Glistening in the sunlight, Panama City’s skyline rises above a beautiful ring of luscious tropical rainforest and the deep blue hue of the Pacific Ocean.
Panama City is one of the most modern and innovative cities in Latin America, sporting beautiful high-rises and a metro. People forget that 25 years ago this metropolis was a war-zone.
On December 20, 1989, the United States invaded its small southern neighbor Panama, home of the famous Panama Canal and, at the time, several large American military bases. The leader of Panama, Manuel Noriega, had fallen out of favor with the U.S.
The 1989 invasion of Panama is a forgotten episode in American history. The invasion was quickly overshadowed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War of 1990-1991. Nevertheless, the invasion provides an excellent case study of American interventionism in foreign affairs.
Earlier this year, Russia invaded its neighbor Ukraine and annexed one of its territories — the Crimean Peninsula. Most of the world, especially the United States, was outraged at this blatant violation of sovereignty and international law. Just 25 years ago, however, in similar circumstances, the United States also invaded one of its neighbors who was attempting to break from its sphere of influence.
While Panama may exist as an independent and sovereign entity today, for over 90 years the country was controlled by a pro-American oligarchy, similar to the government of pro-Russian dictator Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine. Panama itself was practically created exclusively for the purposes of the United States in 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt supported Panamanian secession from Colombia in order to build the famous Panama Canal. Roosevelt incited the Panamanians to revolt against their Colombian rulers, then negotiated a treaty with the Panamanians which allowed the U.S. not only to build a canal, but also to have official sovereignty over a five-mile area on either side of it, an area that came to be known as the Canal Zone. Even though a Panamanian representative agreed to the terms, no Panamanian ever signed the treaty.
To ensure that the canal, an extremely strategic asset, would remain in American hands, the U.S. set up a puppet government in Panama. The U.S. also began building large military bases in the Canal Zone which housed thousands of soldiers who maintained a permanent presence in the small isthmus nation. The United States had, in effect, colonized Panama.
In 1959, Fidel Castro overthrew the pro-American dictator of Cuba, which sent political shockwaves across Latin America, and ordinary Panamanians began to question the authority of the United States over their country. in riots that swept across Panama. The U.S. decided to build up a Panamanian National Guard to maintain order in the country.
This decision backfired, however, when the commander of the National Guard, Omar Torrijos, launched a military coup in 1968 which overthrew the pro-American government. Torrijos normalized relations with Cuba and established a number of socialist programs designed to uplift Panama’s working class, which alienated the United States. In a shift in policy, President Jimmy Carter, in a controversial move, signed the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, which guaranteed that the U.S. would transfer control of the Canal Zone to Panama by the year 2000. Torrijos, however, died in a plane crash in 1981, and his deputy, Manuel Noriega, assumed power.
Noriega was, in fact, on the CIA payroll, and the agency quickly put Noriega to use, specifically to help with the CIA’s operations with the Contras, a rebel group fighting a war against the socialist government of Nicaragua. They were also heavily involved in cocaine trafficking. Noriega himself was a known drug smuggler, although the U.S. government did nothing to discourage his activities or stop them. Noriega also rigged his elections, suppressed the media, and ordered the beheading of his political opponents. None of this caused any change in U.S. policy.
U.S. policy did change, however, when Noriega attempted to break free of the United State’ influence. Noriega, reestablished relations with Cuba, and began demanding that the U.S. immediately hand over control of the Canal Zone. By 1989, tensions were boiling, and newly-elected president George H.W. Bush decided to act. On December 20, he ordered over 28,000 troops to reinstate a pro-American government.
While the United States continues to impose sanctions on Russia for their reprehensible actions in the Ukraine, its important to note that Russia is not the only great power to intervene in a foreign country’s affairs to maintain its sphere of influence. Panama is not the only Latin American country to fall prey to U.S. intervention — Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Granada have all experienced either an invasion, coup d’tat, or a rebel group sponsored by the United States. In particular, the Contra “freedom fighters” of Nicaragua draw an eerie resemblance to the pro-Russian militias currently operating in eastern Ukraine. While one cannot defend the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine, it is important to understand the United States has conducted itself in a similar manner for centuries. This double standard is extremely dangerous — not only can we not even remember our actions several years ago, but we believe that the United States can be judged by different standards then other countries.