The 1989 invasion of Panama was staged just two weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the empty euphoria about the so-called “end of Communism.” US president George H. W. Bush ushered in the post-Cold War unipolar world. According to Bob Woodward’s book, The Commanders, Gen. Colin Powell, newly appointed Joint Chief of Staff, stated, “we have to put a shingle outside our door saying, ‘Superpower Lives Here’.”
A leading jurist decodes the 1989 Panama Massacre: “The invasion was a crime against International Law and the largest US military projection since the Vietnam War.” It is a matter of concern to Canadians as successive governments have annually deployed the Canadian Forces to participate in the US PANAMAX military-naval exercises, usually held in August | JULY YAO”
Manchuria, Nanking, Dresden, Hiroshima / Nagasaki, Panama
The invasion of Panama by the George H. W. Bush administration on December 20, 1989 was an unprovoked, unjustified, class-based criminal act – its main victims were the poor neighbourhoods – genocidal and unusual that the world’s leading power launched against a people lacking an army, air force, navy and radar, and when the Panamanian troops were divided, penetrated and demoralized after four years of softening up through hybrid warfare. It was not a war but a massacre.
The Defense Forces of Panama had 2,500 militarized units. USA, with 40,000! Basically, the invasion was the USA’s greatest act of cowardice and treason against a traditionally peaceful and allied people, with the aim of getting rid of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties of 1977, which were due to be fulfilled on December 30, 2000.
The invasion was a crime against International Law and the largest US military intervention since the Vietnam War. Internationally, the Panama Massacre (proportional, although equal in treachery and viciousness) is only compared to:
1) The invasion, massacre and enslavement of Manchuria (China) by the Japanese Empire in 1931;
2) The Nanking Massacre (China) by Japan in 1937 with 250,000 peasant civilians killed in the most heinous manner in two weeks;
3) The bombing by the United States and England of the city of Dresden (Germany) – with more than 250,000 civilian deaths in one night – in 1945, where the allied powers cruelly and unnecessarily dropped 1,800 tons of bombs in three hours at midnight, when the war was already won; and
4) The Hiroshima and Nagasaki Massacre with atomic bombs dropped by the US in 1945, with hundreds of thousands of dead, wounded and genetically affected, not to mention Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya.
The Panamanian victims, according to the authorized voice of the Ramsey Clark Commission – the former US Attorney under President John F. Kennedy – ranges from 4,000 to 6,000 dead, not counting injuries (multiply by nine) and 45,000 injured, in approximately three weeks. At least 2,000 innocent people were buried in mass graves.
After the invasion, U.S. troops imposed martial law. Acting as a state security force, they arrested thousands of people perceived as opposing the invasion or being supporters of Manuel Noriega, the president the U.S. had previously put into power. Noriega was later accused of being a drug lord and deposed in the invasion when those arrangements no longer suited U.S. aims. Eyewitnesses said U.S. troops went house to house; it is believed they rounded up, arrested and then detained nearly 7,000 Panamanian civilians in various camps and prison facilities.
It is not possible here to summarize all the facts of the invasion. Let’s see the most relevant.
Manuel A. Noriega
On December 16, 1969, a CIA coup deposed Omar Torrijos while he was in Mexico. The soldier returned in a fragile rented plane and was able to land in David, capital of the province of Chiriquí. With difficulty, the plane landed at night thanks to the fact that the military chief of the province lit up the runway, which lacked lights, with two lines of cars. The head of the Military Zone was Manuel Antonio Noriega. The CIA coup failed thanks to Noriega, and Torrijos proclaimed December 16 as “Loyalty Day” in honour of this soldier.
This writer was a refugee in the Canal Zone (under non-sovereign US control) since I left the Modelo Prison under death threats a year before, where I was held in the prison’s only punishment cell.
There was resistance to the governing civic-military junta. I was a member of the Vanguardia de Acción Nacional (VAN), which later joined the Movimiento de Unidad Revolucionaria (MUR) to join the MLN-29 in 1970, as a result of the murder of Floyd Britton, leader of the MUR, on the penal island of Coiba. I did not witness this merger because I was a refugee and persecuted. On December 19, 1969 I had gone into exile in the Netherlands where I denounced the Panamanian reality, including the murder of Floyd Britton, at Amnesty International in London at the end of that year.
Torrijos announced that as of the date (12/16/69), the military would join the people in a “People-Government Yunta” and appointed Manuel A. Noriega as intelligence liaison with the US, since it was impossible for him to Torrijos to play that role after Washington’s treacherous coup. Torrijos could not bear them and eliminated the office that the CIA maintained in the barracks.
Noriega had been related to the CIA since his years at the Chorrillos Military School in Peru, but he was also a student at the National Institute, a quarry of strong Panamanian nationalism. Although he collaborated in international missions with the US, Noriega also provided valuable assistance to Fidel Castro and Cuba, as well as Bishop de la Nueva Joya de Grenada, Colonel Muamar Gaddafi of Libya, Sandinista Nicaragua and Velasco Alvarado of Peru, among others.
John Poindexter, Director of the US National Security Council
On December 5, 1985, the Director of the US National Security Council, Admiral John Poindexter, was sent to Panama by John Galvin, head of the Southern Command. Poindexter rudely made the following demands of General Manuel A. Noriega, chief of the Panama Defense Forces (it was not an army) at Howard Air Base (Manuel Noriega and Peter Eisner: The Memoirs of Manuel A. Noriega. America’s Prisoner. Random House, New York, 1997, pp. 77-80):
(1) that former President Nicolás Ardito Barletta (vice president of the World Bank), a disciple of George Shultz and expelled under popular pressure, “returns to power towards the end of December”;
(2) that “Panama end its role as a peace negotiator in Central America’;
(3) that “Panama break relations with Cuba and limit the Cuban presence in the country”; and
(4) that “Panamanian military doctrine is a bad example for other armies in the region” (Ibid., Pp. 124-125).
The response of Noriega, who did not know Poindexter, was this: “You are a high official in Washington, but you are very misinformed. Your words are worthless, and your words and threats are an insult. The United States owes Panama and me a debt for the always respectful relations we have enjoyed over many years. Go away and go back the way you came, but find out about Panama before you dare speak to me again – and have someone tell you about the truth of our relationship. “
Noriega understood that there had been a break with the superpower. “We did not understand that the US had become our enemy and that it would do everything possible to destroy us.” Noriega rejected these demands.
Both Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North (of the Iran-Contra Affair), Admiral John Poindexter, Néstor Sánchez, and others on the National Security Council, boasted of speaking on behalf of President Reagan or President Bush and wanted us to “support the military against the guerrillas in El Salvador and launch attacks against Nicaragua. The problem for them (Noriega said) was that we never agreed to participate in any of that.” (Ibid., P. 79).
In the summer of 1986, Noriega met Oliver North in London, who complained that the “Contras” did not demonstrate combat ability and were difficult to maintain. Hence the idea that Panama support the “Contras” arose. North wanted the Panama Defense Forces to carry out acts of sabotage in Nicaragua. “What we need,” he said, “are a few spectacular acts of sabotage.” Making like a supermarket list, North detailed: “blowing up high voltage cables, acts of terrorism in Managua, mining ports, etc.” The Panamanian military were the last hope.
North assured Noriega that Washington would forget all the accusations that the Panamanian opposition had planted in Washington against him and that “there would be money for General Noriega and for Panama, for military projects, weapons, whatever he needs.” “I thought,” says Noriega, “that North’s proposal was ridiculous and I never considered it for an instant.” He replied, “Look, the answer is that we simply cannot do that.”
“The ‘Contra’ lost their chance. The military capacity of the Sandinista forces has grown. They are superior in strategy and defensive positions. They have learned very quickly. Their tactics are from the Soviet military, essentially from the Soviet defence…. In careful rejection of US policy, I told them that we supported a regional settlement for the civil wars in Central America.” The Contadora Peace Agreement was supported by Noriega (Ibid.).
In addition to North’s proposal, Constantine Menges, a member of the US CSN, also pressured Noriega to make the Defense Forces leave power. Before they had demanded that Panama break with the Contadora Group for Peace in Central America, that the training of the “Contras” be allowed in the Canal Zone (still in the hands of the United States); that the School of the Americas, expelled in 1984, be returned to Panama, and that the Torrijos-Carter Treaties be abrogated (Julio Yao, El Monopolio del Canal y la Invasión a Panamá, Editorial Chen, 2019, p. 79).
Noriega, according to United States intelligence
Recently declassified US intelligence documents describe Noriega like this:
“As a student at the National Institute, he was from the socialist youth and was a member of the Socialist Party, a Marxist-oriented group. He wrote numerous poems and nationalist articles. Noriega is smart, aggressive, ambitious, and ultra-nationalist. He is loyal to General Torrijos. You have a sharp mind. He is a persuasive speaker and has rare common sense. He is one of Torrijos’ main assistants and has played a significant role in shaping the international politics of his country.
“Noriega believes that the United States should normalize its relations with Cuba as a means to combat fanaticism. He is the best informed individual in Panama. He has represented the government of Panama in diplomatic trips and military conferences and negotiations abroad. Although his relations with the US military go back 15 years, he is increasingly distancing himself from the US. It maintains open channels with Cubans, Soviets, Chileans and other representations in Panama. He is the second most powerful man in Panama.” (Manuel A. Noriega and Peter Eisner, Op.Cit., Pp. 218-219).
A secret-sensitive memorandum from the US National Security Council
There were countless assassination attempts on Omar Torrijos and Noriega, which he frustrated and which are unknown to the public, in addition to the pressure on Noriega to leave power. However, the “Secret-Sensitive” Memorandum that ordered the destabilization of Panama, a step prior to an invasion, came from the Washington National Security Council on April 4, 1986, of which only seven (7) copies were made, to : President Reagan; Vice President George H. Bush; the director of the CSN, John Poindexter; the Secretary of State, George Shultz; the Secretary of Defense, Casper Weinberger; the Commander of the General Staff Boards, General Colin Powell; William Casey, Director of the CIA and a seventh member of the CSN. Shultz and Weinberger were directors of the Bechtel Corporation, a company that aspired to do business on the Canal.
I received a copy in mid-1989, probably from Japanese intelligence, by the then president of Panama, Manuel Solís Palma, in view of the fact that the national government appointed me as its first Agent before the International Court of Justice of La Haya to sue the US and the OAS for violations of International Law. The “Secret-Sensitive” Memorandum was approved four months after Poindexter, Director of the CSN, threatened Noriega for his rudeness with these words: “Take the consequences!” (12-5-85).
The Memorandum had several objectives: to retain control of the Interoceanic Canal; reject the policy of the Panama Defense Forces to approve the Canal expansion. “To prevent the United States from directly controlling the Canal, Japan has joined the Tripartite Committee, playing the Panamanian’s game and securing its share of control of the Canal; Japan is the fundamental economic challenge for the US and within 15-20 years it could become the world’s leading industrial power, expelling the US from its natural area of influence.”
According to the Memorandum: “We need a policy aimed at ensuring our control over the Canal well beyond the year 2000 (the date the Canal passed into the hands of Panama – the author). Reports of corruption among high-level officials within the PDF provide an opportunity to launch a campaign (of rumors) TO UNSTABILIZE PANAMA AND LEGITIMELY ABOLISH THE TREATIES.” (Yao, Op.Cit., Pp. 82-85).
According to the Memorandum, the US would accuse General Noriega “of drug trafficking, of cooperating with Latin American terrorists, electoral fraud during the presidential elections, and of being linked to the Cuban and United States intelligence services.” It is proposed that Washington participate in the Canal expansion without allowing Japan to control the project. Faced with the impossibility of physically eliminating Noriega, they resorted to his political assassination, or “character assassination.” (Yao, Ibid).
Reagan: “The Noriega-Solís Palma Regime is an unusual and extraordinary threat to the US”
In late January 1988, President Reagan issued an Executive Order qualifying the “Noriega-Solís Palma regime as an unusual and extraordinary threat to the security of the United States.”
As a result of this Executive Order, the United States confiscated two Air Panama planes; it froze some $700 million from the National Bank of Panama, deposited in the US; it squandered Panamanian money in US banks; imposed on the country a worldwide diplomatic, monetary, commercial, economic and financial blockade; it withdrew the dollar from the national market and led a worldwide smear campaign against Panama.
Another CIA heist foiled by Noriega: William Walker and Michael Kozak
On March 18, 1988, William Walker and Michael Kozak of the State Department, after another frustrated coup by the CIA and Southern Command two days earlier (3-16-88), supported by the Christian Democrats, offered to Noriega two million dollars (on behalf of George Shultz and President Reagan) to leave the country for Spain. A Washington psychiatrist accompanied them in order to study what weaknesses the Panamanian military had, according to his body language. Dr. Pieczenic (that was his name) said: “The General is clearer and more firm than Kozak and Walker. These two are the real crazy people.” (Manuel Noriega and Peter Eisner, pp. 127, 138, 139).
The OAS demands that Noriega hand over power to the opposition
Another pressure against Noriega came from the Organization of American States. Presidential elections were held in May 1989. Agents the CIA and the Department of State intervened in them from their stations in Costa Rica and Panama. Panamanian intelligence arrested Kurt Muse and others red-handed, who confessed to following orders from Washington. Muse was the first freed during the invasion.
The national government, in view of the American attacks, decided to suspend the counting of votes and cancel the elections, something that in my opinion they should have done much earlier, since there were no conditions to carry them out: US troops disobeyed national, civil and military authorities, circulated in areas prohibited by international treaties (airspace, parachute maneuvers) and made low flights prohibited throughout the country.
The Organ of Consultation of Foreign Ministers of the OAS met in Mexico. It approved a resolution totally violating the Charter of the OAS and the UN, by which it demanded that Noriega (mentioned with his own name illegally) hand over power to the oligarchic opposition without further ado.
What is really unusual is that the delegation from Panama was headed by Noriega’s Foreign Minister, Jorge E. Ritter, who, against all logic, APPROVED the resolution. The Military Strategy Center (CEM), made up of officers allied with Noriega, asked me the meaning of said resolution and its consequences for our country. I suggested that they could only reject it internationally and demand explanations from the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jorge E. Ritter.
This motivated the National Government, in view of the international crisis produced, to convene a meeting of the Expanded Cabinet Council in the Presidency of the Republic. The president, Solís Palma, invited me to explain my position as an Internationalist and professor of International Law on this cumbersome business. In this meeting, in addition to all the high officials, General Noriega and his General Staff were present. Contrary to any dictator, General Noriega did not say a single word, but it was obvious that he was extremely displeased with the irresponsible attitude of the Panamanian delegation (the other two members who accompanied Ritter were Adolfo Ahumada and Carlos Ozores).
I came to the Presidency accompanied by former Foreign Minister Juan Antonio Tack, architect of the Canal Treaty and national liberation, of whom I was his personal advisor during the five-year negotiations with the US. I suggested to the Enlarged Cabinet Council that Panama reject the OAS resolution and request an Advisory Opinion from the International Court of Justice to decide whether the OAS had violated its Charter and the UN Charter, as I affirmed.
The President of the Republic appointed me as Agent of Panama before the International Court of Justice in The Hague to sue both the OAS and the United States, which had orchestrated the OAS resolution against Panama through the President of Venezuela, Carlos Andrés Pérez. The National Government also appointed me Ambassador to Holland (Netherlands, where the ICJ was based; I did not take office) and Deputy Ambassador to the Permanent Mission to the UN, in order to ensure the initiative.
In The Hague I personally interviewed Dr. Manfred Lachs, from Poland, former President of the International Court, as well as Judge Mohamed Bin Bedjaoui, from Algeria, later President of the ICJ, who listened to my proposals and confirmed that my allegations against the OAS and the US were well founded. They promised to meet the Court in six hours (a record time) to respond to our Advisory Opinion, as soon as the Undersecretary for Legal Affairs, the German Bruno Fleischhauer, arrived from the UN and presented the request.
An unexpected cancellation
When everything was going smoothly at the UN and I had obtained the votes (among others, from Cuba and Nicaragua) for the General Assembly to approve the Request for Advisory Opinion, President Solís Palma called me at midnight at the hotel where I was in New York.
His words, very laconic, were like this: “Julio, I beg you to cancel the initiative before the UN. Chancellor Ritter has another initiative with Latin American countries. Let’s give this boy a chance. “
I was sure that this initiative was false (it turned out to be) and possibly it was a plot with oligarchic elements scheming in Washington against Noriega and Panama (Gabriel Lewis Galindo). The cancellation of the Advisory Opinion gave the United States more space to continue pushing Noriega’s departure, as Poindexter and Oliver North had done from 1985 to 1988.
Faced with the dilemma, I responded to President Solís Palma in this way:
“President, I do not agree with you in what you tell me, but ‘where the captain rules, the sailor does not rule’; more, I must remind you that I am one of those who write history and one day I will. Goodnight.”
Another frustrated coup of the CIA by Noriega: October 3, 1989
On October 3, 1989, my prediction came true: Major Luis Giroldi and his group captured and tied up Noriega in the Headquarters. The captors had agreed with the US military officers from the Southern Command stationed at Fort Clayton, Canal Zone, that they would send a helicopter to take him away, but it went round and round above the Barracks and did not come down to pick him up.
When this happened, the South Korean Ambassador was with me, and it was he who informed me of what was happening in the Barracks and the helicopter. Meanwhile, forces loyal to Noriega (the “Macho de Monte”) rescued Noriega, derailing another coup by the CIA and Southern Command. Some of those involved were executed or died in the scuffle.
The last minute decision not to take Noriega now that they had him completely dominated sealed the fate of the conspirators and meant that the US was plotting something more sinister, because with Noriega under control, the war against Panama should cease. Noriega would be used again as a pretext for further aggression.
The new government
The Defense Forces, quite disjointed by the sanctions and the economic chaos they caused, did not suspect that an invasion was being planned. Rumours were circulating that there were certain preparations, but nothing in particular.
Meanwhile, a new government had assumed power under the former Comptroller General of the Republic, Francisco Rodríguez, on September 1, which restored the Assembly of Representatives of Corregimientos from the time of General Torrijos. This Assembly appointed Noriega as head of Government. Leonardo Kam was the new Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Again, the OAS
On November 26, 1989, the OAS would follow up on the Panama issue in Washington since its meeting in Mexico the previous May. I was invited to join the delegation as Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Minister. There I collaborated in the writing of Foreign Minister Kam’s speech, where we made a fierce defense of Panamanian sovereignty and rejected the previous surrender position represented by Foreign Minister Ritter.
I had to defend in the Credentials Committee the legitimacy of the Panamanian delegation, which was highly questioned at the time. To our surprise, Venezuelan military officials (along the lines of Hugo Chávez) congratulated us on the new attitude. “We had the hope that a change would take place in relation to Mexico,” they acknowledged. We were totally successful at the OAS.
But three weeks later, the US invaded us surprisingly at midnight on December 19-20, 1989. The rest is history: Noriega took refuge in the Nunciature, but the Nuncio betrayed him by pressuring him to surrender to the Southern Command hordes. Noriega requested and obtained asylum in Spain, and again the Nuncio, instead of enforcing the Vatican headquarters and its guest, as mandated by the 1961 Geneva Convention, demoralized him and bowed to the demands of the Southern Command, influencing the military man to surrender, making allusions that the same fate could happen as that of Mussolini, who was lynched along with his lover by enraged Italians when they tried to take refuge in Switzerland.
When the first bombs fell, at 11:30 pm on December 19, 1989, I was finalizing the lawsuit against the United States and the OAS. Between December 20 and 31, 1989, I made arrangements to leave the Hague incognito to file the claim. Had it succeeded, the Court would have issued provisional measures of protection, among which the Court would forcefully demand the CESSATION OF THE UNITED STATES ATTACKS AND THE IMMEDIATE WITHDRAWAL OF THE INVADING TROOPS.
Our national history would have changed completely. But the new Government did not want to endorse my mission and, on the other hand, the boat or the plane that had to take me and my family to Colombia, whether by sea or by air (and later to Holland), with dangers to our lives, They did not dare to take a chance on the invading troops, who exercised tight control over the national territory.
General Noriega was the only US Prisoner of War. He was illegally taken to the United States because international treaties recognized his immunity for being Commander of the Defense Forces of Panama. The Nunciature, the Vatican’s diplomatic headquarters, violated his rights as a subject of diplomatic asylum and was an accessory to his illegal capture by the United States Southern Command, which violated and totally destroyed the sovereignty of Panama to satisfy its strategic and hegemonic interests in our country. He was subjected to a trial full of irregularities in the United States. Their image has been disfigured by mystifications interested in justifying the barbaric aggression against a country that loves peace and a bridge to the world, for which they unleashed true campaigns of class hatred and racism against Noriega.
Let the editor of your book Prisoner of America, from the Random House in New York, tell us about Noriega:
“Important messages sometimes come from unlikely messengers. Manuel Noriega is the only American prisoner of war. He may be a demon in the eyes of most Americans, but he has a unique and alarming view of the secrets behind US relations with Panama and the real reasons for the 1989 invasion that removed him from power.
“In this memoir, sure to be the most notable and controversial of the year, Noriega describes for the first time his behind-the-scenes dealings with George Bush, Oliver North, William Casey and the CIA, Jimmy Carter, Fidel Castro and Muamnar Gaddafi.
“And there is Noriega himself, a surprisingly skilled military man who saw himself as a nationalist, an honest mediator between his allies in US intelligence and his leading Latin American neighbors. As Noriega puts it, his problems began when he started to resist the efforts of the Reagan administration to combat communism in Central America.
Prisoner of America is one of the most unusual and important stories ever written about America’s aggression and duplicity. It is the story of how we have imprisoned a man – and a nation.”
“… Americans preferred to invade with blood and fire rather than allow the Japanese to be the partner, executor of the modernization of the Canal, the new set of locks or the levelling of the route’
For my part, I share with the readers the dedication that Noriega made to myself of his Memoirs: “To Professor Yao, a witness of the true history and its authors and action!” I also share with the reader his preface to my book, The Canal Monopoly and the Invasion of Panama:
“Professor Julio Yao, researcher and ideological and doctrinaire protagonist of the Isthmian liberation struggle, constitutes the vademecum of unpopularized events that really were the backbone of this story, a narrative that is dispersed and eliminated from the classrooms of the current generations.
“Today, due to the nature of the work, Professor Yao only stated his real and direct participation in the bizarre position of Foreign Minister Juan Antonio Tack as direct advisor to Omar Torrijos in this preliminary phase of the platform or Joint Declaration Tack-Kissinger, later to the Meeting of the UN Security Council in Panama.
“Likewise, Professor Yao knows the role of Shigeo Nagano in the 1988-1989 plans and is a faithful and diligent witness of the Japan-Panama chapter, whose territory the Americans preferred to invade with blood and fire rather than allow the Japanese to be the partner, executor of the modernization of the Canal, the new set of locks or the levelling of the route.
“Readers: dive in and honor this historic work by Professor Yao!” – Manuel A. Noriega.
Before passing away, Noriega publicly apologized for any wrongdoing that the Panama Defense Forces had committed. He took the blame of others, forgave them, and took many secrets to the grave. He served harsh prison sentences with stoicism, and was faithful to the thought of Lao Tse, his favorite: “Those who know, do not speak. Those who speak do not know. “
*Julio Yao, International Analyst, Advisor to the Canal Negotiations (1972-1977), Agent of Panama before the International Court of Justice.
Source: America Latina en movimiento
Slightly edited for grammatical reasons by TS