Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2021
by Donald J. Mabry
Panamanian nationalists eagerly point out that Panama existed before the settlement of Jamestown in 1607 and centuries before the United States intervened in November, 1903 to help Panama gain independence from Colombia. Moreover, Panamanians had been transshipping people and goods across the isthmus since the early 1500s. The conquest of Peru was launched from Panama and most of the Spanish colonial South American empire was supplied from Spain through trade fairs held in Panama. When the Spanish empire collapsed in the early nineteenth century, Panama technically became part of Colombia, but the rule of Colombia was light, for it was extraordinarily difficult to travel from one country to the other. Panamanian nationalists had sought independence from Colombia in the nineteenth century and unsuccessfully fought for Panamanian freedom in the Colombian civil war of 1899-1903. To them, the U.S. intervention in 1903 complicated the formation of a Panamanian national state. Thus, to Panamanians, the United States, at best, was a midwife and never the parent of Panamanian nationality.(1)
For Panamanians, relations between their republic and the United States have been duplicitous and unfair from the beginning of the independent republic. The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty (1903) was an act of chicanery forced upon the fledgling nation by the United States. The temporary Panamanian representative to the U.S., Phillipe Bunau-Varilla, a Frenchman, violated his instructions from the new Panamanian government to await the arrival of officials from Panama before negotiating a treaty. Instead, he wrote a treaty so generous in giving away Panamanian authority that John Hay, U.S. Secretary of State, quickly signed it before the Panamanian delegation could force changes. The new Panamanian government reluctantly accepted it, fearing either Colombian or United States military intervention if it didn't.
Instead of being a liberator, the United States treated Panama as a conquered province. Washington established a military dictatorship in the Canal Zone; the Canal Zone Commissioner was always an active-duty U.S. military officer and Zonians, regardless of nationality, had no political power. They did what the Commissioner wanted or were expelled. The Zone was a military socialist society; the U.S. government owned virtually all but Zonians' personal possessions. Outside the Zone, the United States controlled most of the public services in Panama City and Colón. Americans viewed Panamanians, even those of the elite class, as lesser people. Moreover, these Spanish-speakers resented the importation of English-speaking black workers from the Caribbean because of their language and their ethnicity, a complaint compounded by the subsequent U.S. refusal to repatriate them once the Canal was completed.
The U.S. actively discouraged Panamanian self-determination, for Washington saw its interest as the maintenance of a compliant Panamanian government. Foreign soldiers and foreign laws controlled the Zone; Panamanians could be arrested by foreign personnel, tried in foreign courts, and punished by foreigners all on Panamanian soil. The bifurcation of the nation by this foreign enclave prohibited the integral development of the nation, and, instead, skewed national development towards the cities of Panama and Colón, each a terminus of the Canal. As these two cities grew, Panamanians wanted unused Zonian land converted into Panamanian-owned farms to produce food to feed the urban populations along the canal.(2)
Panamanians also criticized the 1903 treaty for treating Panama unfairly in economic terms. Panama had no right to tax in the Zone or fix the toll rates on the canal. The rent on the Zone was fixed by treaty, thus making it extraordinarily difficult to change, and inflation reduced the value of the rent paid. The United States imported goods directly into the Zone, both escaping Panamanian taxes bypassing Panamanian merchants. Panamanians or black West Indians were paid at the "silver rate" whereas U.S. citizens were paid at the higher "gold rate."
Panamanian sovereignty has always been the source of friction between the two nations. Soon after the Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty was signed in November, 1903, Panamanians argued that the treaty's phrase "as if it were sovereign" only gave the United States "jurisdictional sovereignty" over the Canal Zone and that the Zone was Panamanian. Washington officials understood the distinction, although they usually ignored it, but the average U.S. citizen erroneously believed that the Zone was U.S. territory and that Panama had yielded all rights in the Zone in perpetuity.
Washington regularly intervened in Panamanian politics, usually through diplomats but too often through soldiers, to support favored local elites, those who supported U.S. policies because they benefited most directly from them. Throughout the history of Panamanian-U.S. relations, the United States could always rely on those Panamanians who prospered from the American presence. Until the military revolution of Omar Torrijos in 1968, presidents came from this group.
The fledgling Panamanian army was disbanded in 1904 on the grounds that the U.S. army was all the protection needed by the nation,(3) thus eliminating any Panamanian counterforce. In 1918, the U.S. intervened militarily in Panama City and Colón to settle an election dispute. U.S. troops occupied Chiriqui province in 1918-21. In order to prevent a boundary dispute between Panama and Costa Rica in 1921, the U.S. threatened Panama by sending a battleship and four hundred marines. In 1925, U.S. troops, at the request of the now thoroughly demoralized Panamanian government, intervened in an election dispute. The United States was the final arbiter of Panamanian domestic political squabbles since only pro-U.S. politicians were allowed to stay in power. The threat of military intervention soon became sufficient to keep Panamanians in line.
Beginning in 1904, within months after independence, Panamanians pushed for official American recognition of Panamanian sovereignty over the Zone and better treatment of Panama until they obtained some satisfaction in 1936. Washington conceded to some Panamanian demands. In January, 1936, the United States guaranteed Panamanians equal opportunity with Americans in the Zone, a promise never completely fulfilled. In the Hull-Alfaro Treaty later that year, Washington renounced the right to intervene militarily to guarantee Panamanian independence and the right to maintain police Colón and Panama City. The annuity was raised to $430,000 to offset the devaluation of the dollar in 1933. Panama obtained the right to control immigration. Most important, Article III stipulated that the Canal Zone was the sovereign territory of the Republic of Panama under the jurisdiction of the U.S. The U.S. Senate, however, refused to ratify the treaty until 1939 and then only after Panama agreed to allow the United States to continue military intervention when the latter thought it necessary; Panama only nominally ceased to be a protectorate. Panamanian resentment flourished in some quarters as pro-Axis sentiment, which President Arnulfo Arias exploited for political gain until he was overthrown by the National Guard in 1941. A pro-American government took his place.
Panamanians willingly supported the expansion of the American presence during World War II as an emergency measure, for they believed the war to be a just cause, but only with the understanding that the increased U.S. military presence would soon end. In 1942, therefore, Panama leased defense sites to the United States for five years. When a renewal treaty, negotiated in 1947, ignored demands for better treatment of Panama, nationalistic riots erupted in Panama City. The Panamanian government quelled them with its National Guard, but not before the rioters turned their fury against the United States.
Chastened by these riots, the Panamanian government pressured Washington anew for a more favorable treaty, eventually achieving one in 1955. Panama managed to obtain important concessions. It could now tax Zone employees who were Panamanians. The United States gave up monopoly rights over railroad and highway construction and control of sanitation in Colón and Panama City. Zone commissaries were restricted to selling only to United States citizens and to Canal employees who worked and lived in the Zone. Panamanians were granted a large share in supplying goods to the Zone markets. Panama obtained some Zone land. The rental annuity was raised to $1,930,000. In an informal, separate "Memo of Understandings Reached," Eisenhower agreed to create equality of opportunity in the zone and end wage discrimination against the Panamanians working for the canal company. Panamanians mistakenly believed that this memo had the same force as the treaty.
The United States acted slowly, however, in implementing both the treaty and the memo, and anti-U.S. demonstrations marked the late 1950s. Nationalistic students demanded that the Zone and the Canal be returned to Panama. In May, 1958, university students entered the Zone under Operation Sovereignty to plant some fifty Panamanian flags as an assertion of sovereignty. Rebuffed in a brief confrontation, they withdrew. When they returned on November 3, 1959, American personnel resisted, and more than 120 students were killed or wounded, nine of them by U.S. soldiers. In 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower responded by opening skilled positions in the Zone to Panamanians and ordering the Panamanian flag flown in parts of the Zone.
Official relations improved under conservative President Roberto Chiari. He allowed the U.S. to expand the scope of its military programs in Panama. President John Kennedy began using the School of the Americas to train Latin American militaries in counter-insurgency warfare. Two of the most famous graduates of the School would be Omar Torrijos and Manuel Antonio Noriega. In addition, Washington stationed anti-guerrilla United States paratroopers in Zone. Panamanians split on this new American role in their country. Many Panamanians rejoiced at the increased business, but nationalists and leftists objected to the increased American military presence as a treaty violation and threat to Panamanian self-determination and the training of right-wing Latin American military officers. Critics believed that those so trained would suppress democratic movements in Latin America. They particularly feared improving the military skills of the Panamanian National Guard, for it had a long history of overthrowing governments. In part to pacify this resentment, Kennedy, in 1963, ordered that foreign counsels accredited to Panama be allowed to operate in the Zone and that the Panamanian flag be flown jointly with the U.S. flag over civilian installations.
In 1964, Panamanian national pride provoked a serious confrontation between Panama and the United States. Panamanian students, although pro-U.S. in general terms, had long insisted that the United States recognize Panamanian sovereignty over the Zone.(4) Zonian attitudes towards Panamanians had changed little since 1903, however. Conservative American high school students in January, 1964, refused to fly the Panamanian flag over their high school students and flew the U.S. flag by itself in violation of U.S. law. Panamanian students, backed by public opinion, swarmed into the Zone to assert Panamanian rights. During the riot which ensued, twenty-four persons (three of whom were U.S. soldiers) were killed and hundreds injured. President Chiari demanded that Organization of American States and the United Nations investigate what he called U.S. aggression and suspended diplomatic relations for four months.
President Johnson and President Marco Robles agreed to negotiate three new canal treaties. Johnson, however, announced that the U.S. was also exploring the possibility of building a canal across Nicaragua or Mexico. Panamanian leaders got the message that they should accede to American wishes lest Panama be stuck with a white elephant. The 1967 treaties were never ratified. They agreed to explore the possibility of a sea-level canal in Panama, to increase the Panamanian share of Canal revenues, to create an American-dominated Panama Canal Commission to govern the Zone and the Canal. Further they would have allowed Panama to integrate the Zone into the Panamanian republic and to absorb the entire Zone in 1999, to maintain the neutrality of the Canal, to establish joint defense of the Canal, and to bring Zonians under the jurisdiction of joint Panamanian-American courts. Once again, Panama demanded and obtained explicit recognition from the United States that Panama was sovereign over the Zone. Panama agreed to allow American military bases to remain until 2004.
To Panamanians, the United States never intended to meet Panama's legitimate demands. When the terms of the treaties became known in Panama, the Panamanian National Assembly rejected them for giving Americans control over the Commission and for allowing long-term leases on the military bases. The leading candidates for the 1968 Panamanian presidential elections, David Samudio and Arnulfo Arias, roundly condemned the proposed treaties as a sellout to the United States. Robles' efforts to get further concessions from Washington failed, and the proposed treaties died.(5)
From the Panamanian nationalist's perspective, traditional Panamanian leaders were either stooges of the United States or simply interested in preserving their personal interests; thus, Canal negotiations dragged on for years until the two nations finally agreed to terms unfavorable to Panama. Some believed that Arias was the United States candidate. Others resented the efforts of Robles' government to implement the U.S.-backed Alliance for Progress program proposed by Samudio; the program meant they would have to pay more taxes. Panamanian political elites contested with each other for the spoils of public office, and were more interested in preserving their privileged position within Panamanian society or vis-a-vis the United States than they were in furthering Panamanian interests. They were little interested in the well-being of the average Panamanian, who was poor, black or mestizo, and marginal within the Panamanian political system. Thus, by 1968, there was widespread dissatisfaction not only with Panama's inability to obtain more favorable terms from the United States but also with the nature of the political system; to many Panamanians, the two were intertwined. The only political force capable of effecting change was the National Guard, which historically had been the enforcement arm of the traditional elites.
Colonel Omar Torrijos, the commander of the National Guard, exploited the widespread dissatisfaction with the political system to overthrow the Robles government in a bloodless coup d'etat in October, 1968, and created a populist, nationalistic military dictatorship. The Guard, composed mostly of blacks and mestizos, represented those sectors of the population which had not fared well in Panamanian history. Torrijos, himself a mestizo, started rural development programs, urban housing projects, and more equitable employee-employer relations through a new labor code, both to build popular support for his regime and to redress the grievances of the average Panamanian. He increased corporate and personal taxes to fund these programs. With the technical advice of the United States, Panama instituted new banking laws in 1970 to make the country an offshore banking haven in an effort to generate new revenues. Torrijos' new constitution in 1972 institutionalized these changes and, more importantly, guaranteed that the Guard would be the nation's dominant political institution.
Torrijos moved quickly to reassure the Nixon administration that the Panamanian reform program did not threaten U.S. interests, but he pressed the treaty revision issue. Torrijos recognized that Washington enjoyed a virtual veto power over Panamanian affairs, and that all efforts to reform Panama depended upon obtaining a new treaty from Washington. By 1970, Nixon agreed to start discussions again on the Canal. Torrijos patiently waited as the negotiations proceeded and then through the 1972 American presidential elections, understanding that the Canal issue was an explosive one in American politics. By 1973, however, Panama faced serious economic difficulties, for revenues lagged behind expenditures. Washington did not sense the same urgency as did Torrijos, faced as he was with nationalistic demands to gain control of the Canal, to resolve the sovereignty issue once and for all.
Torrijos forced Nixon's hand. He invited the Security Council of the United Nations to hold its March, 1973 meeting in Panama City and arranged for the introduction of a moderate resolution supporting Panama's position on the Canal. Thirteen of the fifteen Council members voted for it. To block its passage, the United States had to cast only its third veto since 1945. Torrijos had managed to focus world opinion on American recalcitrance and embarrass the United States. Later, when Panamanian nationalists threatened to march into the Zone and take control, Torrijos stated that if an angry mob marched on the Zone he would lead .(6) Serious negotiations then began, resulting in the February, 1974, joint "Statement of Principles" by Panamanian Foreign Minister Juan Antonio Tack and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Panama wanted more than Washington was willing to concede. By the Kissinger-Tack understanding, the United States agreed to a new treaty with a fixed termination date, to return the Zone to Panama in stages, to give the United States specified rights to operate and defend the canal in conjunction with Panama during the life of treaty, and to guarantee that Panama would get fair and equitable share of revenues. By March, 1975, however, the two nations were deadlocked, for Panama refused to give the United States a forty or fifty year lease on military bases, to allow the United States to occupy as much territory as it wanted, or to allow the American control of the Canal to last as long as the Americans wanted.(7) Panama demanded complete control over the canal by the year 2000. Panamanians also wanted equal pay for equal work in the canal zone. The average Panamanian wage was $3,000 yearly while that of U.S. administrative personnel was over $12,000 and of U.S. manual workers over $9,000. Panama demanded full control over police-fire protection and health and sanitation. Panama demanded that the U.S. retain only the 4% of the Zone's land used by the Canal itself and retain land sufficient for only three military installations.
By the mid-1970s, technological change had gradually made the Canal less important. The Canal and the Zone no longer had much economic and strategic importance, for the development of a two-ocean navy, nuclear submarines and carriers, long-range bombers and missiles reduced, if not eliminated, the Canal's strategic importance and the necessity of maintaining military bases there. Further, the development of excellent ground transportation within the United States and the construction of gigantic ships reduced the commercial importance of the Canal; by the 1960s, approximately 80% of the Canal's traffic was Latin American. By 1975, only 16% of total U.S. import and export tonnage passed through the Canal; in monetary terms, only 8%. The Canal influenced less than 1% of the American GNP.(8)
Moreover, Torrijos, unlike previous Panamanian leaders, saw the end of American colonialism as the necessary centerpiece of his efforts to transform Panama into an independent, modern state, and he had both the popular support and Guard muscle to implement his goals. Further, he supported the United States on other issues to demonstrate that Panama was a reliable ally. Even so, Torrijos had to tread lightly through the quagmire of both Panamanian and American politics. Domestic troubles mounted when the Panamanian economy ceased growing, the Guard showed signs of restiveness, and leftists criticized the proposed treaties as being too favorable to the United States, especially for granting too much military power to Washington. Ronald Reagan, in an effort to wrest the Republican presidential nomination from President Gerald Ford, made an issue of the proposed treaties, falsely asserting that the Zone was sovereign American territory. Torrijos patiently awaited the results of the American election before pressing for consummation of the negotiations.
Once Carter defeated Ford for the American presidency, Torrijos successfully launched a well-financed campaign to convince the U.S. Senate to ratify the two treaties, signed in 1977. An American public relations firm was hired to bombard key Americans with pro-treaties propaganda, ranging from published statements by military men, church leaders, academics, and prominent political figures to speaking tours by pro-treaties advocates. Throughout the campaign, Panama and its friends insisted that Panama be allowed to achieve its own destiny without American interference. As Panamanian Foreign Minister González Revilla put it,
It is very wise to bear in mind that the problem is one of abolishing a colonial enclave which in the three quarters of a century of its existence has imposed discriminatory practices, unequivocally prejudicial to human rights...(9)
Panamanians were alarmed by the De Concini Amendment to the Neutrality Treaty, for it seemed to vitiate Panamanian efforts to gain complete control over Panama. The amendment gave the United States or Panama the right to act independently of the other nation, restricted only by each nation's constitutional requirements, to intervene militarily to reopen the Canal if it were closed or to insure its operations if they were blocked. The Panamanian Independent Lawyers Movement argued that the amendment was reproachable and clearly gave the U.S. the right to intervene in affairs that were solely of concern to Panamanians. Torrijos complained to the United Nations.(10) Panamanian students took to the streets to protest the amendment. The issue seemed resolved by a Senate resolution accompanying the ratification which asserted that the De Concini amendment "will not be interpreted as a right of intervention in the internal affairs of the Republic of Panama nor of interference in its political independence nor the integrity of its sovereignty."(11)
When the treaties were finally ratified in 1978, Panamanians rejoiced, believing that they had finally achieved full nationhood. They had accepted the original treaties by a 506,927-245,112 vote in a national plebiscite in October, 1977, and the U.S. had weakened the De Concini Amendment.(12) Such was not the case. Panamanians believed that the Treaty Concerning the Permanent Neutrality and Operation of the Panama Canal would mean that the United States would no longer intervene militarily in Panamanian domestic politics. In Article II both nations agreed that the Canal would be open to peaceful transit in time of peace and in time of war, and in Article IV stipulated that both the United States and Panama agreed "to maintain the regime of neutrality established in this Treaty." Each nation, on its own accord, was permitted to take military action to prevent the closure of the Canal. When doubt arose as to what this meant in terms of American intervention in Panamanian internal affairs, Panama obtained a joint statement of interpretation, a codicil to the Neutrality Treaty, which asserted that "however, the United States would not have the right, nor would it intend, to intervene in the political processes or internal affairs of Panama."(13) To Panamanians, this U.S. promise was co-equal with the return of the Zone to full Panamanian control.
Thoughtful Panamanians, however, openly criticized the new treaties for maintaining American hegemony over Panama. To them, the Neutrality Treaty guaranteed neither Panamanian independence and neutrality nor the neutrality of the Canal. The United States had asserted that the Canal could not be defended militarily; yet, the treaties allowed Washington, at its own discretion, to maintain and utilize troops in Panama, and to do so even after the Canal became wholly Panamanian in 2000. If the Canal was militarily indefensible, no troops need be stationed in Panama; the presence of American troops, instead, provided a constant threat to Panamanian sovereignty, served only the geopolitical interests of the United States, and invited attacks on Panama in time of war. What the Canal needed, instead, was a strong, well-trained police force to protect it against sabotage. Instead, the United States had militarized Panama.(14)
To most Panamanians, however, the Canal Treaties were a national political victory, one removed the principal irritant between the two nations. Panama was slowly but surely regaining control of its national territory, a process to be completed at midnight, December 21, 1999. The United States had agreed to cease military interventions in Panamanian domestic affairs. Panama insisted that the School of the Americas leave Panama; it did in 1984. The United States quietly watched but did not intervene as Panamanian politicians used coups, elections, and vote fraud to gain power after Torrijos died in a airplane crash in 1981.
Former Guard intelligence chief Manual Antonio Noriega emerged as the new Panamanian strongman in 1983. Noriega reorganized all the nation's public security forces into the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF), which he headed, thus insuring his personal control of the nation. Further, he justified enlarging the PDF on the grounds that it was necessary to protect the Canal.(15) Presidents came and went, their tenure dependent upon their favor with Noriega. Noriega, like Torrijos before him, propagandized Panamanians that the military regime was protected under a "Pentagon umbrella."(16) Noriega worked closely with U.S. agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the White House, supplying intelligence data to the United States but also allowing Panamanian territory to be used by Americans and the Nicaraguan Contras as an operating base for the United States' anti-Nicaragua policy. Noriega also conveniently ignored the fact that the presence of SOUTHCOM, with its mission of being the U.S. military command for Latin America, violated the treaties, for its purpose was explicitly more than the defense of the Canal.
Some Panamanians expressed concern over such a policy,(17) but Noriega deflected much of this opposition with active Panamanian participation in the Contadora group, which opposed Washington policy in El Salvador and Nicaragua. When a Panamanian nationalist immolated himself in front of the U.S. embassy in January, 1984 to protest U.S. violations of the treaties and its Central American policies, Panama's National Legislative Council declared him a national martyr,(18) but did little else. In return for Noriega's support of the most important Washingtonian policies, the United States ignored the increasing brutality of the Noriega regime and its involvement in such unsavory activities as drug trafficking and money laundering.
Noriega's special relationship with the United States and his nefarious activities became widely-known in Panama in the mid-1980s, converting perceptions of him from being a nationalist hero to a thug dictator. Panamanians increasingly became disenchanted, led by Noriega's most vocal critic, Dr. Hugo Spadafora. Panamanians were shocked when Spadafora's decapitated body was found just inside Costa Rica in September, 1985, for such political violence was uncharacteristic of Panamanian politics. The United States suddenly suspended five million dollars in aid. In 1986, relations between the two nations deteriorated further. Noriega refused permission to the United States to train Contras in the Zone. Reports began circulating that Noriega was providing aid to the U.S. opponents, the Soviet Union, Cuba and Nicaragua. United States officials begin charging Noriega with substantive involvement in illicit drug trafficking, money laundering, and arms trading.
Panamanian-U.S. relations worsened in 1987. Retired Colonel Roberto Díaz claimed in June, 1987 that Noriega had rigged the 1984 presidential elections, ordered the murder of Spadafora, and engineered Torrijos' death. The revelations touched off riots, and Panamanians attacked the United States embassy with rocks and paint to protest U.S. support of Noriega. The revelations prompted the formation of the anti-Noriega National Civic Crusade. The United States Senate passed a resolution calling for Noriega's resignation, and the Reagan administration suspended military and economic aid, amidst charges by Washington officials that Noriega was an active participant in the drug trade. Noriega clamped down on domestic opposition while marshalling his forces to protest American actions. The Panamanian Legislative Assembly demanded the expulsion of the United States ambassador and accused the United States of interventionist aggression. About 500 demonstrators attacked the U.S. embassy and consulate as well as American business establishments in Panama City. Noriega obtained an Organization of American States resolution accusing the United States of unwarranted intervention in Panamanian affairs. A summer, 1987 Gallup poll indicated that 75% of Panama's urban population wanted Noriega to step down, and a July, 1987 nationwide strike indicated that rural areas had also quit supporting Noriega. Washington suspended all military and economic aid.
Although the National Civic Crusade stepped up its efforts to reduce or eliminate Noriega's power, Washington inadvertently strengthened Noriega by allowing him to wrap himself in the Panamanian flag. After two U.S. grand juries indicted him as a drug trafficker in February, 1988, Noriega argued that "this is simply another aggression against Panama by the United States."(19) The U.S. Senate also branded Noriega as a drug trafficker.(20) Encouraged by the United States, President Eric A. Delvalle, who had been put into office by Noriega under dubious circumstances, ordered Noriega's dismissal as commander of the PDF but the Noriega-controlled Legislative Assembly dismissed Delvalle and appointed a pro-Noriega man as acting president. Washington continued to recognize Delvalle as the legitimate Panamanian president, however, and stepped up economic and diplomatic pressure on Panama. Noriega easily suppressed a March coup attempt by police chief Colonel Leonidas Macías. The Panamanian Roman Catholic Church, Panamanian civilian employees of the Canal and United States military facilities, and many Panamanian opposition leaders opposed Washington's tactics. The Authentic Panamanian Party (PPA) and the Popular Action Party (PAP), both anti-Noriega, in early April, 1988, opposed United States policy towards removing Noriega and stressed a national, popular solution. Roberto Eisenmann, an opposition leader living in Miami, explained that "we felt [U.S. officials] were giving away the store. Unfortunately, they were giving away our store."(21)
The United States government realized that it had to turn Panamanian public opinion against Noriega if it wanted to avoid further arousing Panamanian nationalism and pursued a dual policy to oust Noriega. The National Civic Crusade, which many saw as a U.S.-front organization, supported the sanctions, and worked closely with the Reagan administration to bring down Noriega. The Crusade demonstrated in the streets against the dictator, who responded with violent repression. Publicly, Congress held numerous hearings to publicize Noriega's involvement in drug trafficking and supported Executive Branch decisions to levy economic sanctions against Panama. Noriega, for his part, helped turn opinion against himself by publicly suppressing his domestic opposition with tough measures. Out of the public spotlight, administration officials tried to convince Noriega to leave voluntarily while also conducting psychological operations to weaken his support inside Panama. Reports that Noriega was seeking the active support of Fidel Castro, importing leftist guerrillas, and suffering from mental instability appeared in the Panamanian and American media. Noriega, in fact, was seeking support from the Latin American left to counter American pressure but, in doing so, he further alienated Panamanian nationalists, who wanted no foreign influence in their country. By November, 1988, a poll taken in Panama indicated strong opposition to Noriega.
Panamanian public opinion definitively turned against Noriega and in favor of U.S. military intervention when Noriega stole the May, 1989 elections and ordered his minions to beat the opposition presidential and vice presidential candidates when they led a massive protest of the electoral fraud. Noriega's newly-constituted Dignity Battalions had overstepped the bounds of acceptable Panamanian political practice, and done so in front of the international media. The Panamanian Roman Catholic Church denounced the regime for the fraud and violence, calling for Panamanians to withdraw their support of the dictator. The United States recognized the victory of opposition leader Guillermo Endara. Panamanians openly began suggesting that either a military coup or U.S. military intervention might be the only way to oust the dictator.
Elements of the Panamanian Defense Force failed to overthrow Noriega in October, 1989. Noriega executed the ringleaders and reorganized the PDF to insure its loyalty. He also sought to neutralize other dissidents, some of whom fled to the Zone and U.S. protection. The thug dictator seemed invincible. Elections, Organization of American States diplomacy, and an attempted military coup had all failed. Noriega was tightening his grip on the nation, strangling it for his personal ends. In December, 1989, Noriega, growing bolder by his seeming ability to act with impunity, harassed U.S. personnel and had the national assembly assert that Panama was in a state of emergency because of U.S. aggression. For both the average Panamanian and for Washington, Noriega had gone too far.
Confronted with this intolerable situation, Panamanians welcomed Operation Just Cause even though U.S. military intervention did not meet the strict guidelines of the neutrality treaty. The only legal grounds for U.S. intervention is to prevent closure of the Canal; the U.S. had specifically signed away all other rights to intervene. Noriega had not threatened to close the Canal. By closing the Canal during the invasion (the only time it has ever been closed), the United States gave the Panamanian government the right, under both Panamanian and U.S. law, to resist by military means. This issue was clouded, however, by the problem of which was the legitimate government of Panama.
Regardless of the legality or illegality of Operation Just Cause, Panamanians initially, at least, supported the invasion and the capture of Noriega(22), and the installation of Guillermo Endara as the new president of the republic. By December 20, 1989, Panamanians had so despaired of ridding themselves of the tyrannical dictator that even usurpation of their nation's sovereignty seemed preferable to his continuance in power. Such a euphoric response was unlikely to endure, however, and more thoughtful Panamanians realized that not much had changed in U.S.-Panamanian relations since 1903. The relationship between the two nations remained as unequal as it had been in 1903. Washington could and did manipulate the Panamanian economy at will even though doing so caused suffering for innocent Panamanians. Endara was as much a part of the U.S. colonial system as former presidents had been. In the disputed election of May, 1989, he had benefited from the expenditure of millions of dollars in American funds. He and his vice president had been sworn into office on an American military base shortly before the invasion and then had to be protected by the U.S. military for several days. While the Panamanian business and professional classes, from which Endara and his vice presidents come, clearly supported the new government, Endara's government had few ties to the majority of Panamanians--farmers, laborers, and the urban middle sectors. U.S. military forces were still the key to power in Panama, treaties notwithstanding. Panamanians realized that the longevity of the Endara government depended upon the U.S. military and U.S. economic aid. In short, Panama was a client state.
1. Ricaurte Soler, Pensamiento Panameño y Concepción de la Nacionalidad durante el Siglo XIX (Panama: Librería Cultural Panameño, 1971), 99-100.
2. Bernal, Miguel Antonio, Los tratados Carter-Torrijos: una traición histórica 2nd ed. (Panama: Edicones Nari, 1985), 34-35; E. Bradford Burns, "Panama: A Search for Independence," Current History (February, 1977), 67.
3. Walter LaFeber, The Panama Canal: The Crisis in Historical Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).
4. Daniel Goldrich, Sons of the Establishment: Elite Youths in Panama and Costa Rica (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1966).
5. LaFeber, The Panama Canal, 147-8.
6. LaFeber, The Panama Canal, 184.
7. "The Panama Canal: Old Myths and New Realities," The Defense Monitor, V:6 (August 1976), 1-8.
8. 8. "Old Myths and New Realities," 1-8.
9. Nicolás González Revilla, Panamanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Statement to the General Assembly, Organization of American States, June 15, 1977, published as United Nations, General Assembly circular #77-12182. See also, Marcos G. McGrath, C.S.C. [Archbishop of Panama], "The Panama Canal: A Test Case," in The Panama Canal and Social Justice (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1976), edited by Margaret D. Wilde. pp. 5-11.
10. J. Conte-Porras, Del Tratado Hay-Bunau-Varilla a los tratados Torrijos-Carter (Panama: Biblioteca José Agustín Arango Ch., 1981), 144-46. See G. Harvey Summ and Tom Kelly, eds., The Good Neighbors: America, Panama, and the 1977 Canal Treaties (Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1988) for an excellent account of the negotiation and ratifications processes and Panamanian reactions to them.
11. Conte-Porras, Del Tratado, 155?
12. Conte-Porras, Del Tratado, 142.
13. See Amendment (a,1) to the Neutrality Treaty, found in Instrumento de Ratificación de la República de Panamá del Tratado Concerniente a la Neutralidad Permanente del Canal y al Funcionamiento del Canal de Panama, and United States. Department of State. The Defense and Neutrality of the Panama Canal Under the New Treaties. Special Report No. 37. (Washington: Bureau of Public Affairs, Department of State, 1977), 3.
14. Carlos Bolívar Pedreschi, "Las enmiendas y la intervención norteamericana en Panamá," Matutino, March 30, 1978, reprinted in Carlos Bolívar Pedreschi De la protección del Canal a la militarización del pais (Panama, 1987); Miguel Antonio Bernal, Los tratados Carter-Torrijos, 76-8.
15. See Carlos Bolívar Pedreschi, "Carta sobre la Ley Orgánica de las Fuerzas de Defensa," October 21, 1983, reprinted in Pedreschi, De la protección del Canal, 65-69. Pedreschi, one of Panama's most distinguished jurists, argues that the creation of the PDF was unconstitutional.
16. David Norman Miller, "Panama and U.S. Policy," Global Affairs, IV:3 (Summer 1989), 136.
17. See Pedreschi, De la protección del Canal, 53-56.
18. La Prensa, January 12, 1984.
19. Nancy Cooper, et al., "Drugs, Money and Death," Newsweek (February 15, 1988), 32.
20. United States. Senate. Committee on Foreign Relations. Drugs, Law Enforcement, and Foreign Policy: Panama. Hearings before the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Communications, United States Senate, 100th Congress, 2nd sess., 1988; and United States. Senate. Committee on Foreign Relations. Drugs, Law Enforcement, and Foreign Policy: The Cartel, Haiti and Central America. Hearings before the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Communications, United States Senate, 100th Congress, 2nd sess., 1988.
21. Tom Morgenthau, et al., "Anatomy of a Fiasco," Newsweek (June 6, 1988), 39.
22. See the Washington Post, December 27, 1989, for examples of Panamanian attitudes. Panamanian Archbishop Marcos McGrath, as quoted in MacLean's (January 8, 1990), p. 17, said that he feared that a free Noriega would stir up trouble again.