PANAMA:   BACKGROUND AND BUILDUP TO INVASION OF 1989

By Jane Franklin
 
 

Copyright 2001 by Jane Franklin

In November 1989, three weeks before the U.S. invasion, I attended a conference in Panama hosted by Panama's Center for International Studies to inform 118 U.S. delegates about what was taking place.  Panamanians were already under constant attack by U.S. troops who staged almost-daily military exercises in Panamanian territory where U.S. forces were obligated by treaty not to operate.  The Panamanians at the conference, including Provisional President Francisco Rodríguez and General Manuel Noriega, made it clear that the issue was not Noriega or democracy or the safety of U.S. citizens.  The issue was sovereignty--Panama’s right to determine its own history.  Most people in the United States have little knowledge of Panama’s history.  This chronology, an enlargement of one that I wrote in 1990, is an attempt to provide an historical context for the invasion.

1501:  Spanish exploration of the isthmus begins.  The conquistadores introduce slavery and Catholicism.

1519:  Old Panama City founded.  Sacked by British buccaneer Henry Morgan 1671.

1751:  Part of the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Granada, including at that time the present republics of Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela.

1821:  Independence from Spain during the battles for independence being waged with the leadership of Simón Bolívar. Soon becomes part of Bolívar’s Greater Colombia union of Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador.  (Within this union present-day Colombia was known as New Granada and included Panama.) Bolívar is elected president of Greater Colombia.

1823:  On December 2, in what becomes known as the Monroe Doctrine, President James Monroe stakes out the Western Hemisphere as an exclusive U.S. sphere of influence.

1830:  When Bolívar’s union dissolves, Panama continues to be part of New Granada (which takes the name Colombia in 1863).

1846:  U.S. government concludes treaty with New Granada stating Washington would guarantee "perfect neutrality" of the isthmus.

1855:  The Panama Railroad across the isthmus from the Atlantic to the Pacific is finished on January 28. 

1856:  U.S. troops land in Panama September 19-22 to protect U.S. interests, particularly the railroad.  

1865:  U.S. troops land March 9-10 to protect lives and property of U.S. citizens and of course the railroad during revolutionary activity.

1873:  U.S. troops land at Bay of Panama, Colombia, May 7-22 and September 23-October 9 to protect U.S. interests during hostilities over who should govern Panama.

1885:  U.S. troops land at Colón January 18-19 to guard valuables on the Panama Railroad and to protect the safes and vaults of the Panama Railroad Company.  In March, April and May U.S. troops are in Panama at both ends of the railroad, Colón and Panama City, to protect the railroad during revolutionary activity.

1898:  U.S. victory against Spain in the Spanish-American War yields four territories with major ports for the U.S. Navy:  Cuba, Puerto Rico, Philippines, and Guam.

1901:  U.S. troops land in Panama November 20-December 4 to protect U.S. property and to keep the railroad open.  Washington decides definitely to build the Panama Canal.

1902:  U.S. troops land September 17-November 18 to keep the railroad open.

PERMANENT PRESENCE OF U.S. TROOPS

1903:  In November, the Theodore Roosevelt Administration engineers the separation of Panama from Colombia.. The Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty is then negotiated for the building of a canal.  U.S. troops become a permanent presence.

1904:  Extra U.S. troops to prevent insurrection during elections.  Meanwhile, U.S. policy undermines and weakens the national army. No Panamanian can become president without the approval of  Washington.

1908:  Extra U.S. troops to prevent insurrection during elections.

1912:  Extra U.S. troops to prevent insurrection during elections. In May, Washington appoints a commission of high-ranking U.S. Army officers to count the votes in June elections.

1914:  Panama Canal opens.  U.S. troops control a ten-mile-wide Canal Zone across the middle of the country.  In order to cross from one side of their country to the other, Panamanians must identify themselves to U.S. troops.  In the Zone, U.S. employees receive more than twice the wage that Panamanians receive.  At this time an oligarchy rules with land and money for the few while 90 percent are excluded.  Segregation is enforced by a system of laws like the Jim Crow laws in the United States.

1918-20:  Extra U.S. troops to provide police duty at Chiriquí (western Panama) during election disturbances and subsequent unrest. In 1918, President Ciro Urriola issues a decree that postpones elections. Washington orders the decree revoked and U.S. troops occupy Panama City and Colón.

1920:  Major labor strike directed by William Preston Stoute, who is banished from the country.

1925:  Extra U.S. troops on October 12-23 to keep order and protect U.S. interests during rent strikes by tenants.

1930s-40s:  Washington is occasionally forced to make deals.  For instance, in exchange for more U.S. military sites outside the Canal Zone on the eve of entering World War II, the U.S. Government cancels some debt, gives monetary compensation for the sites, transfers to Panama certain properties of the Panama Railroad Company and control over the water and sewer systems of Panama City and Colón, grants some jurisdictional control to Panama.

1947:  On December 10, Panamanian Foreign Minister Francisco A. Filos and U.S. Ambassador Frank Hines sign the Filos-Hines Treaty to extend the presence of the 140 U.S. military bases and defense sites used during World War II.  Successful Panamanian resistance leads to the treaty’s defeat in the National Assembly two weeks later.

1954:  The CIA overthrows Guatemala’s government, ousting the elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, and installing the military dictatorship of Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas.

1954:  U.S. Supreme Court passes school desegregation decision (Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka). Developing U.S. Civil Rights Movement has profound influence in Panama.

1955:  Washington agrees to pay more for Canal expenses, to let Panama collect taxes from employees excepting U.S. citizens and some others, and to restore a little property to Panama.

1958:  Campaign demanding equal status for the Spanish language and the Panamanian flag in the Canal Zone. The Eisenhower Administration agrees both flags can fly at a specified place.

1959:  On January 1, Cuban Revolution triumphs, profoundly influencing the Panamanian people. Disturbances occur in each of the first four months of this year.

1959:  On Independence Day Panamanians march into the Canal Zone to raise the Panamanian flag; U.S. troops turn them back. Washington begins to convert police force into full-fledged military.  Washington later fears this military because of its potential as a nationalist force.

1964:  On January 9, U.S. students raise the U.S. flag by itself at a high school in the Canal Zone.  Protesting Panamanians march into the Zone and are turned back by U.S. troops.  This leads to two days of demonstrations during which U.S. troops kill more than 20 civilians and wound more than 300.  Panama breaks diplomatic relations and demands revision of treaties.  Relations resume in April after Washington agrees to discuss treaties.

OVERTHROW OF THE OLIGARCHY

1968:  On October 11, the National Guard, under Col. Omar Torrijos, overthrows the government of the oligarchy and installs a junta from which Torrijos emerges the leader.  He heads the armed forces 1968-81.  Torrijos moves toward independence from Washington, relying on the nationalist base.  Torrijos is not part of the oligarchy; his base comes from the dispossessed.  Under his leadership, the Panamanian Defense Forces become part of the movement for national liberation.  During the government of Torrijos and the National Guard, public schools increase from fewer than 2,000 to more than 3,000; infant mortality decreases from 40 to 25 per 1,000 live births; social security is extended by more than 1 million; roads and electricity are brought to rural areas; labor unions grow.

1972:  Junta is confirmed by election.  Torrijos remains as the head of Panamanian Defense Forces.

1974:  Panama and Cuba re-establish diplomatic relations.

1976:  General Omar Torrijos makes a state visit to Cuba.  In the joint communiqué issued by the two countries, Cuba supports Panama’s struggle for sovereignty in the Canal Zone.

1976:  On December 8, CIA Director George H.W. Bush meets with Manuel Noriega for lunch at the home of the Panamanian ambassador to the United States.  Noriega, a graduate of the School of the Americas, is on the CIA payroll.

1977:  The Carter Administration signs three agreements known as the Carter-Torrijos treaties, arranging for the return of the Panama Canal Zone to Panama at midnight December 31, 1999.  

1979:  The Carter-Torrijos treaties take effect October 1 and 65 percent of the Canal Zone is returned to Panama.   Areas still under U.S. control are called green zones; those under Panamanian conrol are white zones. Washington has the responsibility of operating and defending the Canal through December 31, 1999, but not after that.

1981:  Ronald Reagan becomes president January 20, with his commitment not to "lose" the Canal.  Six months later, on July 31, General Omar Torrijos is killed in an airplane crash.

1983:  On January 5, in an effort to settle Central American conflicts, the foreign ministers of Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela meet on the Panamanian island of Contadora and draft an initial proposal, calling for an end to all foreign intervention in the region, suspension of all military aid, and negotiations to end El Salvador’s civil war and the fighting in Nicaragua between government troops and “contras.”

1983:  General Manuel Noriega takes over in August as commander of Panama’s Defense Forces. The National Assembly endows the Defense Forces with vast powers (control over National Guard which is merged into it, other military and police forces, Canal matters, and functions such as immigration control and regulation of civilian aircraft). Noriega has been working with the CIA since at least 1959 (as a contract agent since 1966 or 1967).  The U.S. Army put him on its payroll as an intelligence asset in 1955 and keeps him there until 1986.  But Noriega too faces a choice if he wants to achieve real power (see 1968):  the choice between Washington and his nationalist base.

1983:  In December, Vice-President George H.W. Bush meets with General Noriega, this time at the Panama City airport when Bush is seeking support for the “contras” in Nicaragua.  Also at the meeting are Panamanian President Ricardo de la Espriella and the Vice President’s national security adviser Donald P. Gregg.  (During his 1988 presidential campaign, Vice-President Bush denies ever having met Noriega, but a photograph of this meeting restores his memory.) 

1984:  Presidential election of May 6 is a fraud arranged by Reagan Administration operatives and Noriega.  Nicolás Ardito Barletta, former official of the World Bank, wins.  Secretary of State George Shultz attends inauguration of his protégé (Ardito Barletta had been an assistant to Shultz when Shultz was a University of Chicago professor) to praise the election as democracy in action.

1985:  Hugo Spadaforo, who opposes Noriega, is assassinated.

1985:  On November 1, CIA Director William Casey meets with Noriega in Washington and complains about Noriega’s part in trade with Cuba that facilitates circumvention of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

1985:  Noriega later tells CBS (interview broadcast on “60 Minutes,” February 7, 1988)  that during a meeting on December 17, 1985,  with the U.S. National Security Adviser, Admiral John Poindexter, he learned of Washington’s plan to invade Nicaragua.  Noriega says that his failure to cooperate is the reason for his indictment in February 1988.

1986:  The Reagan Administration  proposes turning the administration of the Canal over to Panama by 1990 if U.S. military bases can remain until 2015.

1986:  In February, Washington names Arthur Davis as U.S. ambassador to Panama.

1986:  On June 12, Seymour Hersh reports in the New York Times that senior State Department, White House, Pentagon and intelligence officials say that Noriega has been providing intelligence information to both Cuba and the United States for 15 years and that he is “a secret investor in Panamanian export companies that sell restricted American technology to Cuba and Eastern European countries.” 

1987:  On January 23-26, Ovidio Díaz, president of Panama’s National Assembly, heads a delegation of Panamanian legislators to Cuba.  Their meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Ricardo Alarcón is primarily concerned with the Contadora peace process.  Díaz tells a Granma reporter that a peaceful settlement of the conflicts in Central America is vital to Panama in order to avoid a pretext that could be used by Washington to undermine the Torrijos‑Carter agreements on handing over possession of the Panama Canal to Panama by the year 2000.

1987:  On April 3, three men are indicted in Miami for allegedly selling more than $1 million worth of high‑tech computer equipment in 1985 to Siboney International in Panama, identified as a Cuban "front."

1987:  On June 6, Col. Roberto Díaz Herrera, 2nd in command of Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF), accuses Noriega of electoral fraud and murder and sets off the first anti-Noriega protests suppressed by police. 

1987:  On June 10, President Eric Delvalle, installed by Noriega, declares a state of emergency. Opposition announces creation of the Civic Crusade, which Washington aids.

1987:  On September 24, the U.S. Senate unanimously approves non-binding resolution urging Panama to establish civilian government or face cutoff of U.S. aid.

1988:  On January 17, the New York Times reports that Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard L. Armitage made a secret mission to Panama early in January during which he told Noriega "to get out of politics within three months so that the country could have a cushion of civilian rule before elections next year."

1988:  Before he has time to “get out of politics,” Noriega is indicted on February 4 by two Federal grand juries in Tampa and Miami on charges of taking $5.4 (Tampa indictment) and $4.6 (Miami) million dollars from Medellín drug cartel to protect cocaine smuggling and money laundering operations in Panama.  Such drug-profiteering has not led to indictments unless Washington has decided to target the person involved.  The CIA is no stranger to drug-profiteering; see Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (New York: Lawrence Hill Books, 1991).  From 1978 until 1987, Noriega received numerous letters of appreciation from U.S. officials for his cooperation in combating drug trafficking--for example, from Attorney General William French Smith in 1984 and DEA Administrator John C. Lawn in 1987.

1988:  Four days after his indictment, Noriega demands withdrawal of the U.S. Southern Command, which has its headquarters in Panama.  

1988:  On Febrary 25, President Delvalle announces he has fired Noriega, but the National Assembly blocks this move by ousting Delvalle on the following day.  Washington continues to recognize Delvalle as president. The National Assembly names Education Minister Manuel Solís Palma minister in charge of the presidency.

1988:  Panama closes banks on March 4 after huge withdrawals by depositors.

1988:  On March 11, The Reagan Administration imposes sanctions, including elimination of trade preferences and withholding Canal fees.

1988:  On March 16, Noriega puts down coup attempt led by police chief.

1988:  In April, the Reagan Administration increases economic sanctions; Reagan prohibits U.S. companies and Government from making payments to Panama and freezes $56 million in Panamanian funds in U.S. banks.  More than 2,000 additional U.S. troops begin to arrive in Panama.

1988:  On May 8, Panama banks open for limited withdrawals after two-month closure.

1988:  On May 13, Senator Alfonse D’Amato (R-NY) proposes on ABC-TV that U.S. military forces "go in and get [Noriega] out" of Panama.

1988:  On May 25, U.S. Secretary of State Shultz announces that talks about a deal for Noriega’s departure have collapsed.

1988:  On May 25, the UN Social and Economic Council elects Panama and Cuba to represent Latin America on the UN Human Rights Commission.

1988:  In July, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee opposes a covert plan to overthrow Noriega.  The plot is known as “Panama 3” because it is the third coup plot hatched by the CIA against Noriega.  President Reagan approved the plan, but the Senate committee fears Noriega would be killed during the coup.  The existence of this plot is exposed after a failed coup attempt in October 1989.   Panama has created Dignity Battalions, popular militias to help train workers and farmers to defend Panama against U.S. invasion.

GEORGE H.W. BUSH PRESIDENCY

1989:  George H.W. Bush is inaugurated as president on January 20.

1989:  On March 18, responding  to U.S. denial of visas to the mayors of Havana, Managua and Panama City for a conference on drugs in New York, Bogotá's mayor, Andrés Pastrana Borrero, says that neither he nor New York's mayor, Ed Koch, were in favor of that decision.

1989:  The Panamanian presidential election of May 7 pits Carlos Duque against Guillermo Endara.  U.S. Government openly gives $10 million to the Endara campaign (it is illegal for a U.S. candidate to accept election funds from foreign sources).  Election results are annulled by the Panamanian Government on May 10.  The Bush Administration sends 2,000 more troops. From this time on, U.S. Armed Forces stage regular military exercises in Panamanian territory--the “white” zones--in violation of treaties.

1989:  On May 11, President Bush recalls the U.S. ambassador and plans to dispatch about 1,700 soldiers and 165 marines in phases to reinforce troops already in Panama.

1989:  In June the U.S. Justice Department issues statement that U.S. law- enforcement agents may arrest fugitives in foreign countries even if host governments do not approve, preparing the way for the arrest of Noriega after invasion.

1989:  Speaking to reporters in Guatemala on June 12, Vice President Dan Quayle warns that "the axis of Cuba, Nicaragua and Panama" opposes the United States and democracy in the region.

1989:  Washington’s plans to invade Panama are an open secret.  For example, on August 21, an editorial in the Cuban daily newspaper Granma warns of imminent U.S. aggression against Panama.

1989:  Provisional President Francisco Rodríguez takes office on September 1 as President Solís Palma's term expires.

1989:  On September 12, the Bush Administration expands sanctions, including withdrawal of 1989 sugar quota and lengthening the list of companies and individuals barred from receiving payments from U.S. citizens.

1989:  On October 3, Noriega puts down another coup attempt which was aided by the U.S. Government.

1989:  Two weeks later, on October 17, the Bush Administration says it supports wider latitude for CIA during coup attempts, complaining that restraints about possible death of targets are too limiting.

1989:  On October 27, confirming news that first broke in the Los Angeles Times a week earlier, the U.S. Treasury Department announces that Noriega has been designated an agent of Cuba.  Since the U.S. Government outlaws trade with Cuban agents, this means that U.S. citizens are prohibited from doing business with him.  Noriega's wife, various associates, and many companies are declared Cuban agents either at the same time or soon afterward.

1989:  President Bush attends a “Hemispheric celebration of democracy” hosted by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias.  He brings two guests, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro of Nicaragua and Guillermo Endara of Panama.

1989:  In November, the U.S. Government announces that after January 31, 1990, it will bar vessels registered in Panama from U.S. ports.

1989:  On November 16, the Bush Administration confirms a plan for another coup to oust Noriega.  Called “Panama 5” (there were 4 previous plans), it has a $3 million budget. The aim is not assassination but if that were to happen, "that's not constrained," a Government official says. The CIA is supposed to be bound by a 1976 executive order  banning its involvement in assassination plots. 

1989:  On November 22, in his Thanksgiving address to the nation, President Bush declares that the “winds of change” are “transforming the Americas” with “some exceptions:  Panama, Nicaragua and Cuba.”

1989:  On November 27-29, a conference on U.S. intervention is held in Panama City by Panama's Center for International Studies to inform 118 U.S. delegates about what has been happening.  At the opening session, Provisional President Francisco Rodríguez says, “You will see a variety of ideas that practically cover the spectrum of contemporary political thought, and all these participants are outstanding figures of the government, of the process of transformation which we Panamanians are determined to carry out.”  He speaks “of defending our right to perfect the independence of Panama.”  For Panamanians the issue is clearly sovereignty.

1989:  On December 15, the Panamanian National Assembly names Noriega head of government and declares that Panama is in "a state of war" with the United States due to the U.S. Government’s harsh economic sanctions and almost-daily military maneuvers  in Panamanian territory (the white zones), exercises that are prohibited by the Torrijos-Carter Treaties.

DECEMBER 20, 1989, INVASION:  OPERATION JUST CAUSE

*At 1:00 a.m., U.S. officials install Guillermo Endara as Panama’s new president.  The secret ceremony takes place on a military base--Fort Clayton, one of 13 bases in the Canal Zone.

*As the new president’s inauguration is taking place, the U.S. Army, Air Force and Navy invade Panama, an area smaller than South Carolina, with a massive air attack and ground assault, including almost 28,000 troops and more than 300 aircraft.   Helicopter gunships blast Panama City, where the wooden housing of the poor in El Chorillo is set on fire.  The New York Times later reports that U.S. troops encounter “fierce resistance” in San Miguelito, a working-class suburb of 200,000 people, but Miguelito is devastated.  Large parts of Colón are destroyed.  Thousands of citizens are held in detention.  Bodies are recovered from ruins and cremated.  There is a mass burial on Christmas Day.  Nobody knows how many civilians are killed because all of them are not counted; estimates range into the thousands.  Hospitals overflow with wounded.

*The Defense Department tries out one of its new superweapons--the Lockheed F-117A stealth ground attack aircraft.  Defense Secretary Dick Cheney announces that each of two F-117A “Nighthawks” has delivered a 2,000-pound bomb with “pinpoint accuracy.”  He is furious when he learns months later, in April, that one of the bombs missed its target by hundreds of yards.  General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is part of a major failure of communication about the mission of the F-117As on their first combat bombing run.

*Just as the Pentagon stifled news during the 1983 invasion of Grenada, the Defense Department flies a select media pool based in Washington (rather than Panama) to Howard Air Force Base and then by helicopter to Fort Clayton, where they are restricted to a holding room until the major fighting is over.  They are not allowed to leave the base on their own but must be escorted and prevented from taking photographs of realities like damaged helicopters or caskets of U.S. soldiers.  Military officials provide misinformation about military and civilian casualties.  In one of Noriega’s residences, they show reporters a white substance that General Maxwell Thurman, head of SouthCom, confirms is cocaine.  This makes front-page news in the United States, but it’s disinformation;  the “cocaine” is “farina, corn meal and lard” used to make tamales.  CNN broadcasts a telephone number for Panama residents to call; those reports provide stories of civilian neighborhoods under attack.

*At a press conference on the day of the invasion, President Bush tells the world, “The goals of the United States have been to safeguard the lives of Americans, to defend democracy in Panama, to combat drug trafficking, and to protect the integrity of the Panama Canal treaty,” adding that he has directed the Armed Forces “to bring General Noriega to justice in the United States.”

*U.S. troops in armored personnel carriers surround the Cuban, Nicaraguan and Libyan Embassies in Panama City on he pretext that Manuel Noriega may be inside one of them, although both General Thomas Kelly and Rear Admiral Ted Sheafer of the Joint Chiefs of Staff acknowledge on U.S. television that there is no evidence that Noriega has sought asylum in any of them.  Until January 18, U.S. troops continue to surround the Cuban Embassy and the home of the Cuban ambassador to Panama, Lázaro Mora Secade, occasionally detaining the ambassador and other Cuban diplomats.  It turns out that Noriega is inside the papal nunciature in Panama City.  On January 3, he surrenders to U.S. troops and is immediately flown to prison in Florida.

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Historian Jane Franklin is the author of Cuba and the United States: A Chronological History.

e-mail to Jane Franklin