THE BLOG
12/19/2014 04:28 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

The 25th Anniversary of the U.S. Invasion of Panama

With President Barack Obama's decision to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba we might be entering a new era where the ghosts of America's past military interventions in the Caribbean and Central America finally can be placed in a more realistic perspective.

Throughout the 1980s, the Reagan administration and its bipartisan allies in Congress had argued that the embargo against Cuba, like the Contra war in Nicaragua, U.S. military aid to El Salvador, and the October 1983 invasion of Grenada, were all steps in countering Soviet power in the region. The problem the United States had with Cuba, it was claimed, was that it served as a beachhead for Soviet communism in the hemisphere.

President Reagan characterized the communist "threat" in the region this way: "Using Nicaragua as a base, the Soviets and Cubans, can become the dominant power in the crucial corridor between North and South America. Established there, they will be in a position to threaten the Panama Canal, interdict our vital Caribbean Sea lanes, and, ultimately, move against Mexico."

But the U.S. antagonism against Cuba predates the existence of the Soviet Union and can be traced back at least to the Spanish-American War era and the Platt Amendment to the Cuban Constitution. The Platt Amendment, named after Connecticut Senator Orville Hitchcock Platt, imposed on the Cubans as a precondition for "independence" a set of demands that left the island a de facto American protectorate. Decades later, following the revolution of January 1959, the fight against communism, the denouncing of human rights violations, and the call for "democracy" in Cuba fogged up the real power relationship between the United States and Cuba that had little to do with "communism."

With the end of the Cold War, the crusade against communism to justify U.S. military interventions in the region fell by the wayside. The U.S. invasion of Panama, launched on December 20, 1989, illustrates the shifting rationales for imposing U.S. power in the region. Part of its significance is that it was the first U.S. military intervention in the region since Fidel Castro's revolution that was not validated by maintaining that is was part of the wider struggle against Soviet communism.

President George Herbert Walker Bush's December 1989 invasion of Panama, like during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, demonstrated that the United States would not hesitate to protect its interests in its "backyard" with or without the justification of fighting international communism. The drug war accommodated a new rationale well suited for the post-Cold War environment.

It's astonishing how fast U.S. foreign policy elites shifted their focus from fighting Soviet communism in the region to fighting the "war on drugs." The change in organizing principles for U.S. foreign policy that took place in 1989 foreshadowed a similar alteration in paradigms that took place after the 9-11 attacks created the "war on terror."

The Panama invasion occurred at a time when U.S. policymakers were searching for a post-Cold War paradigm for applying the tenets of American global power. The "New World Order" of 1989 to 1990, at least in Central America and the Caribbean, looked a lot like the older world order where U.S. military imperatives would be decisive with or without a Soviet menace in the hemisphere.

Twenty-five years ago, President Bush ordered into Panama 27,500 American troops, along with 300 aircraft (including advanced fighter jets). The stated goals of "Operation Just Cause" were to protect the Canal Zone and Americans living in Panama, stop the drug traffic flowing through the isthmus, and arrest General Manuel Noriega. The superior American forces quickly overwhelmed the segment of the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) that remained loyal to Noriega.

In Panama City and in Colon, U.S. troops blasted away at targets that served Noriega's command and communications structure. When U.S. Marines attacked the Commandancia (Noriega's headquarters), the fighting spilled over into the neighborhoods of El Chorrillo where the United States unloaded with "smart bombs" and other explosives. The battles destroyed some apartment buildings and El Chorrillo was where most of the civilian casualties occurred. Within a week of the start of the invasion, Physicians for Human Rights estimated that 300 civilians had been killed and another 15,000 were made homeless. Looting broke out in parts of Panama City enjoining the Americans to divert resources to securing the capital.

The Pentagon skillfully managed the news media for "Operation Just Cause" as it had done with great success during the October 1983 invasion of Grenada. Access to the combat zones was strictly limited as journalists were again amassed in "pools" highly dependent upon Department of Defense briefings.

American authorities disseminated a barrage of damaging information about Noriega's "fascination with witchcraft" and "black magic," as well as his sexual proclivities with his mistress. The colorful descriptions of Noriega's private life, which one anonymous U.S. official called "kinky," added to the stories about his brutal treatment of rivals and his links to the Columbian drug cartels. This elaborate and titillating narrative took the limelight away from Noriega's earlier training in U.S. military schools and his former ties to the CIA that had enabled his rise to power in the first place.

From the early morning hours of December 20, when the invasion began, until Christmas Eve, Noriega had eluded his would-be captors among the American Special Forces. They conducted over 40 operations across Panama, many of them simultaneously, with the goal of apprehending Noriega, but each time they came up empty. Finally, early Christmas morning, Noriega arranged for asylum in the Vatican Embassy at Punta Paitilla in Panama City. The papal nuncio, Monsignor Jose Sebastian Laboa (Pope John Paul II's emissary in Panama), found himself in the unenviable position of harboring a wanted felon with a $1 million bounty on his head as U.S. military forces surrounded the embassy.

Then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney arrived in Panama to spend Christmas with the American soldiers ane told reporters that he was "delighted that General Noriega has finally been run to ground. I think it's clear at this point," he said, "that the Panamanian people have no use for him, that he had to take sanctuary in a foreign embassy."

What followed was a series of negotiations between U.S. officials and the papal nuncio to persuade church officials to hand over Noriega. The Bush administration wanted Noriega extradited to Florida to stand trial. Secretary of State James Baker III wrote a letter to the Vatican arguing that Noriega's alleged involvement in drug dealing and murder meant that he didn't meet the Roman Catholic Church's moral standards for asylum.

To push the process along American military officers tried out some new psychological warfare or "psy-war" techniques, which involved setting up in front of the embassy a sound system capable of filling an arena and blaring ear-splitting rock 'n' roll and tape-loops of annoying noises to try to flush Noriega out. Klieg lights glared at the facade of the building at night while the loudspeakers crushed the nunciature with sound. Among the songs played were "No Place to Hide," "Voodoo Chile," and "You're No Good." A crowd of Panamanians gathered outside each day to chant their ridicule of Noriega.

The Vatican officials who lived and worked in the embassy pleaded with the United States to cease the racket so that they could get some sleep (they claimed the noise was having little effect on Noriega). Pope John Paul II expressed his strong disapproval of the U.S. military's heavy-handed "psy-war" tactics outside his embassy and after about a week the audio assault ceased.

After an 11-day standoff, on January 3, 1990, a shackled and defeated Noriega submissively boarded an American military plane that took off for Homestead Air Force Base outside of Miami. He would stand trial in the United States. At the time of his arrest it was reported that Noriega had stashed away inside a filing cabinet at his home $5.8 million in denominations of 10s, 20s, 50s, and 100s; U.S. officials confiscated the cash during the invasion.

After being tried and convicted of drug smuggling, as part of a twelve-count racketeering indictment, Noriega was sentenced to 40 years in prison. The lengthy prison term was important for the Bush administration. The loss of 23 American lives, with 300 wounded, along with 600 Panamanians killed and $2 billion in economic damage would have been hard to justify had Noriega won asylum in a third country. (Like the Grenada invasion six years earlier, the American people rallied around the president. Lee Atwater, the chair of the Republican National Committee, called the successful outcome of the invasion a "political jackpot" for Bush.)

Going back to the nineteenth century, Central America and the Caribbean had been seen as the United States' "backyard." In the 1850s, the American freebooter, William Walker, "the grey-eyed man of destiny," had inserted himself briefly as the dictator of Nicaragua. The Spanish-American War of 1898 secured U.S. dominance of Cuba and Puerto Rico, and in 1903, Panama became a de facto U.S. protectorate after President Theodore Roosevelt seized the country "and let Congress debate." The "Roosevelt Corollary" to the Monroe Doctrine institutionalized U.S. military power in the region; and President William Taft's "Dollar Diplomacy" sealed its finances in the hands of U.S. investors. President Woodrow Wilson's 1915 invasion of Haiti set the stage for a string of pro-U.S. governments there. Major General Medley Butler described his role in this aggressive U.S. policy in his famous essay War Is a Racket (1935).

But in the years following the Cuban uprising that swept Fidel Castro into power in January 1959, the stated purpose of U.S. policy -- from the Bay of Pigs and the 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic to the Contra war and the intervention in Grenada -- had been justified to "contain" or "roll back" Soviet influence.

And for 55 years U.S. policymakers never wavered in seeing Cuba as the source of all evil in the hemisphere. With a thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations we might have an opportunity to come to terms with the long and sordid history of the United States' actions in the Caribbean divorced from the anti-communist hyperbole we still hear from some politicians and pundits. If U.S. interventions preceded the existence of the Soviet Union and continued past its demise can we finally conclude that there was something more than "anti-communism" that animated the conflicts?