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About Operation Just Cause

Jacob Houston

The military actions taken by the United States (US) on the country of Panama on December 20th, 1989, known as ‘Operation Just Cause’, against the Panamanian dictator General Manuel Noriega. Noriega was known as a brutal dictator, but his actions against the Panamanian people were increasingly overlooked by the US under the Reagan and Bush administration as Panama had an invaluable position in US foreign policy in the Central and Northern South American region.

Noriega operated closely with the US on many occasions, specifically the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which most notably worked with Noriega during the beginning of contra operations against Nicaragua in the 1970s and early 1980s.

To understand the total dynamic of US-Panamanian relations, one must go back to the advent of US interference in Central America as far back as the late 19th century. With the advent of the age of imperialism as European powers raced across the globe, commandeering and economically controlling many countries, most notably in their actions against the entirety oif the African continent and throughout Asia, the Western hemisphere was eerily quiet from European imperialism. The Monroe Doctrine, implemented by US president James Monroe, forbid European powers to colonize any part of the Western Hemisphere any more than they had or risk war with the United States, thus, there was no large case for imperialism in the region at all.

With the beginning of the Spanish-American War in 1898, and the rise in imperialist sentiment in the United States, the US began slowly but surely commandeering lands it saw to its benefit, notably in the Phillipines. Central and South America, on the other hand, weas to be distributed based on corporate control, with the United Fruit Company beginning its own system of Banana Republics in the early 20th century which increasingly destabilized Central America, leading to increases in poverty and armed conflict.

Panama, after it separated with neighboring Colombia to the south, gave the US permission, through the Hay/Bunau-Varilla Treaty, to build the Panama Canal, which was the first inter-oceanic canal to connect both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. When the Canal opened in 1914, the US saw increasingly more economic and trade prosperity, as now ships did not have to travel around Cape Horn at the bottom tip of South America to make it to both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. That did not mean that the US did not have soem sort of influence over Panamanian politics and economics.

After World War II, and the decolonization period in which the Phillipines were able to gain independence from the US in 1946, the US became even closer with Panama with the beginning of the Reagan administrations “War on Drugs” in the 1980s. Future President George H.W. Bush, when he was in his position as director of the CIA, operated with Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega to root out suspected enemies of US interests in Panama and the surrounding region, but simultaneously, Noriega continued to carry out his brutal and corrupt regime.

In 1987, however, Noriega hit the last straw in relations between the US and Panama when his involvement with the drug trade became known to the public, and prompted the US, eager to solidify its own interests in the region, to attack Panama in 1989, beginning what is known as “Operation Just Cause”.

US military detachments quickly gained control of the country, with sorties being launched to take out targets in the country, and Noriega was captured and sent to Florida, where he faced a prison sentence. The humanitarian cost of the invasion was staggering, and almost 14,000 people were homeless. In addition, the invasion did not stop the flow of drugs through Panama, but solidified the US position as a power in the Western Hemisphere for the years to come.


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