The Book of the Week is “Panama, The Whole Story” by Kevin Buckley, published in 1991.
“Weapons cost money, and selling, or helping in the sale of, cocaine produced the enormous revenues that produced the weapons.”
As is well known, democracy is not usually a “thing” in countries that have extensive black markets in weapons and drugs. So by the mid-1980’s, Panama had become a military dictatorship.
Over the course of two decades, Manuel Noriega, a general in the Panamanian army, became the king of trade in illicit weapons and cocaine. He was cozy with president Ronald Reagan, vice president George H.W. Bush, CIA head William Casey, secretary of state George Shultz, colonel Oliver North and a few other top American officials, plus the Drug Enforcement Agency and Fidel Castro.
Noriega controlled Panama’s ports, customs and railroads. The U.S. State Department was well aware of his drug trafficking, money laundering and human rights abuses. President Reagan loved him because he provided training facilities for the Contras– the militia who were fighting supposed Communists in Nicaragua. A major goal of the Reagan administration was to provide funding, weapons and military assistance for the Contras so that Central American countries wouldn’t fall to the Communists like dominoes. Assistance by any means necessary. Even via adolescent-boy spy, secret, treasonous means.
Anyway, through the 1980’s, Noriega engaged in various actions that angered common Panamanians– including ordering a hit on one of his Panamanian political enemies. He had one major American political enemy– Senator Jesse Helms. When the senator’s assistant visited Panama on a fact-finding mission, the American press (was told to) spread smears and lies about her. In June 1986, New York Times journalist Seymour Hersh finally outed Noriega as the detestable creature that he was, revealing details of his wickedness. But the U.S. was still not ready to oust Noriega.
In June 1987, patience among ordinary Panamanians was running short. Panama’s true fearless leader Noriega had crashed the economy (never the mind the figurehead Panamanian “president”) with his dictatorial shenanigans in collaboration with the United States. A minority of Americans were also fed up. They helped form the National Civic Crusade at Panama’s Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. Their goal was to oust Noriega and bring ethical behavior back to Panama’s government.
The U.S. Senate even voted to suspend Noriega’s leadership while it investigated charges that he fixed his country’s “presidential” election in 1984. February 1988 saw Noriega indicted in absentia on drug charges in Miami– which indicated that Americans finally viewed drug trafficking as more anathema than Communism(!).
In spring 1988, as per usual for a non-democratic country, government troops fired at civilian protesters in Panama City streets, killing tens or thousands (no source was able to verify its own estimate). However, a U.S. Army memo admitted that the U.S. Defense Department wanted to deny compensation to the deserving victims’ families who asserted that the U.S. was legally liable for the harm done, as there might be too huge a number of such claims.
Read the book to learn of wrenches in the works that kept Noriega in power way longer than otherwise (hint: the Panama Canal Treaties, the 1988 U.S. presidential election, Elliott Abrams’ misleading pronouncements, etc., etc., etc.) and the events that finally forced matters to come to a head (hint: 23 Americans died in the fighting.)