THE INVASION OF PANAMA
Panama has been traditionally controlled by its tiny European
elite, less than 10% of the population. That changed in 1968,
when Omar Torrijos, a populist general, led a coup that allowed
the black and mestizo [mixed-race] poor to obtain at least a share
of the power under his military dictatorship. In 1981, Torrijos
was killed in a plane crash. By 1983, the effective ruler was
Manuel Noriega, a criminal who had been a cohort of Torrijos and
The US government knew that Noriega was involved in drug trafficking
since at least 1972, when the Nixon administration considered
assassinating him. But he stayed on the CIA payroll. In 1983,
a US Senate committee concluded that Panama was a major center
for the laundering of drug funds and drug trafficking.
The US government continued to value Noriega's services. In May
1986, the Director of the Drug Enforcement Agency praised Noriega
for his "vigorous anti-drug trafficking policy." A year
later, the Director "welcomed our close association"
with Noriega, while Attorney-General Edwin Meese stopped a US
Justice Department investigation of Noriega's criminal activities.
In August 1987, a Senate resolution condemning Noriega was opposed
by Elliott Abrams, the State Department official in charge of
US policy in Central America and Panama.
And yet, when Noriega was formally indicted in Miami in 1988,
all the charges except one were related to activities that took
place before 1984 -- back when he was our boy, helping with the
US war against Nicaragua, stealing elections with US approval
and generally serving US interests satisfactorily. It had nothing
to do with suddenly discovering that he was a gangster and a drug
peddler-that was known all along.
It's all quite predictable, as study after study shows. A brutal
tyrant crosses the line from admirable friend to "villain"
and "scum" when he commits the crime of independence.
One common mistake is to go beyond robbing the poor-which is just
fine-and to start interfering with the privileged, eliciting opposition
from business leaders.
By the mid 1980s, Noriega was guilty of these crimes. Among other
things, he seems to have been dragging his feet about helping
the US in the contra war. His independence also threatened our
interests in the Panama Canal. On January 1, 1990, most of the
administration of the Canal was due to go over to Panama-in the
year 2000, it goes completely to them. We had to make sure that
Panama was in the hands of people we could control before that
Since we could no longer trust Noriega to do our bidding, he had
to go. Washington imposed economic sanctions that virtually destroyed
the economy, the main burden falling on the poor nonwhite majority.
They too came to hate Noriega, not least because he was responsible
for the economic warfare (which was illegal, if anyone cares)
that was causing their children to starve.
Next a military coup was tried, but failed. Then, in December
1989, the US celebrated the fall of the Berlin wall and the end
of the Cold War by invading Panama outright, killing hundreds
or perhaps thousands of civilians (no one knows, and few north
of the Rio Grande care enough to inquire). This restored power
to the rich white elite that had been displaced by the Torrijos
coup-just in time to ensure a compliant government for the administrative
changeover of the Canal on January 1, 1990 (as noted by the right-wing
Throughout this process, the US press followed Washington's lead,
selecting villains in
terms of current needs. Actions we'd formerly condoned became
crimes. For example, in 1984, the Panamanian presidential election
had been won by Arnulfo Arias. The election was stolen by Noriega,
with considerable violence and fraud.
But Noriega hadn't yet become disobedient. He was our man in Panama,
and the Arias party was considered to have dangerous elements
of "ultranationalism." The Reagan administration therefore
applauded the violence and fraud, and sent Secretary of State
George Shultz down to legitimate the stolen election and praise
Noriega's version of "democracy" as a model for the
The Washington-media alliance and the major journals refrained
from criticizing the fraudulent elections, but dismissed as utterly
worthless the Sandinistas' far more free and honest election in
the same year-because it could not be controlled.
In May 1989, Noriega again stole an election, this time from a
representative of the business opposition, Guillermo Endara. Noriega
used less violence than in 1984. But the Reagan administration
had given the signal that it had turned against Noriega. Following
the predictable script, the press expressed outrage over his failure
to meet our lofty democratic standards.
The press also began passionately denouncing human rights violations
that previously didn't reach the threshold of their attention.
By the time we invaded Panama in December 1989, the press had
demonized Noriega, turning him into the worst monster since Attila
the Hun. (It was basically a replay of the demonization of Qaddafi
of Libya.) Ted Koppel was orating that "Noriega belongs to
that special fraternity of international villains, men like Qaddafi,
Idi Amin and the Ayatollah Khomeini, whom Americans just love
to hate." Dan Rather placed him "at the top of the list
of the world's drug thieves and scums." In fact, Noriega
remained a very minor thug exactly what he was when he was on
the CIA payroll.
In 1988, for example, Americas Watch published a report on human
rights in Panama, giving an unpleasant picture. But as their reports-and
other inquiries-make clear, Noriega's human rights record was
nothing remotely like that of other US clients in the region,
and no worse than in the days when Noriega was still a favorite,
Take Honduras, for example. Although it's not a murderous terrorist
state like El Salvador or Guatemala, human rights abuses were
probably worse there than in Panama. In fact, there's one ClA-trained
battalion in Honduras that all by itself had carried out more
atrocities than Noriega did. Or consider US-backed dictators like
Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Somoza in Nicaragua, Marcos
in the Philippines, Duvalier in Haiti and a host of Central American
gangsters through the 1980s. They were all much more brutal than
Noriega, but the United States supported them enthusiastically
right through decades of horrifying atrocities-as long as the
profits were flowing out of their countries and into the US. George
Bush's administration continued to honor Mobutu, Ceausescu and
Saddam Hussein, among others, all far worse criminals than Noriega.
Suharto of Indonesia, arguably the worst killer of them all, remains
a Washington-media "moderate."
In fact, at exactly the moment it invaded Panama because of its
outrage over Noriega's abuses of human rights, the Bush administration
announced new high-technology sales to China, noting that $300
million in business for US firms was at stake and that contacts
had secretly resumed a few weeks after the Tiananmen Square massacre.
On the same day-the day Panama was invaded-the White House also
announced plans (and implemented them shortly afterwards) to lift
a ban on loans to Iraq. The State Department explained with a
straight face that this was to achieve the "goal of increasing
US exports and put us in a better position to deal with Iraq regarding
its human rights record...."
The Department continued with the pose as Bush rebuffed the Iraqi
democratic opposition (bankers, professionals, etc.) and blocked
congressional efforts to condemn the atrocious crimes of his old
friend Saddam Hussein. Compared to Bush's buddies in Baghdad and
Beijing, Noriega looked like Mother Teresa. After the invasion,
Bush announced a billion dollars in aid to Panama. Of this, $400
million consisted of incentives for US business to export products
to Panama, $150 million was to pay off bank loans and $65 million
went to private sector loans and guarantees to US investors. In
other words, about half the aid was a gift from the American taxpayer
to American businesses.
The US put the bankers back in power after the invasion. Noriega's
involvement in drug trafficking had been trivial compared to theirs.
Drug trafficking there has always been conducted primarily by
the banks-the banking system is virtually unregulated, so it's
a natural outlet for criminal money. This has been the basis for
Panama's highly artificial economy and remains so-possibly at
a higher level-after the invasion. The Panamanian Defense Forces
have also been reconstructed with basically the same officers.
In general, everything's pretty much the same, only now more reliable
servants are in charge. (The same is true of Grenada, which has
become a major center of drug money laundering since the US invasion.
Nicaragua, too, has become a significant conduit for drugs to
the US market, after Washington's victory in the 1990 election.
The pattern is standard-as is the failure to notice it.)
from the book What Uncle Sam Really Wants, published in 1993
Tucson, AZ 85751
tel 602-296-4056 or 800-REALSTORY
other Noam Chomsky books published by Odonian Press
Secrets, Lies, and Democracy
The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many
Uncle Sam Really Wants