Panama: Twenty years on from US invasion

August 21, 2009

Recent events in Honduras — where a Washington-backed military coup deposed President Manuel Zelaya on June 28 — conform to the historic pattern of United States involvement in Latin American affairs.

Since the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, put forward by US president James Monroe, the US has claimed the entire Western Hemisphere as its exclusive sphere of influence.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the US assumed the role of imperial overlord in Latin America, installing and maintaining a network of authoritarian puppet regimes that serveed US economic and strategic interests.

The history of Panama is a case in point. Created in 1903 out of Colombian territory when US troops seized the isthmus Canal Zone, Panama was the perfect model of a dependent client state. A gun-to-the-head treaty ensured Washington had permanent control over the canal, which divided Panama in half. The rest of the country was deemed a "protectorate" and the US dollar was imposed as the official currency.

By 1936, the US military had intervened in Panama on no less than nine occasions, quelling outbreaks of popular dissent.

Following the end of the protectorate, Washington continued to exert indirect control over the territory through the repressive Panamanian National Guard — established, funded and trained by the US.

In 1964, popular protests over the US annexation of Panamanian territory were crushed with extreme brutality.

Nothing has changed in the post-Cold War era. It is therefore rather fitting that the Honduras coup should coincide with the 20th anniversary of the 1989 US invasion of Panama.

Since 1977, when the administration of then-president Jimmy Carter administration signed the Carter-Torrijos treaties, Panama had been a major preoccupation for the Republican right. Carter's detente-era deal with left-nationalist Panamanian president Omar Torrijos included plans for the return of the US-controlled Panama Canal Zone to Panama by the end of 1999.

In July 1981, only six months after Ronald Reagan became president, Torrijos died in a mysterious airplane crash.

Reagan promised in relation to the canal: "We built it. We paid for it. It's ours and we're going to keep it."

With Washington's blessing, General Manuel Noriega, a key CIA "asset" since the late 1950s, was installed as head of Panama's military in 1983. By the mid-1980s, however, the relationship between Noriega, Panama's virtual dictator, and the Reagan administration had soured.

Unable to completely disregard his nationalist support base, Noriega failed to fulfil a key objective — the complete suppression of the popular Panamanian movement for the return of the canal. It was largely the enduring strength of this movement that had forced the Carter administration to negotiate.

Before long, Washington was calling for Noriega's removal, labelling him a brutal, murderous, drug-trafficking thug. US media propaganda disingenuously overlooked the fact that Noriega's catalogue of human rights abuses and drug-related crimes had never been a problem for Washington before he stepped out of line.

With the Cold War coming to an end in 1989, triumphalism prevailed in US centres of power. The US presided over a seemingly unipolar world at the so-called "end of history". Anything — and everything — seemed possible in terms of power projection.

In December 1989, US president George Bush Snr gave the go-ahead for 26,000 US soldiers to launch a full-scale invasion and occupation of Panama. In the ensuing carnage (which many of the Marines saw as a good-old-turkey-shoot to celebrate the end of the Cold War), it is estimated by a number of independent sources that at least 3000 defenceless Panamanian civilians were killed by US forces.

Entire districts in Panama City were turned into free-fire zones, raked with machine gun bullets and bombs, and burned to the ground. Army bulldozers then got to work, burying the slaughtered (mainly Afro- and mixed-race-Panamanians) in hastily-dug mass graves.

The high civilian death toll was no unintended consequence of "Operation Just Cause", as the mass slaughter was named, but a key aim of the mission. Using mass terror as a tactic, Bush planned to destabilise Panama long into the future, providing the US with a suitable pretext to abrogate the Carter-Torrijos agreement.

Following the capture of Noriega, a new and compliant government was put in power by the US military. Although the Canal Zone did nominally revert to Panamanian control in December 1999, the US continues to wield decisive influence in Panama.

Today, with the US adopting an increasingly belligerent stance toward Latin America, the canal remains as vital as ever to Washington's strategic war planning. It is well understood in Panama City that the invasion could be repeated at any time.

The circumstances surrounding the Panama invasion represent the blueprint for the reactionary adventurism that has defined US foreign policy for much of the last two decades.

Familiar elements were on display, including the cynical demonisation of a former partner in crime, the use of indiscriminate violence against a restive Third World civilian population and the compliant approval of a corporate mass media.

Bush's display of military aggression starkly revealed the hegemonic designs of US strategy for the post-Cold War world. For Central America and the rest of the "developing" world, the invasion was a clear signal that the US would seek to continue exerting a dominating influence into the 21st century.

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