The Panama Deception
The 1989 US invasion eventually killed an estimated 4,000 civilians and leveled densely populated urban areas. It was vindicated through the notion that then President Manuel Noriega was an imminent threat to Panamanian democracy and American lives.
“Last Friday Noriega declared his military dictatorship to be in a state of war with the United States and publicly threatened the lives of Americans in Panama,” explained former President George H.W. Bush in December of 1989 regarding why the US was invading Panama.
However, journalists and historians insist the real cause for war were maintaining US control of the Panama Canal, Central America and US military bases in Panama.
However, major US media played a key role in selling the invasion to the American people.
Tom Brokaw of NBC reported a week before the war, “The United States declared in effect Panama’s Manuel Noriega is a threat to this country’s national security.”
What wasn’t mentioned that was Noriega had been Washington’s strongman for nearly two decades. While Bush Sr. was head of the CIA, he increased Noriega’s payroll to $100,000 dollars a year.
But as Noriega’s obedience to the US faltered, the US feared losing control of the vital Panama Canal and the closure of its strategically important military bases.
“They demonized Noriega as a means to be able to bomb and attack his country and that is what they did,” said Michael Parenti, an author and political scientist.
“Panamanian deaths were simply not of interest to the major mainstream media. The interest was solely on American deaths. The US media were puppets for this military campaign,” commented Barbara Trent, the director of the academy award winning documentary “The Panama Deception”.
During the making of Trent’s documentary film, she faced barricades from the US military. While filming thousands of refugees living inside plane hangars, military officials tried to detain Trent to prevent her from filming. However, the Panamanian refugees surrounded Trent’s filming crew and they were able to conduct interviews.
One refugee told Trent, "We want to get out of this Goddamn place, we're tired of this! This is not no democracy! They [US] are worse than Noriega, they are plenty worse!!"
The refugees painted a grim picture that did not reflect in the US media coverage.
“The media stopped acting like the media, and acted as it has done in the Iraq as a cheer leading section,” said Parenti.
Years later, the Panama plot for war – with a US ally morphing from friend to foe – would take center stage in the run-up to the Gulf Wars.
Former President George W. Bush announced in 2003 during his State of the Union address, “If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm, for the safety of our people and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him.”
“George Bush Sr. was very close to Noriega and Saddam Hussein, both of these men where on the CIA payroll,” Parenti explained.
The Bush administration line was echoed, most times without questioning, by the media.Top news networks also had their foreign correspondents embedded with the military and were given front row seats to the shock and awe campaign.
“So these symbols are often hatched by messengers coming out often of the White House, Pentagon, and State Department and it should be said often in collaboration with the TV networks,” explained media critic Norman Soloman regarding how the US government uses the media to gain support for foreign policy initiatives.
While 21 years have passed since the US launched operation Just Cause in Panama the successful blueprint for rallying public support for war continues to be replicated with mainstream media rarely dissenting. As the military receives record budget allotments, those on America’s threat list, such as Iran, Yemen, and North Korea, have become subject to the same media campaign as during previous US military interventions.
Jacob G. Hornberge, the president of the Future of Freedom Foundation said the invasion of Panama is merely another example of the American imperialist enterprise.
“This is one of the classic imperial enterprises that the US engaged in after the Spanish American War, which is widely recognized to be the time when the United States turned toward empire,” he said. “This began the 110 year obsession with controlling Cuba, the conquest of the Philippines, refusal to let them have independence and then four years later began this quest to institute and build the Panama Canal.”
He argued the US inspired the revolution that lead to the Panamanian succession from Columbia in order to give the US access to construct the canal.
Later on, the US allied with Noriega, a known drug pusher. The US then used the drug war as an excuse to take him on when he pulled away from US control.
The US used the argument of ‘defending freedom and democracy’ to invade Panama, explained Jeff Cohen, a journalism professor at Ithaca College in New York.The media is quick to cover incidents of American deaths, but rarely addressed the issues of civilians in conflict zones.
“Day after day I was calling the TV networks in this country and asking them, how come there’s no coverage of all the civilian deaths? It’s the main story about the Panama invasion in every mainstream media in the world, except ours,” he said. “Day by day, we had, in other countries, a central question in mainstream media, is it legal for the United States to invade Panama in order to kidnap its head of state? It was clearly illegal under the UN Charter, under the Organization of American States, but in this country those questions about civilian casualties, those questions about illegality under international law just didn’t come up.
Hornberge added that US media operate in a “we” mentality. They are not independent; they work as part of the governmental itself covering only the American view.
Former CIA intelligence analyst David MacMichael explained the situation in Panama is actually quite familiar to a more recent US invasion, the invasion of Iraq.
Noriega in Panama can be easily compared to Saddam Husain in Iraq, he argued. Both were once strong US allies placed into power by the United States who later become trouble.
“Saddam Husain, who was a long time ally, if you will, of the United States, we helped pretty much to put him in power,” said MacMichael. “We certainly encouraged him in his war against our main enemy in the area, Iran, with big loans and provisions of various types of military equipment and technology and then of course Saddam Husain was turned against us.”
Unlike Iraq, the Panama invasion had more to do with the reputation and image of George Bush Sr., who was seen as indecisive, he explained. Bush Jr., on the other hand, branded himself as a decision maker.