Sound the alarm! – US invasion of Panama

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Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 93 February/March 1990

panama US invasion 1

‘A growing challenge to US interests and national security strategy is so-called low-intensity conflict… The nature of US interests around the world will require that US forces be globally deployable, often with little or no warning.’ – US Army Chief of Staff, General Carl Vuono in ‘Panama: training ground for future conflict’, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 13 January 1990

The 20 December invasion of Panama is the largest US military operation since the Vietnam War. It included the biggest US paratroop assault since the Allied airdrop on Arnhem in September 1944. Coming within a month of US Airforce intervention in the Philippines it demonstrated US imperialism testing its armed forces, its political will, international and domestic reaction in the context of the break-up of the socialist bloc. Fidel Castro described it as ‘a humiliating slap in the face to the Soviet peace policy’. Ominously, polls showed 80 per cent of US people supporting the assault. TREVOR RAYNE and KEN HUGHES report.

The invasion comes at a time when President Bush has announced proposed US troop reductions in Europe, when the arena of struggle between imperialism and socialism has switched definitively to the oppressed nations of the Third World. It follows the tremendous November offensive by the FMLN in El Salvador and precedes the February election in Nicaragua. It was meant to be and was felt to be a threat by all the progressive governments and forces of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Cuban, Nicaraguan and Peruvian embassies were surrounded by US troops: “Panama is only a trench. The war is against all of Latin America, whether or not Latin Americans want it, whether or not they dare to realise it or admit it and assume their responsibilities,” said Captain Jose de Jesus (Chuchú) Martinez, former bodyguard of the Panamanian patriot General Omar Torrijos.


The US government declared that ‘Operation Just Cause’ was intended ‘to protect American (US) lives, restore the democratic process, preserve the integrity of the Panama Canal treaties and apprehend Manuel Noriega’. Mrs Thatcher gave her immediate support and called upon all other governments to do likewise. Like Goebbels, the US government painstakingly prepared the psychological ground: Noriega was a brutal tyrant, tearing up ‘democratic elections’, running drugs, backed by ‘armed thugs’, the Dignity Battalions. Four days before the invasion the US seized upon a pretext: a US soldier was shot, a US woman companion was said to have been sexually abused. The dignity of the United States had been insulted. Never mind that the US soldiers were drunk, firing upon Panamanian troops, killing one. It fitted perfectly. Three days of detailed operational planning followed. At 1am on 20 December an action that had been rehearsed for months commenced.

Shortly afterwards US officials at Fort Clayton US base swore in Guillermo Endara as the new President of Panama. US Professor Noam Chomsky commented: ‘And whom are we putting back in power now? The bankers who back in 1983 were identified by a Senate committee as among the main agents of drug money laundering.’

The US government claimed less than 300 Panamanians died. Former US Solicitor General Ramsey Clark put the number at between 4,000-7,000. Many more Panamanians slaughtered in the name of democracy by a foreign power than all those killed by Panamanian presidents, including Noriega. Meanwhile Christmas TV focused on Romania and claimed 60,000 dead, 6000, then, when attention had drifted, perhaps 600. As with the British attack on the Malvinas/Falklands and the US invasion of Grenada, the US forces threw a news cordon around Panama while operations were in progress: journalists filed their despatches from Washington and Miami.

The President of the United States of America, ‘the world's most powerful democracy’, killed like the Nazis, lied like Goebbels and the US people applauded. In 1977 the Carter administration signed a treaty with General Torrijos which stated that control of the Panama Canal would pass in gradual stages to the Panama government. Total control of the Canal would be transferred by the year 2000 and the 14 US bases would be dismantled. At the time the US ruling class was under pressure, following the debacle of Vietnam, to appear conciliatory towards Latin America. Nicaragua was still under Somoza, El Salvador relatively quiet. Today, the US-controlled Canal Zone is the centre of US operations against Central America, South America and the Caribbean: from here it conducts regional surveillance, military incursions and wields the ‘big stick’. The invasion of Panama is intended to secure this military power on into the twenty first century. The US ruling class understand that the social conditions they have generated in Latin America will require it if continental revolution is to be destroyed.

Manuel Noriega was enlisted by the CIA at a military academy in Peru in 1959. His function was to spy on potentially progressive trainee officers. During the 1960s he was contracted to suppress communist influence among trade unionists on the United Fruit Corporation’s banana plantations in Panama. So pleased with him were his CIA employers that in 1967 the US trained him in ‘psychological operations’ at Fort Bragg North Carolina. Even at this time (during the Nixon administration), Noriega’s official employer, the Panamanian intelligence unit G2, was known to be smuggling drugs. The US Drug Enforcement Agency accepted it as fair trade for Noriega’s services. In 1970 Noriega became chief of G2.

The deal went on, and in 1983, two years after Torrijos’ mysterious death, attributed to the CIA, Noriega effectively became head of the Panamanian armed forces. He served as an intermediary between Colonel Oliver North, the Colombian Medellin cartel and the contras in the drugs-for-guns trade run by the US National Security Council. He met North twice in 1985 and once in London in 1986. He met Bush when the latter was head of the CIA in 1976 (at that time Noriega was on the top CIA pay of $200,000 per annum) and later as Vice-President in 1983. On this occasion Bush wanted Noriega to step up supplies to the contras and to train them on Panamanian Defence Force (PDF) bases. In 1985 US Vice-Admiral John Poindexter, head of the National Security Council, demanded that Noriega withdraw from the Contadora efforts of Central American governments to find a peaceful solution in Central America, and that he must provide the contras with equipment and training, and assign special units of the PDF to commit acts of aggression against Nicaragua. Noriega refused. The slander campaign began. The economic sanctions were imposed, and in the end they resulted in a 20 per cent fall in Panama’s output, half of domestic private businesses going bankrupt and a third of the workforce rendered unemployed. Their aim was to narrow the social base of support for the Panamanian government.

Noriega, the PDF and above all the self-defence force, the Dignity Battalions, formed to counter US destabilisation, represented the national interests of Panama against the middle and bourgeois classes in alliance with the multinationals. Panama’s struggle for the Canal is the struggle for independence and self-determination. Noriega understood that he would never be more than a siphon for US policies, insecure and dispensable, without the support of the Panamanian poor and their demand for sovereignty over the Canal. Ill-equipped, with forces less than half the numbers of the invader, the people fought, and they fought for all the peoples of Latin America.


The US 82nd Airborne Division, formerly deployed against Grenada in 1983, was sent in: the US needs ‘an unquestioned ability to conduct unopposed entry into combat ... Army airborne forces are uniquely capable of performing this function’ (General Vuono). Light tanks and armoured vehicles edged forward behind helicopter gunships and jet fighters. F-117 stealth bombers were tried out for the first time in Latin America to bomb PDF bases and working class neighbourhoods. The district of Chorrillo containing the headquarters of the PDF was flattened. Thousands were killed, bodies tipped into mass graves. Five thousand Panamanians, government workers and political activists were rounded up and held in US prison camps. Panama is an occupied country.

For the first time in decades the US government did not justify an overseas military action in the name of combatting a ‘Soviet threat’. This was the thirty-seventh US military intervention in Central America and the Caribbean this century. In many ways it is the most sinister. Protest in the USA and Britain was pathetic compared to the scale of the crime. Communists, socialists and progressives everywhere – sound the alarm! •

How much abuse have we come to in this world?

‘But they didn’t attack fearlessly, that is, fearless of the death of imperialism’s own mercenary soldiers. Quite the contrary. They killed as many persons as necessary to avoid their own losses. Wherever there was resistance they didn't send soldiers. They used planes and helicopters to drop bombs, and they ‘flattened’ areas with artillery. Then they attacked. Wherever they encountered resistance, they would retreat again and ‘flatten’ the area, using air power and artillery. This is the type of war they have waged in the capital of Panama, in the most densely populated communities. This is what has created thousands of civilian victims.

‘Imperialism’s mercenary soldiers who are wounded receive immediate attention. They are picked up in modern ambulances, taken to hospital planes, and flown to the best hospitals in the United States. Meanwhile, they don’t even permit ambulances to pick up wounded Panamanian combatants. And they don’t even permit them to pick up the wounded civilian population. Thus people are dying, and the streets of the capital of Panama are covered in blood ... How much barbarity and abuse have we come to in this world? Thus, while the empire’s wounded soldiers travel immediately to the best hospitals over there, Panamanians lie bleeding in the streets.’

Fidel Castro, 21 December 1989.

RCG fights sectarianism

Approximately 250 people, the majority Latin Americans, protested at the Panama invasion outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square on 21 December. The event was organised by Latin American Support Groups based in London. Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! and the RCG mobilised a contingent and brought our banners and voices along. The organisers refused to allow the RCG to sign a letter of protest to be delivered to the embassy or to have a speaker. After they rejected our arguments, an RCG comrade, Eddie Abrahams, publicly challenged the organisers. He pointed out that sectarian divisions had always weakened our movement, that we were not so many as to be able to exclude anyone genuinely opposed to imperialism, and that the refusal to allow the RCG or other left organisations to sign the petition was a ban on communists. Many of the Latin Americans present sympathised with us. The organisers looked embarrassed and backed down. We signed the petition and had a speaker. This protest meant that sellers of News Line, Morning Star and the US Militant also present could also sign the petition if they wanted to. True to form, the Trotskyist organisations – Militant, SWP and RCP stayed at home. What were the organisers attempting to achieve? How did they see their role? Did they want authenticity, credibility, respectability? Who were they trying to impress? The US government, Latin America, the British press, each other? By and large they come from the same left organisations, the Labour Party and the CPGB, that claim proprietorial rights over the Anti-Apartheid Movement. It was not just the RCG they were excluding but people who were angry and disgusted at what the US had done and Thatcher’s support for it. People who protest, people who organise have a right to speak, a right to express their protest and solidarity. When will the British left learn some respect for others and for democracy? What is it afraid of …? When will they learn?

Trevor Rayne