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Manuel Noriega and Panama (1980s)

As early as 1971, Manuel Noriega was on the payroll of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In fact, Noriega played a pivotal role in American foreign policy in Caribbean, Central, and South America. He served as a channel for the United States for both intelligence and communication with the island nation of Cuba. He also served as the vital link between the US government and the contra groups hiding in the jungles throughout Central and South America.

It was for this, and many other reasons, that as early as the Carter administration and as late as the Reagan administration, the United States turned a blind eye to Noriega’s rampant corruption, arms and drug smuggling, election fraud in rigging the 1984 Panamanian Presidential election, and even civil rights violations. Senior officials within the American government blocked indictments and actions against Noriega because, though he was a liability to the peace and security of the region, the services he provided to the American fight against communism were too valuable.

The value that Noriega held, however, changed with the changing geopolitical climate. As communism began to fall off the map, America’s driving international focus changed from fighting a war on communism to fighting a war on drugs. In February, 1989, President George Bush declared that the most pressing problem facing the United States was the influx of drugs into the nation; at the same time, Noriega was indicted by two federal grand juries in Miami and Tampa respectively. Among the laundry-list of complaints filled, the Grand Juries charged Noriega with twelve counts of racketeering, drag trafficking, money laundering, and three counts of assisting American-based operatives to smuggle 1.4 million pounds of marijuana into the United States in return for a payment of more than $1 million. Moreover Noriega was charged with assisting the Colombian Medellin cartel in transporting more than two tons of cocaine to the United States via Panama in return for a payment of about $4.5 million, allowing the cartel to build a cocaine processing plant in Panama and of providing shelter for drug traffickers.

As the 1989 national elections approached in Panama, the Bush administration, hoping to remove Noriega through a peaceful election and being ever mindful of the rigged election in 1984, called upon various monitoring groups and organizations to send observers to Panama to ensure a fair election; one of these groups was lead by former president Jimmy Carter. According to official government results, Carlos Duque (Noriega’s handpicked candidate) won a landslide victory with a 2 to 1 margin, however, exit polls conducted by election monitors revealed that Guillermo Endara, the leading opposition candidate had, in fact, received fifty-five (55) percent of the vote to Duque’s thirty-nine (39) percent. Another monitoring group, the Catholic Bishops Conference, found that the margin of victory was even larger, with Duque winning nearly seventy-five (75) percent of the vote. In any case, the Bush administration had concrete proof that Noriega and the PDF had rigged the election.

In response to the second consecutive rigged national election, on May 11th, 1989 President Bush laid out a comprehensive plan to both encourage and scare Noriega towards a solution favorable to the United States. Among the measures listed in his plan, Bush called for diplomatic sanctions, US government employees back to the United States, American businessmen and independents to return home, economic sanction, and even dispatching a brigade (between 1,700 to 2,000 soldiers) to bolster America’s existing presence in the country.

Relations between the two nations continued to fester until December 15th, 1989, when the Panamanian National Assembly made Noriega Chief of the government and Maximum Leader of National Liberation. That same day, the National Assembly declared the nation to be in a state of war with the United States. That night, PDF stopped a U.S. military patrol car and held the officer at gunpoint. The next day, PDF forces fired at an America vehicle at a checkpoint and killed a Marine Lieutenant; two Americans who witness the incident, a Lieutenant in the Navy and his wife, were arrested by PDF troops. The man was beaten and the woman was assaulted both physically and sexually before the two were released. The following day, December 17th, 1989, President Bush held a policy meeting in which it was decided that a mere “snatching operation” would be insufficient to guarantee democracy in Panama. The United States would have to commit itself to a full-scale invasion of Panama to dismantle the PDF and establish democracy in Panama.

After a successful invasion of the Panama, the PDF regime was completely dismantled and Noriega was under siege. After a few days the standoff ended when Noriega surrendered. Within a few months, Noriega stood trial in a Florida Federal Court and was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Today, Panama stands as a freely elected democracy and one of America’s closest allies in Central America.

By Daniel L. Gordon
Volunteer for the Cold War Museum

Sources: http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/gilboa.htm

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