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Thursday, April 15, 2021

April 15, 2021: Latin American Invasions: Panama

[April 17th marks the 50th anniversary of the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy U.S. invasions and interventions of Latin American nations, leading up to a weekend Guest Post on the Dominican Republic from a colleague, friend, and DR scholar!]

On what it would mean to truly grapple with our history of alliances with dictators.

In this post from almost exactly two years ago, on the anniversary of the famous toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad, I wrote at length about the history of American relationships to brutal dictators. I likewise dealt with those histories in this Saturday Evening Post column on America’s longstanding and complex relationship to a neighboring nation to Saddam’s Iraq, Iran. Those Middle Eastern nations and histories are of course far from the only ones that feature American alliances with dictators—indeed, from South Vietnam to South Africa to South America, the history of American foreign policy in the 20th century is dominated by such cozy relationships with brutal regimes and leaders. And perhaps nowhere and in no period is that history more prominent than in the Caribbean and Central America in the second half of the 20th century, as the bogeyman of Communism led the United States into alliance after alliance with some of the period’s most violent and horrific dictatorial leaders and governments (many of them, indeed, trained at the School of the Americas).

For more than three decades, Panama’s Manuel Noriega was simply another one of those allies. Noriega trained at the School of the Americas in the 1950s and became a CIA asset in that same era, and he would remain in that role for more than 30 years, much of it spent as chief of military intelligence in the brutal regime of President Omar Torrijos. When Torrijos died in 1981, Noriega took over as president, and seems to have brought even more blatant illegality to his administration, all while remaining an asset and ally of the United States. It was only when the U.S. learned toward the decade’s end that Noriega likewise had relationships with other nations and their intelligence agencies (and with drug traffickers, but I would argue that it was much more the former that truly offended the CIA) that the relationship began to sour. In 1988 federal grand juries in Florida indicted Noriega on racketeering, money laundering, and drug trafficking charges; he naturally refused extradition, and the George H.W. Bush administration took that opportunity to invade Panama in late December 1989. The United Nations General Assembly voted to condemn the invasion as a “flagrant violation of international law,” but it succeeded at capturing Noriega and installing a new U.S. ally, Guillermo Endara, as the new president in his place.

Noriega was a dictator and criminal, and Endara seems to have represented a real change, a leader who truly sought to bring democracy to Panama. Yet any explanation of the U.S. invasion which focuses on that democratizing effect needs to grapple with the inarguable fact that for the prior decade of Noriega’s rule—and the prior two decades of Torrijos’—the United States maintained an alliance with the nation’s dictatorial regime instead. It was the relationship, rather than our commitment to democracy, which changed (a sentence which could be applied quite similarly to the Bush administration’s other foreign war, with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq). None of that makes the goal of a more democratic Panama any less meaningful—but that story should both center on figures like Endara and feature the United States as a longstanding opponent of democratization. Until we can truly begin to grapple with that American role around the world, for at least the entire second half of the 20th century (and, as this week’s series reflects, well before that), our sense of both U.S. and global history will remain partial at best and blatantly propagandistic at worst.

Last InvasionStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other US-Latin America histories you’d highlight?

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