Panama's Policy Toward the U.S.: Living With Big Brother
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 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
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
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
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),
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),
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
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