PANAMA CITY – Panamanian President Laurentino Cortizo said on Friday that it is now time to heal the wounds caused by the United States’ military invasion 30 years ago, urging his countrymen to leave behind old ideological rifts and move forward.
On Dec. 20, 1989, around 26,000 American troops invaded Panama to depose and capture dictator Manuel Noriega, who faced drug smuggling and money laundering charges in the US and turned himself in on Jan. 3, 1990, after holing himself up for 10 days at the Vatican’s embassy in Panama City.
Codenamed “Operation Just Cause,” the invasion also was carried out to dismantle the 17,000-strong Panama Defense Forces, a military body under Noriega’s command that consisted of National Guard, navy, police and customs personnel and which was seen as key to the president’s illicit money laundering and drug activities.
US documents that were declassified and published for the first time this week reiterated the longstanding official death toll of 516: 202 civilians and 314 soldiers, the vast majority of whom were Panamanian.
But unofficial figures in Panama indicate that between 500 and 4,000 civilians died in the invasion, which lasted until Jan. 31, 1990.
In a speech Friday at Panama City’s Garden of Peace, a cemetery where most of the victims of the invasion are buried, Cortizo said he was calling on all Panamanians, irrespective of their political ideology to recognize “that this invasion left a wound in our society but that it’s now time to heal that wound.”
Cortizo, who took office for a five-year term on July 1, said that his administration this week issued a decree that makes Dec. 20 a Day of National Mourning “for recognizing the loss, for accompanying (the victims and their families) in their grief ... as part of the healing process.”
“This will allow us to close that wound, look forward, all Panamanians together without partisan, ideological or social positions,” the president said, adding that “only with the truth will it be possible to go through the mourning process.”
In that regard, he expressed his total support for the December 20 Commission, which has worked since 2016 to establish the true number of people killed during the invasion.
Asked by reporters about the possibility of asking the US to pay reparations and apologize for the invasion, the president said only that there is “a fluid, strategic relationship (with Washington); that’s undeniable.”
The president of the December 20 Commission, Juan Planells, told EFE on Friday that the group he leads has thus far confirmed that 252 people were killed, most of them civilians who died during an “unjust and excessively violent” invasion, but that much more remains to be discovered.
The invading forces “didn’t follow protocols at their checkpoints,” leading to the deaths of “Panamanians who were not involved in the conflict; many of them were even celebrating the fall of the dictatorship.”
Planells also called into question the notion that the US troops had acted selectively in their attacks during the invasion, saying that “Panamanians of all social classes were killed, and that makes the tragedy more serious.”
Groups of workers led by the powerful SUNTRACS construction union on Friday marched to the US embassy carrying signs such as “30 Years Since the Invasion: We Don’t Forget or Forgive.”
The demonstrators burned an effigy of US President Donald Trump and stomped on the American flag outside that building.
“There was no justification for massacring a (nation’s) people, as the world’s leading military power did,” Yamir Cordoba, SUNTRACS’ finance secretary, told EFE.
Aurelio Barria, the then-leader of an opposition coalition of business and community groups that opposed what he described as Noriega’s “corrupt and authoritarian regime,” also said he regretted the “death of a large number of innocent Panamanians.”
But he blamed the invasion on the “risk we provoked with the (Panama) Defense Forces” due to their links to drug trafficking and the interference of leftist elements.
He added that that risk was heightened because in 1999 Panama was scheduled to take over the administration of the inter-oceanic Panama Canal, which the US had built and managed since its opening in 1914.
That waterway, now run by Panama, “could have fallen into some hands that were uncertain or very closely linked with (Communist) Cuba,” he added.
“There had been elections in May 1989, and Noriega had (not accepted the outcome). There had been a split within the Defense Forces aimed at removing him. There was an agreement signed by the US and the Catholic Church with the intention that Noriega would leave for Spain and there would be a transition,” Barria said.
“All of that was arranged and they didn’t manage (to remove the general from power); the risks surfaced and the invasion occurred,” he added.
During the US invasion of Panama, the head of the opposition coalition in the 1989 election – Guillermo Endara, who had appeared headed for an easy victory, according to exit polls, before the vote was annulled – was sworn in as that Central American nation’s new president.
Noriega – a one-time close ally and paid informant of the CIA – was convicted of racketeering, drug smuggling and money laundering in the US and sentenced to 40 years in prison in 1992, although he was released in September 2007.
He later served time in prison in France (for laundering drug-trafficking proceeds) and in Panama (for murder and corruption stemming from his time as de facto ruler from 1983 to 1989).
Noriega, whose health had deteriorated during his imprisonment abroad, died in 2017 in Panama at age 83 shortly after undergoing surgery for a brain tumor.