Bernie Sanders on the eve of Super-Tuesday famously said that the problem with regime change is "what happens after you remove a dictator like Saddam Hussein or Qaddafi."
Panama and the removal of Manuel Noriega by the 1st Bush administration in the Operation Just Cause is another good example that proves his point. Noriega's replacement, Guillermo Endara, helped to entrench rather than eradicate a climate of corruption revealed to the world last week with the leaking of the "Panama Papers."
Setting the precedent for the preemptive war in Iraq, the Operation Just Cause was carried out under the pretext of the War on Drugs (Ambassador Deane Hinton called it "the biggest drug bust in history"). It followed a long media demonization campaign against Noriega who, according to Ted Koppel, "belongs to that special fraternity of international villains, men like Qaddafi, Idi Amin and the Ayatollah Khomeini, whom Americans just love to hate."
Much like Saddam Hussein, Noriega had been a valued U.S. ally through much of the 1980s, having assisted in arms shipments to the Nicaraguan Contras. He amassed a fortune from arms smuggling, money laundering and drug trafficking and turned Panama into what Senator John Kerry, head of the Foreign Relations subcommittee on narcotics, termed a "narco-kleptocracy."
Following the Iran-Contra scandal, Noriega came to be seen in Washington as a political liability, as he had begun to support the Contadora peace process, strengthened ties with Fidel Castro and refused to renegotiate provisions in the canal treaty that mandated the removal of U.S. military bases.
To drum up public support for regime change, American government officials began leaking information about Noriega's corrupt practices, while strengthening ties with Panama's financial elite who opposed Noriega after the legislative assembly passed a law to crack down on money laundering.
During the 1988 presidential campaign, George H.W. Bush took a hard line against Noriega in order to deflect criticism for having "played footsy" with him while CIA director in the 1970s, and for his involvement in Iran-Contra. During the 1989 election, Bush funneled $10 million to the opposition and authorized a CIA operation to jam radio frequencies and initiate clandestine anti-regime broadcasts inside Panama. When it was reported that Guillermo Endara was winning by a 3-1 margin, Noriega suspended the vote and unleashed paramilitary goon squads on demonstrators.
Looking to showcase American power after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bush with the support of leading democrats like John Kerry and Edward Kennedy responded by ordering the military to conduct aggressive training maneuvers designed to provoke Noriega into a confrontation. On December 16th, an automobile carrying four Marines ran through a PDF checkpoint outside Noriega's headquarters in a section of Panama City deemed off-limits to U.S. personnel.
The Marines claimed they were lost, though an investigative report by the Armed Forces Journal and the LA Times identified them as intelligence officers with a secret group of Marine provocateurs who may have been probing Noriega's defenses. After the vehicle drove off following a verbal exchange, one of the soldiers, Lt. Robert Paz, gave a finger and was shot dead.
Paz's killing was the trigger for the launching of Operation 'Just Cause,' a two week air and ground assault involving 26,000 troops which resulted in Noriega's capture and incarceration. Condemned by the UN General Assembly as a "flagrant violation of international law," the invasion provided an opportunity for the Pentagon to display high tech weapons including AC-130 gunships equipped with 105 mm howitzers, underwater mines, high frequency satellites, joystick controlled hellfire missiles, high mobility multi-purpose vehicles and night-invisible supersonic stealth fighters.
Though some of the weapons weren't terribly effective, the war was a cakewalk as the PDF was prepared mainly for domestic policing, with the main resistance carried out by civilian militias.
Noriega's debacle was for Bush a "political jackpot," said GOP strategist Lee Atwater, as it was supported by 80 percent of the American public. The human costs however were protracted. Eye witness reports document that U.S. firepower was directed against civilian buildings and vehicles, including public buses thought to harbor resistance fighters and that soldiers had a "shoot first, ask questions later" mentality resulting in incidents such as the killing of a pregnant lady on her way to the hospital.
Several thousand civilians are estimated to have been killed overall.
In Panama City, the military engaged in ferocious assaults on working class barrios such as El Chorillo where Noriega had provided rent free housing. Helicopters launched rocket attacks and soldiers set fire to many homes.
Honduras' El Tiempo captured sentiment across Latin America in denouncing the "international totalitarianism of George Bush in the guise of democracy....Just Cause was a 'gross euphemism, neither more nor less than an imperialist invasion of Panama...We live in a climate of aggression and disrespect...hurt by our poverty, our weakness, our naked dependence, the absolute submission of our feeble nations to the service of an implacable superpower."
After Noriega's overthrow, American occupying troops arrested as many as 7,000 loyalists and trade union activists, closed down media outlets and enacted "Operation Promote Liberty" to overhaul the military and judicial apparatus, purging any nationalist or anti-U.S. forces. The police forces were also beefed up under the direction of Central America dirty war veteran James Steele.
Guillermo Endara, director of a bank used by Colombia's Medellin cartel was sworn in as the new president under heavy military guard. His Vice-President, "Billy" Ford was co-founder of Dadeland Bank in Miami which also laundered money for the cartels, while his Attorney General was indicted for unfreezing millions in Cali cartel assets.
Endara quickly earned a reputation for laxness in banking regulation and enforcing drug laws, resulting in an increase in drug related corruption. The New York Times reported that "illegal drug shipments through the rough Panamanian hinterlands and through the capital are, if anything, more open and abundant than before." A popular joke said of the Americans: "they took Ali Baba and left us with the forty thieves."
In December 1990 the Bush administration intervened militarily to protect Endara from overthrow. Only $120 million out of a proposed $1 billion in reconstruction aid had by that time been delivered. A journalist found that "bankers and business owners find that things are looking up," though a "mood of anger and desperation permeates the underclass in the blighted shantytowns."
The Operation Just Cause is another good case study for showing the futility of regime change operations, which at least one candidate in this election is speaking out against.
Jeremy Kuzmarov is author of Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (Massachusetts, 2012).