Iraq: a Lesson from Panama Imperialism and Struggle for Sovereignty

By Coleen Acosta



            If History is to be the signifier of lessons learned, then why do wars continue to happen? The United States has never really been considered an Imperialist nation, but as history proves, the US has had a long stake in international geopolitical control over various countries, as well as economic markets that have made these countries dependent on the United States for survival. In light of recent events in Iraq, one should take a step back and look at the US’ history of hostile invasions to “make the world safe for democracy.”  This mantra had devastating on the tiny country of Panama 14 years ago. Why did the US invade Panama? To free Panama from its oppressive dictator, Manuel Noriega. The result was the a death toll of three thousand, and the country’s further dependence on the US for economic survival. Who again was the US trying to save Panama from? In reviewing the story of Panama, one is able to draw uncanny connections to the current situation in Iraq. The administration even has many of the same people that decided to invade Panama under Bush senior. Now the same minds have decided to invade Iraq under George W. Bush, under the same pretext of “freeing the Iraqi people.” Based on history however, what will be the consequences for the Iraqi people and the Iraqi nation?


            On December 20,1989 President Bush ordered US forces into Panama as he explained, “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.”[1]   In December of 1989, 26,000 US soldiers occupied Panama in search of Manuel Noriega to be seized and tried on trafficking and racketeering charges in a US Federal court. The invasion ended two weeks later when Noriega was captured and transported to Miami. Subsequently, a new colonial government under the leadership of Guillermo Endara was hand-picked by the United States which was followed by economic and political disaster. What lead to such a drastic action against Latin America’s least populated country, and what were the lasting traumatic effects on a people faced with an imperialist, nationalist struggle?


            The situation in Panama in 1989 had been the result of a vacillating sense of national pride at odds with an eighty year old American imperialist presence. Panama had been the bearer of imperialist tensions since the turn of the century solely because of its strategic location and possible economic advantages that such a location would yield. Panama is a country that occupies the isthmus dividing North and South America. With its passage way saving sea-farers 5,000 miles of additional sailing around the tip of Tierra del Fuego, it is no wonder that Panama had been so highly sought out, and so strictly guarded.

            In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt supported a Panamanian uprising that enabled the country to gain its independence from Colombia. Roosevelt promised that warships would be placed off the coast of Panama, allowing Panama to declare its independence on November 3rd. As a trade-off, Panama had conceded to the US sole rights to the isthmus. Following Panama’s declaration of independence, it entered into a treaty agreement with the United States allowing it to build the canal and gain sovereignty over a ‘canal zone’; a ten mile wide strip of territory along the canal that divided the nation in two. In effect, panama’s independence from one nation, marked its subjugation to another. This imperialist presence remained in place for the next eighty-five years with no significant changes until the Treaty of 1977.  On September 7th US President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian President Torrijos signed a treaty in Washington promising that the US would concede control of the waterway over to Panama on December 31st 1999.

            Midway between these years, World War II had a profound effect on Panama’s sense of nationalism. In spite of internal strife and class-conflicts that pervaded Latin America during this period, “the Panamanian people were bent on promoting development that would benefit everyone.”[2] This economic development was closely associated with the national recovery of the Canal and the closing down of US military bases. This “nationalist” feeling began to grow increasingly strong between World War II and the treaty of 1977 to the consternation of the United States. After 1977, this spirit of nationalism began to wane and the US government sought to retain control over one of its most strategic protectorates.[3]

            Upon approval of the 1977 Canal treaties, Panama lost much of its national stability as the country began to be divided. When the treaties were signed, much of the population expected immediate results, economically and geo-politically. When these results were not realized, civil unrest began to imbed itself into the fabric of the Panamanian people. Economic recession only fueled this feeling of resentment at the government as well as imperialist powers still occupying the canal zone. When Torrijos Herrera came to power in 1968 as a result of a junta of National Guard officers in 1968, he embarked on an impressive public works program that in hindsight proved to be over-ambitious.[4] As a result, Panama declined into economic recession that only further instigated public dissatisfaction with the administration. In 1981, this instability came to a head when in 1981, Torrijos was killed in a plane crash. The result would be a power struggle leading up to the invasion of Panama in 1989. 

            After Torrijos’ death, his dictatorship was usurped by Colonel Manuel Noriega Moreno, an army successor to Torrijos as well as Chief of Panamanian Secret Police and CIA operative. With Noriega’s ascendancy to dictator, civil strife worsened in Panama. Noriega instituted new economic reforms that called for a more centralized policy controlled by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. This meant shifting emphasis from productive industry investments and raw materials to service activities.[5]     The economic             consequences proved to be increased unemployment coupled with factional aggravation between business groups belonging to the ‘national’ alliance verses that of a free market.

            Another change that Noriega instituted was the increased presence and strength of the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) to guarantee social order endangered by the new economic policy. Obviously this caused unrest at the notion of being watched and controlled by a military government. By 1988, the Panamanian government had turned into a military regime.

            Also during 1988, Noriega had been indicted by a U.S. Federal court in Miami on drug trafficking and racketeering charges. A year later the opposition leader, Guillermo Endara won the presidential race by a large margin. In response to his ouster, Noriega nullified the election and proceeded to install one of his own constituents as president on September 1st 1989. On December 15th after surviving a violent coup, Noriega sought to gain increased dictatorial powers from the legislature whose members were placed there by him. The corruption ensuing in Panama under Noriega was palpable. On the same day, Noriega declared war on the United States. One day later his regime solicited the harsh response by US upon killing an unarmed American Marine Officer. On the December 19th the US decided to go to war.


            The economic damage caused by the invasion and subsequent civil disobedience had been estimated to be between $1.5 and $2 billion balboas, which would be comparable to US dollars.[6]  Unemployment rose to record highs as the government infrastructure was left in chaos. According to the chamber of Commerce, 10,000 employees lost their jobs in the aftermath of the war.

            Sanctions that had been placed on Panama since 1988 had created staggering financial ruin as well. North American sanctions included the freezing of  $120 million in funds at the National Bank of Panama operating in the United States.[7] In addition, 200 US firms suspended their fiscal obligations which included payment of Panamanian taxes valued at $400 million annually.[8] Panama’s sugar quota had been suspended which accounted for 30,000 tons of sugar exports along with the prohibition on US loans, donations and economic assistance. The US also announced sanctions on those merchant ships registered in Panama.[9]


            Why however did the US respond with such a heavy hand to a country that posed no logical threat? When the US invaded Panama, it did so under the banner of restoring order, protecting its citizens and to defend democracy. Whose democracy was the US defending however? In the words of Xabier Gorostiaga, “The complexity of the Panamanian crisis is not only the product of a long history but of a dialectic struggle between the Panamanian people in search of sovereignty while living under the imperial eagle.”[10]  This crisis was not a simple event related to the removal of one corrupt leader or the US’ concern for democracy. Philip E. Wheaton would argue that, “the fundamental motivation was US military control over Panama after the year 2,000.”[11] Wheaton argues that the time-table for Panama to achieve complete sovereignty was reaching a critical moment, with the United States facing the danger of losing its century-long control over the Isthmus.

            It is true that neither US defense of the canal or judicial prosecution of Noriega justified an invasion which has, “cost possibly a thousand lives or more, tremendous suffering and damage to the county, an action that has not resolved but complicated the emergence of democracy in Panama under a colonial government.”[12] US invasion into Panama served to remind the rest of the world that Washington retained hemispheric hegemony.


            Long before the invasion of Panama in 1989, the US sensed the budding seeds of nationalism within Panamanian society that lead to the treaty of 1977. The US however was not prepared to disavow the economic and strategic gains that control over the canal would provide. Throughout the 1980’s therefore, the Reagan administration strove to contain a stronghold on control of the canal. Since the Carter-Torrijos treaties had been ratified by the US congress and approved by a Panamanian plebiscite, the US would never be able to renege a treaty returning a geographical wonder back to its owners. At the same time however, the treaty had to be created in 1977 or else the US would have run the risk of being condemned as an imperial colonizer. The US wanted to disentangle itself from the world perception of ‘Roosevelt and his big stick’ oppressing the people of Latin America. The US therefore had the task of circumventing popular perception by first creating the treaty of 1977 and then surreptitiously trying to weaken it so that it could legally retain control. As Luis Restrepo commented, “the Reagan Administration’s strategy was to weaken the treaties, to debilitate them through non-compliance, to condition their content and modify their implementation.”[13]

            Two examples of such debunking tactics may be found in the passage of ‘International Law 96-70’ which fostered and justified a judicial position for the United States over the canal through, “jurisdictional, operative and administrative powers which violently disrupt the spirit and wording of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties.”[14] The anti-juridical tactic of 96-70 denies the sovereignty of the Republic of Panama over the zone territory. In addition to subversive measures to retain power in the region, Reagan violated the Treaties on over 50 separate  occasions such as, “the establishment of a Panama Canal Commission linked to the executive branch, under direct authority of the US President.”[15] Another example of such a violation would be, the reduction of the oversight functions of the Joint Board of Directors, established by the Treaty, to a mere supervisory role.[16] The invasion of Panama therefore was merely an extension of the Reagan policy to circumvent the language of the Treaty in order to retain some degree of influence if not control.


            The persons most harmed by the ensuing power struggle over control of the canal, were the Panamanian people. Ambushed from all angles, the Panamanian people existed at the whims of dictatorial regimes at the local echelon and imperialist forces at the international echelon. As a result, the Panamanian people were locked into subjugation in all possibilities. Where were they to go if the greatest superpower in the world was manipulating their own government? Noriega, the dictator that relegated Panama’s government to a military dictatorship had been a former employee of the US government and an army successor to Torrijos who had been supported by the US. Now that the superpower and the dictator were at odds, what would be the alternative be upon ousting that same leader? A higher power able to install yet a new leader while undertaking the forceful invasion of the country. Who was worse then? Noriega or the US?


            The bitter feeling of entrapment in light of the 1989 invasion seems to have been the lasting sentiment among the Panamanian people. This is a sentiment stemming not only from the invasion of 1989 but also nearly a decade of control, influence and presence; the manipulation of their sovereign government so that the Panamanian people are left incapable of actually living under a democratic government; resentment towards the US for all of these maladies in addition to the arrogance with which such a policy is carried out. It seemed ludicrous to the Panamanian people that the US would pretext the invasion to “defending democracy” when democracy was non-existent due to US policy.

            Exemplified in an interview with ‘Chuchu’ Martinez, one of Torrijos’ personal confidant and member of his ‘personal security team,’ bitterness towards the US seems unabashedly clear. When asked a question about when the United States began planning the invasion, Martinez responds, “The ‘gringos’ were absolutely firm about not losing their military presence in Panama after the year 2,000. The problem was how to accomplish this goal.”[17] He further makes a vehement remark about one of Bush’s comments; “ ‘If Endara doesn’t win, we invade.’ This is Washington’s so called democratic option: either vote for Endara or we invade. So, the Panamanians went to the polls thinking that if Noriega’s candidate wins, the Yankees will either kill Noriega or invade. . .”[18]  He later comments that, “There is only one progressive thing about Noriega’s government: his clash with the Empire. . .”

            In another interview Wheaton speaks with a Panamanian writer and a Chilean woman from an upper middle-class neighborhood, February 1990. In the first interview, an anecdote was shared that reflect some of the contradictions about the invasion and point to the difficulties facing those committed to building a new Panama.[19] The first involves a unique robbery by the US occupation forces, reminiscent of WWII;


            In Buenos Aires, Argentina word came to the intellectual circles here that the North             American forces had stolen the entire library of Dr. Ernesto Castillero Pimental, along             with the art collection of Noriega, valued in the millions of dollars, from the             National Museum, thence taking it the United States. . . Incredible!


The robbery in this anecdote is important because it represents a premeditated crime but more importantly, the fact that the US thinks it has the right to steal such treasures precisely because they consider it a US colony.


            More than lasting resentment against the United States, it is important to take note of the thousands of people that lost their lives in this conflict. That fact, more than any imperialist ploy serves as a stinging reminder of US imperialism; that these people died because the US was sending a “humanitarian mission” to make Panama safe for democracy. In one account from the Codehuca province, the fatalities from the bombings were described as somewhere between 700 and 800 people, both civilian and military.[20] Other accounts from the same province quote the US Army as carrying out ‘sanitation’ activities in which they use, “flamethrowers to burn hundreds of bodies. They also used common graves in which they buried hundreds of bodies.”[21] These activities can be linked to the rumors of disappearances of people reflecting the discrepancy between the numbers of missing persons and the lists of prisoners.

            Other accounts of torture tell of one the US military acting against a ‘Macho del Monte’, a soldier from the Panamanian Defense Force. The soldier reported that a wound on his lower leg was caused by a projectile which had lodged in the sole of his foot. US soldiers took a metal cable that had been used to hang up laundry and introduced it into the hole until it touched the projectile producing intense pain. Another Macho del Monte soldier was hung up by one arm on which he already had an injury to his elbow, though that wound had not been stitched up.[22]

            In another report from Coco Solo, Colon,[23] the headquarters of the of the Panamanian Defense Forces and the second largest city in the country, a reporter observes, “one can hardly see any remains from the battle. The headquarters are intact with only a few smoke stains around its main windows. There isn’t a single explosion hole in the facade, yet the three-hundred Panamanian soldiers who were inside died there without a single US soldier losing his life.”[24] It was speculated that the explanation for the unusual phenomenon is that a bomb landed inside the building with such force that it caused the building to implode instantly killing everyone.

            In another town of El Chorrillo,[25] some 14,000 persons were left homeless as a result of the bombing visited upon El Chorrillo barrio from December 20th onwards. In this report, it was estimated that approximately 3, 983 homes located around the central headquarters were destroyed. Census data shows that 14, 170 people lived in that part of the barrio that was destroyed. Of that population, 40% were minors aged 14 years and younger.

            One of the few reports concerning attacks on places in the interior of the country came from the village of Pacora, near Panama City.[26] The village was bombed with chemical substances by helicopters and aircraft from Southern Command. Residents reported that this chemical substance, “burned their skin, producing intense stinging and diarrhea.”[27] Other people of Pacora reported that their town had been converted into a huge concentration camp surrounded by barbed wire, “as the Nazis used to do,”  so that its residents could not offer any assistance to Panamanian soldiers in the area.

            Panama also served as a testing ground for new US weapons. On January 9, 1990, Reuters published an article that stated the US military as, “being proud of the demonstration of their new weapons and techniques used during the Panama invasion, ranging from 500-foot parachute jumps to high-tech apparatus for night vision.”[28] A ‘humanitarian mission’ seems like an inappropriate operation to show off military might. Given the level of opposition that US forces encountered, there was no need for much of the advance military fighters used to bomb Panama. For example, it was reporter in Reuters that, “the most exotic weapon in the invasion was the F-117A ‘Stealth bomber.’” 

Reuters reported that at least one of these attack aircraft flew to Panama from its desert base in Tonopah, Nevada to command an attack on the FDP base in Rio Hato where it fired two 2,000 pound bombs to stun and disorient Noriega’s troops.[29] A fighter of that magnitude was clearly not necessary for the defeat of Noriega’s army. In a war most often referred to as the “invasion,” one may deduce how much military force would have been necessary.

            What then was the United States trying to demonstrate? Clearly it wanted to accomplish more than simply apprehending Noriega in order to save the people of Panama from its leader. Perhaps the US wanted to send a message to the Panamanian people that it is not to be intimidated, or much more importantly, denied continued control of the Panama Canal, specifically before the date which the Treaty had specified the US should turn over the canal.


            The invasion of Panama left an irrevocable mark on the psyche of the Panamanian people. The sense of trauma, grief and tremendous sense of loss suffered at the hands of a dictator as well as an imperial power began to emerge in the culture of Panama during and shortly after the invasion. The sense of Trauma could be summed up in the words of Dr. Mauro Zuniga, a popular civic leader; “From December 20th on, we no longer have a nation. . . In an attack without precedent in military history, the United States has leveled the defenses of the Panamanian army and in less than four days, that institution lays in ruin.”[30]  He continued to say that, “During this new period, the struggle will be for us Panamanians to define what we intend this nation to be. . .”[31]  That redifinement was subsequently expressed in cultural mediums. One such medium was that of literature and poetry. Norah de Alba wrote a poem in the early days of the invasion entitled Mortal Cry.

Alba is the earliest known poet to reflect on the suffering and protest of the Panamanian invasion.  In her poem she describes the outrage that the Panamanians felt in response to the US’ false banner of war and the hardships that incurred.

            Alba’s first stanza;

                                                The arrived

                                                as do thieves in the shadows


                                                In complicity with our sleep.


She describes the US military as “thieves,”  clearly expressing Panamanian sentiments towards the US as plunders that have been stealing from the people; stealing economic riches from the canal.  In a later stanza she remarks on the completely ludicrous claim that the US had come to help the Panamanian people;

                                                They arrived

                                                and said – casually –

                                                that they had come in the name

                                                of peace to make war;

                                                That they had come to “democratize”


            It is clear that the Panamanians were no better off after the US show of ‘democratization’. The economy was in ruins, 3,000 people were dead, the country was divided, people were homeless and the US retained control over the canal.


            In the aftermath of the invasion, the Panamanians moved quickly to rebuild their civilian constitutional government. On December 27, 1989, Panama’s Electoral Tribunal invalidated the Noriega regime’s annulment of the May 1989 election and confirmed the victory of the opposition candidates under the leadership of President Guillermo Endara. When President Endara took office, he pledged to foster Panama’s economic recovery, transform the Panamanian military into a police force under civilian control, and strengthen democratic institutions.[32] During the subsequent years, the Endara government struggled to meet the public’s high expectations for reform.

            An important US congressional concern was the status of Panama's economic recovery during the aftermath. Before the military intervention, the economy had been severely damaged by two years of  U.S. economic sanctions and economic disruption caused by the political crisis. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) had declined some 25% between 1987 and the end of 1989. The intervention added further to the economic decline. Some sections of Panama City were heavily damaged, leaving thousands homeless, and subsequent looting left businesses with damages in the hundreds of millions.

            The canal was indeed returned to Panama in just before midnight, December 31st 1999, ending nearly a century of American jurisdiction over one of the world’s most strategic waterways. There is still however  a large military presence in Panama. Today, Panamanians regard the US with mixed feelings. The invasion of 1989 remains a sore point in US-Panama relations however the relationship between the two countries is a mutually beneficial economic arrangement. Some observers maintain that Panama has to be concerned with other nations' views of its legitimacy and its independence from the United States. Others, however, would welcome the beginning of military base negotiations, and argue that many Panamanians favor a permanent U.S. presence because of jobs and income associated with the U.S. military facilities. Some 6,000 Panamanians work directly for the U.S. military, while thousands of others provide a variety of services to the U.S. military community.[33] The bases reportedly bring in about $360 million annually to the Panamanian economy, directly and indirectly.[34] Still other Panamanians oppose any kind of U.S. military presence. Some argue that only with the U.S. military out of the country will Panama be able to break the dependent relationship it has with the United States and recover its own national identity.




Secondary Sources


Howard, D., The Golden Isthmus, (Collins, London) 1966.


Howarth, D., Panama, (McGraw Hill Book Company, New York) 1966.


Mann, G., Panamanian Militarism (Ohio University for International Studies, Athens) 1996.


Niemeier, J., The Panama Story, (Metropolitan Press, Oregon) 1968.


Wheaton, P., Panama Invaded (The Red Sea Press, New Jersey) 1992.




Primary Sources


1) CRS Issue Brief, Panama-US Relations: Continuing Policy Concerns, Jan. 2, 1997.


2) Panama Canal timeline, 1999,


3) Leis Raul, “Worst Tragedy in Panamanian History,” Pesamiento Propio, Feb. 1990


4) Pensamiento Propio Jan/Feb 1990


5) Luis Restrepo, Reagan’s Strategy: To Undo the Treaties De Facto, Frontier News (Berkeley, Ca.) Feb/ March 1988 p.13.


6) CODEHUCA, Testimonies recorded by staff of the Central American Human Rights Committees, San Jose, Costa Rica, taken in Panama Jan. 29, 1990


7) Pensamiento Propio, Jan./ Feb., 1990 “La guerra total de Bush” pp.28


8) Opinion Publica, CELA, Panama, No.24 Feb.1990 Magela Cabera Arias, “La Reconstruccion en El Chorrillo,” pp. 8-9


9) El Periodico, “Bombardean Pacora con substancias quimicas,” Panama Occupied Territory, Feb. 1990 p.8


10) Reuters, Washington D.C., Jan 9, 1990


All articles can be found on “Lexis Nexus” and the “Latin American Database”


[1] CRS Issue Brief, Panama-US Relations: Continuing Policy Concerns, Jan. 2, 1997.

[2] Wheaton xii

[3] Ibid.

[4] Panama Canal timeline, 1999,

[5] Wheaton, xiii

[6] Leis Raul, “Worst Tragedy in Panamanian History,” Pesamiento Propio, Feb. 1990

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Wheaton, p.60

[11] Ibid.

[12] Pensamiento Propio Jan/Feb 1990

[13] Luis Restrepo, Reagan’s Strategy: To Undo the Treaties De Facto, Frontier News (Berkeley, Ca.) Feb/  

    March 1988 p.13.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Pensamiento Propio, Jan./ Feb., 1990 pp.34-34

[18] Ibid.

[19] Philip Wheaton, interviews with a Panamanian writer and a Chilean woman from an upper middle-class neighborhood, and with West Indians in Margarita, Colon, February 14-19, 1990

[20] CODEHUCA, Testimonies recorded by staff of the Central American Human Rights Committees, San Jose, Costa Rica, taken in Panama Jan. 29, 1990

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Pensamiento Propio, Jan./ Feb., 1990 “La guerra total de Bush” pp.28

[24] Ibid.

[25] Opinion Publica, CELA, Panama, No.24 Feb.1990 Magela Cabera Arias, “La Reconstruccion en El Chorrillo,” pp. 8-9

[26] El Periodico, “Bombardean Pacora con substancias quimicas,” Panama Occupied Territory, Feb. 1990 p.8

[27] Ibid.

[28] Reuters, Washington D.C., Jan 9, 1990

[29] Ibid.

[30] Wheaton, p.20

[31] Ibid.


[33] CRS Issue Brief, Panama – US Relations: Continuing Policy Concerns

[34] Ibid.