Panama Ransacked in 1989: a brief snapshot of a seedy relationship between the CIA and Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega

Carlton Meyer, “Panama Ransacked in 1989” (Tales of the American Empire, 4 February 2022)

A very informative video, this instalment in Carlton Meyer’s Tales of the American Empire series investigates the secret history of CIA involvement in Central America and the roles played by George H W Bush as CIA Director and then later as US Vice President (1981 – 1988) and US President (1989 – 1992), and by Manuel Noriega as head of Panamanian intelligence, cocaine trafficker and Military Leader of Panama (1983 – 1989) who was on the CIA payroll on and off from the early 1970s on. Bush and Noriega worked to keep Central America under US and CIA control using cocaine smuggling operations to fund CIA activities aimed at undermining governments in Nicaragua and elsewhere in Central America. However in the 1980s a rift developed between Noriega and the US government under President Reagan when Noriega refused to modify a 1977 treaty requiring US military bases in Panama to close by the year 2000. From then on, Noriega began to work independently of the US government and the CIA in smuggling cocaine from Colombia into the US, and to resist overthrowing the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

The US government began looking for ways to get rid of Noriega, especially after Bush himself embarked on his Presidential campaign in 1988 and became potentially vulnerable to blackmail from Noriega over his role in the CIA’s drug smuggling operations from Colombia to the US. After Bush won the Presidency in November 1988, the plan to overthrow Noriega as Panamanian leader – and also to plunder Panama to erase all evidence of Bush’s involvement in cocaine trafficking – began in earnest. This culminated in the US invasion of Panama in December 1989 which included a massive bombing campaign of Panama City that resulted in much destruction, mostly in poor neighbourhoods, and (depending on the source) killed as many as 3,000 Panamanian civilians and made 20,000 homeless. Noriega gave himself up and was replaced by another set of crooks.

The close and complicated association that Noriega had with the CIA, Bush and the US government through the 1980s is hinted at in the documentary. Viewers wanting more information about Noriega and how he blew hot and cold in his partnership with the CIA can refer to the links provided by narrator Carlton Meyer beneath the video. Archived photographs, film of the US invasion of Panama, maps, interviews and a speech by US linguist / political activist Noam Chomsky summarising Noriega’s role and place in Panamanian politics and history flesh out Meyer’s narration.

Once again Meyer does excellent work in exposing the seedy underbelly of US imperial politics in Latin America and the criminal nature of the US government and its intelligence agencies. The grubby links between US global politics and international drug trafficking networks are clearly exposed in this particular example of cocaine trafficking in the 1980s, and the role it played in enabling the continuing dominance of US power in Latin America.