Victims and survivors of the 1989 invasion of Panama by the US held a public ceremony on Dec. 20 to mark the 25th anniversary of the start of the military action. As they have for 25 years, the ceremony's participants called for the US government to acknowledge the damage from the invasion, indemnify the victims and their survivors, and reveal the location of mass graves where some of the dead were buried. "There were bodies that were thrown in the sea, and there are bodies scattered in different places, so we can never finally offer them a tribute," Trinidad Ayola, whose husband died defending an airport, told AFP. "Without justice there can't be peace or reconciliation, and we can't turn the page." President Juan Carlos Varela attended the ceremony, announcing that the government would form a commission to consider the families' demands, including the declaration of Dec. 20 as a national day of mourning. He is the first Panamanian president to attend the annual commemoration.
Codenamed "Operation Just Cause," the invasion was ordered by then-president George H.W. Bush (1989-1993) and overseen by armed forces head Gen. Colin Powell. The stated goal was to capture Panamanian military leader Manuel Antonio Noriega, a longtime asset of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in order to restore democracy and end cocaine trafficking through Panama. Others have suggested that Bush invaded because Noriega refused to help the US attack the government of Nicaragua, then headed by the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), and because he wouldn't renegotiate the Torrijos-Carter treaty, in which the US agreed to return control of the Panama Canal to Panama in 1999. After serving out a prison sentence in the US, Noriega was extradited to Panama in 2011 and remains in prison there.
According to official sources, 314 Panamanian soldiers and 23 US soldiers died in the invasion. The Panamanian government says some 200 civilians were killed, but Panamanian human rights organizations estimate that more than a thousand died. US bombing caused widespread damage in the country, setting off fires in Panama City's impoverished El Chorrillo neighborhood that destroyed some 4,000 homes.
Panamanians may not have been the only victims of the invasion. Writing in TomDispatch on Dec. 21, New York University history professor Greg Grandin concluded that the success of "Just Cause"—both in achieving its military goals and in influencing US public opinion—encouraged US leaders to larger and even bloodier military interventions. "[T]he invasion of Panama was the forgotten warm-up for the first Gulf War, which took place a little over a year later," according to Grandin. "The road to Baghdad, in other words, ran through Panama City. It was George H.W. Bush's invasion of that small, poor country 25 years ago that inaugurated the age of preemptive unilateralism, using ‘democracy' and ‘freedom' as both justifications for war and a branding opportunity." (El Siglo, Panama, Dec. 18 from AFP; Fox News Latino, Dec. 21; TomDispatch, Dec. 21)
From Weekly News Update on the Americas, December 21.