President Bush meets with Marlin Fitzwater, Governor Sununu and General Scowcroft in the Oval Office before the Panama briefing. 11 May 1989, Photo credit: George Bush Presidential Library and Museum
By Ambassador Juan B. Sosa
This year marks three decades since U.S. forces took Panama’s “strong man” Manuel Antonio Noriega into custody following Operation Just Cause, which was launched by President George H. W. Bush. It is a historic milestone worth noting, as it offered a hopeful turning point for my country, Panama – an important and longstanding U.S. ally in the region. As President Eric Delvalle’s Ambassador to the U.S. at this pivotal time, I was privileged to lead Panama’s Government-in-Exile in Washington, DC after President Delvalle’s overthrow in February of 1988 until August of 1989. That made me an active participant of this historic period, helping shape some of the critical events that took place.
Prior to Noriega’s removal from office in 1990, Panama was in upheaval. The economy was in shambles; civil liberties were abrogated; Panamanians were leaving the country; and independent media had been silenced. As Commander of the Panama Defense Forces, General Noriega was backed by a military force of 12,000 soldiers. It was a de facto dictatorship, and under his illegitimate regime both human rights and international protocols were flaunted.
On Thursday, February 25, 1988, an important lunch was arranged between Noriega and Panama’s President Eric A. Delvalle. The lunch had been arranged to formalize an agreement whereby Delvalle would propose a law limiting the leadership of a military commander to five years, retroactive, same as the term limit of the President.
The provision of this proposed law meant that on August 1988, six months after the law would have been passed, Noriega would exit the Defense Forces and become a civilian. Delvalle thought that this would pave the way for the country to return to normality, knowing that Noriega’s days had closure. The lunch would also be attended by Monsignor Sebastian Laboa, the Papal Envoy, who would act as witness and custodian of the documents that would be presented the following week to the National Assembly.
President Delvalle would never get the chance to secure Noriega’s agreement.
At 11:00 a.m. on February 25th, Noriega’s secretary called President Delvalle to cancel the lunch. No reasons were given, and no new date was offered. Delvalle felt that this was Noriega’s way of clearly saying he had no intention of going through with the agreement that had been reached days before.
Hedging his bets in case Noriega did not go through with the agreement, Delvalle had secretly filmed a video directive in which he summarily dismissed Noriega. After the lunch was cancelled, Delvalle summoned three friends to his office, and gave each a videotape of the firing with instructions to deliver them to three television stations at 5:00 p.m. that evening. Then Delvalle left for home, leaving his desk intact so as not to arise suspicions. The last chance to resolve the confrontation peacefully had been lost, and that evening Panama had entered unchartered waters, never seen before in Panama or Latin America, whereby a civilian president fired a military commander.
We don’t know what would have happened if Noriega had signed and gone through with the agreement. What we do know is that his refusal threw Panama into a tragic, downward spiral that culminated 22 months later with the American intervention. We should never forget that 23 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of innocent Panamanians lost their lives during Operation Just Cause. Many more were wounded. It was a painful ending to a sad chapter in the history of two nations that had been friends and partners for more than a century.
George Bush had been at the center of this drama beginning in his days as Vice President. In the face of Noriega’s intransigence, the Reagan administration had levied economic sanctions against Panama and supported the creation of a Government-in-Exile, run through the Embassy of Panama in Washington, DC. Later, after the 1988 election, President Bush supported and strengthened this policy, aided by his trusted fellow Houstonian – James A. Baker, III, the new Secretary of State.
Since the beginning of his term, President Bush engaged in efforts to end the nightmare of Noriega – but to no avail. Panama’s presidential election in May 1989 was nullified by Noriega after it became evident that his candidate had lost in a landslide. International election observers including former President Carter documented widespread instances of ballot fraud and voter intimidation. This ran counter to Bush’s assertion in his inaugural speech that “The days of the dictator are over.”
Events finally came to a head later that year on December 15th, when Noriega declared war against the United States in a televised speech. The following day, Panamanian forces killed a U.S. serviceman and detained and abused another service member and his wife. As a result, President Bush ordered American forces into Panama to protect American lives, restore Panamanian democracy and enforce U.S. indictments against Noriega. Operation Just Cause was launched just after midnight on December 20th. Comprised of 27,000 Marines and Army troops, including elements of the 82nd Airborne, it was the largest U.S. military deployment since the Vietnam War.
The U.S. armed forces overwhelmed the Panamanian military protecting Noriega, forcing him into hiding. He emerged several days later seeking refuge at the Vatican Embassy in Panama City and remained there until January 3, 1990 — when he turned himself into U.S. custody, and was taken to Florida to face trial. After serving time in the United States and France, Manuel Noriega died in Panama in May of 2017 while also serving time.
At the end, as options were being exhausted, President Bush acted in what he thought was the last resort. The scars left by the loss of American soldiers and Panama’s innocent citizens runs deep and only time has been able to mellow somewhat its implications and ramifications, but not erase them. It has always been a subject of conjecture if the painful ending could have been different, if the risk of having Noriega perpetuate his power would bring more sorrow and dislocation, as we are witnessing today in Venezuela. Could the continuation of the Panama tragedy become a pawn of the Cold War, bringing other countries into the fray? Was the Panama Canal and its orderly transfer in jeopardy?
Privately, President Bush spoke highly of the brave Panamanians who resisted Noriega’s dictatorship. It was difficult for him to anticipate the pain that would engulf the U.S. military and the innocent Panamanians that lost their lives. He could only hope that a free Panama would give opportunities and a better future to the country. His quest for freedom and liberty, evidenced through his decorated career, were foremost in his mind.
History has a way of moving slowly, sometimes too slow. Thirty years after the end of the conflict, Panama is a better country and Panamanians are savoring their freedom and right to make their own decisions. Panama has gone through six free and fair presidential elections, and the results have never been questioned. Some argue that the price paid was too high. History will make the final judgement, but we do hope that the experience will never be repeated. People should have the right to determine their own fate, devoid of terror and intimidation infringed by internal or external illegitimate forces.J
Juan B. Sosa served as Ambassador of Panama to the United States from October 1987 to August 1989.