In September, 72 year-old Manuel Noriega will be extradited to France from a US prison to serve out a sentence for money-laundering obtained in absentia by the French government. Noriega was once a close Latin American ally for Ronald Reagan and Bush Senior. He was employed by the CIA in the mid-70s until as late as 1987 as a collaborater who helped undermine the Sandanista regime in Nicaragua. In 1986 the US was found guilty of “unlawful use of force” by the ICJ for its support of the Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua. But the relationship between Washington and Noriega quickly fell apart. The US agreed to transfer the strategic Panama Canal in the hands of the Panaman government in 1977, but then regained control in 1989 after invading the country in order to oust the military dictator, which was then Manuel Noriega. Several things had gone wrong before this point: Noriega claimed that the parliamentary elections were invalid after the opposition had won the majority. He then declared a “state of war” in the face of death threats from Washington. The US invaded in a military coup known as Operation Just Cause and ended up killing 4,000 Panaman civilians in the process. 18 American military combatants were killed.
The Organization of American States (OAS) passed a resolution deploring the invasion and calling for a withdrawal of US troops. The OAS Charter, to which the US is a signatory and therefore must obey under the supremacy clause of the constitution, specifically prohibits member states from invading other member states for any reason. To spite this, Bush Senior named the invasion Just Cause. The US, the UK, and France vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the invasion. One of the reasons given for the invasion was to reestablish democracy in Panama, but this was widely viewed with suspicion in Latin America. The United States had long been perceived as simply carrying out its own strategic and economic interests in the region, and this was certainly true of Panama, whose canal connects the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. Control of the canal is vital to US interests, Indeed, after the invasion the US reestablished dozens of military and naval bases along the canal. Unable to hold onto the canal indefinitely according to an earlier treaty, the Torrijos-Carter Treaty, the US was forced to give the canal back to the Panaman government in 1999.
Since then, the US military presence has disappeared from Panama, and so has Panama’s military presence disappeared. It is one of two Latin American countries (the other being Costa Rica) which have abolished its military. The country polices itself with military-like police units, however. Panama’s largely service-based economy survives on the Colon Free Trade Agreement, home to some 2,000 companies, and is the second largest FTA in the world. An FTA with the US was reached in late 2006. After 15,000 Panaman citizens were displaced in 1989 during the invasion, it should leave little doubt as to why 40% of the population is still currently living below the poverty line. After half a century of US control over the canal, Panama once again has control over the strategic waterway. Although its economic activity is affected largely by events elsewhere in Latin America, such as crises in Mexico, perhaps now since the American presence is only visible through trade vessels Panama will see a resurgence in trade and prosperity.