in Mexico (2006), turned the Río Bravo into the beginning of the new outline of the geostrategic project of recolonization that is Plan Colombia.

The four large US naval air bases in Panamanian territory (of the nine others finally agreed upon) are added to the seven bases in Colombia, to the outline of Plan Puebla Panama, for which the US government produced a coup d’état in Honduras (June 2009), to protect its bases and military structures in that country, which is not only concentrated in Soto Cano, Palmerola, but in other bases and establishments.

The first “naval air base” will be located on Chapera Island, in the Pearl Archipelago, near Contadora Island (used to arrange peace in the region in the 1980s). The second base in Rambala, in the province of Bocas del Toro, an area promoted for international tourism. The third in Punta Coco, province of Veraguas and the fourth -and last- in Bahía Piña, province of Darien, a few kilometers from the border with Colombia. This demonstrates the seriousness of the advance of the United States over Latin America, in the XXI Century Hemispheric Security designs that constitute the greatest threat of the last decades. The network of bases, such as the series that are planted in several Latin American countries, military infrastructures such as those in Paraguay, which can be quickly occupied by invasion troops, give the pattern of the policy of encirclement that is trying to impose on countries whose governments were elected by overwhelming popular majorities, which have the right to regain their real independence in the XXI century.

It was not under a Republican government, linked to all the mafias of world power, author of the first genocides in the XXI century, in Afghanistan and Iraq, such as that of George W. Bush, that these agreements were imposed, which destroy all sovereign principles and impose on the peoples by force, an imperial-colonial presence coinciding with the bicentenary of the independence of Latin America from Spanish colonialism, which was castrated at the root by the imperial expansionism of the United States.

Panama is part of the Merida Plan promoted by the U.S. Government to combat drug trafficking, which has left more than 150,000 dead and around 40,000 disappeared in Mexico, a situation that continues to this day. Everyone knows that drug trafficking is not fought with military actions that have wiped out Mexican populations and have turned Mexico into a country occupied by its military forces under U.S. control.

But it was not only the military occupation of Panama but the role that Martinelli should play against Cuba and other countries in the region. On April 30, 2010 Martinelli “communicated to the Cuban government his decision to cease the activity of the Cuban Medical Brigade in that country” which performed almost fifty thousand operations on Panamanian citizens, totally free of charge and with no expenses for the Panamanian state, after having been requested by the president himself on July 1, 2009 (before the agreements). He also requested assistance in sports, which was also cancelled, as pointed out by Percy Alvarado Godoy, a Cuban researcher.

Notes:

1 http://revcom.us Letters: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago)

2 (quoted in the book “Operation Condor, criminal pact” Mexico 2001. Cuba 2006).

Translation by Internationalist 360°