The truth behind US’ Operation Just Cause in Panama

The more history that can be exhumed, the harder it will be for the US to hide behind noble intentions in the future.

General Colin Powell, centre, head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff during the operation, tours the bombed courtyard of the Panamanian Defense Force Comandancia in Panama City [Getty]

On January 31, 1990, the US invasion of Panama – dubbed Operation Just Cause – officially came to a close. While the US military has consistently lowballed the Panamanian death count of the short-lived affair, other observers have put the number of fatalities at several thousand.

As media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) noted at the time, Just Cause saw the impoverished Panama City neighbourhood of El Chorillo pulverised to the point of being referred to by ambulance drivers as “Little Hiroshima”. In other words, no surgical strikes here.

Indeed, the foray into Panama was the largest US combat operation since the Vietnam War. The US government trotted out various noble justifications for the operation, such as improving the lot of the Panamanians by hauling their dictator, General Manuel Noriega, off to the US to face drug-trafficking charges.

This was the same Noriega, of course, who had for years been a US favourite, occupying a prominent position on the CIA’s payroll despite common knowledge of his involvement in the international drug trade.

When the general began to show signs of less-than-obsequiousness to US regional designs, however, he was rendered persona non grata by the self-appointed chaperones of the hemisphere.

A whole lot of birds

In typical fashion, the gringos managed to kill a whole lot of birds with the Just Cause stone. In addition to capturing Noriega – who was driven out of his refuge at the Vatican embassy in Panama by US troops blasting rock music in the direction of the compound – the US also reasserted its power in the area and conducted a trial run of military equipment for upcoming action in the Middle East.

As for the human beings killed by the same stone, Panama is now launching a truth commission to determine just what happened 26 years ago.

Given that the Panamanian poor bore the brunt of the invasion, a truth commission that sets out to count and name the victims once and for all ... is certainly a step in the right direction.


A recent Telesur English article notes that the investigation will aim “to identify the victims and reclaim the country’s collective memory”, as well as to “pave the way for reparations to be paid to families of the victims and for the history to be honoured in school curriculums and public monuments”.

The article adds that many of the Just Cause corpses had “remained unidentified after being burned and piled up in the streets”.

To be sure, any effort towards establishing a collective memory should be enthusiastically encouraged in a country where “collective” has never really been an operative objective. Obscene socioeconomic polarisation instead has been the name of the game.

For an idea of how this disparity is harnessed for imperial ends, consider a passage from FAIR’s critique of the US media’s leap on to the Just Cause bandwagon – from which vantage point said media determined that Panamanians were, in fact, totally in favour of the death and destruction being rained upon their country:

“Few [American] TV reporters seemed to notice that the jubilant Panamanians parading before their cameras day after day to endorse the invasion spoke near-perfect English and were overwhelmingly light-skinned and well-dressed.”

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In case we, too, missed the moral of the story, FAIR reminds us that Panama is “a Spanish-speaking country with a largely mestizo and black population where poverty is widespread.”

Given that the Panamanian poor bore the brunt of the invasion, a truth commission that sets out to count and name the victims once and for all – thus granting them humanity even in death – is certainly a step in the right direction.

‘Dying to use that stuff’

This is not, incidentally, the first truth commission set up by Panama; in 2001, a previous commission was launched to investigate human rights violations that took place during the rule of Noriega and his predecessor Omar Torrijos. On this particular occasion, Operation Just Cause was not up for scrutiny.

Throughout much of the rest of Latin America, truth commissions have been a regular feature of the landscape – in El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru and other locations where gross rights violations and even genocidal policies were carried out over lengthy periods of time with varying levels of encouragement and support from the helpful North American neighbour.


The uniqueness of the Panamanian case, however, is that Just Cause was not a proxy war or an example of behind-the-scenes manoeuvres by the US. Instead, it was a straightforward assault, evidence of the US being “mesmerised with firepower”, as one of the US commanders of the operation later put it: “We have all these new gadgets, laser-guided missiles and stealth fighters, and we are just dying to use that stuff.”

Implementing a truth commission in Panama hardly constitutes dragging the US to trial for its murderous fun with gadgets. But the more incriminating history that can be exhumed, the harder it will be for the US to hide behind honourable intentions in the future – and that’s the truth.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.