December 20 – Day of Mourning in Panama

Posted on December 20, 2015
Here is yet another tricky historical event.

On this date in 1989, the United States invaded Panama and arrested dictator Manuel Noriega on drug charges.

There were good motivations and results for the invasion, and bad motivations and results. And the lists would be different depending on who you talk to.

So...was the invasion a good thing or a bad thing?

And, IF the idea behind the invasion was good, was it done in a good way?

Who (in Panama): Manuel Noriega had been a valuable source of intelligence for the U.S. CIA, but he was also a big-time drug dealer. He grabbed control of Panama through military force, including manipulating the results of a 1984 presidential election and probably ordering the murder of at least one political opponent.

Who (in the U.S.): Once Noriega was no longer useful to U.S. interests, President Reagan tried to pressure him into stepping down from power. Noriega didn't. After Reagan's two terms were over, President George H. W. Bush ordered the U.S. invasion of Panama to arrest Noriega.

When: December 20, 1989, 1:00 a.m., local time.

What: More than 300 aircraft and over 27,000 troops swarmed over strategic locations such as airports and a garrison. They destroyed Noriega's private jet and sank his boat. Noriega took refuge at the Vatican's mission in Panama City, but the U.S. blasted the area with loud rock-and-roll music, day and night, and eventually Noriega surrendered!

Of the United States' tens of thousands of troops, 23 were killed. Unfortunately, the death toll was higher for Panamanians. Somewhere between 470 and 1,000 Panamanians died.

Also unfortunately, the attack on the headquarters of Noriega's army started several fires – and the fires spread to other, non-military location. A heavily populated neighborhood in downtown Panama City burned down, and at least 20,000 Panamanians found themselves homeless. I read that the U.S. gave each family from that neighborhood $6,500 to build a new house or apartment—but the new construction of homes didn't go smoothly, and there continued to be problems.

Many business owners – even the ones with insurance! – lost their livelihood. Apparently, many insurance companies went out of business, so they couldn't pay out for the losses, and the insurance companies that stayed in business didn't pay out because, they said, their customers weren't covered for “acts of war.” (Sigh!) A group of 60 companies based in Panama filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government for carelessness that disregarded the property of innocent Panamanian residents.

Where is Noriega now?

In 1992, Manuel Noriega stood trial in the U.S. on drug charges, and he was sentenced to 40 years in prison, later reduced to 30 years and then, even later, for 17 years (for good behavior). In 2007 he was released.

While Noriega was busy being imprisoned in the U.S., he had been tried and convicted in France in absentia for money laundering, so he was extradited to France. The French gave him a new trial, and he was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison. Also, millions of Euros that had been frozen for years in Noriega's French bank accounts were seized.

Before Noriega could serve all seven years in a French prison, he was extradited to Panama to face trial for murder and human rights violations. He was sent to a prison in Panama in late 2011. He is supposed to serve a 20-year sentence there.

Now, about that “Day of Mourning”...

These paper lanterns commemorate
the innocent victims who fell on this date
in 1989.
Even though several polls showed that some Panamanians, at least, supported the U.S. invasion and were happy to be rid of Noriega, obviously many Panamanians were upset at the loss of people and property . In 2007, Panama's legislature voted unanimously to commemorate December 20 as a national Day of Mourning. But the resolution was vetoed by the president of Panama, President Torrijos.

What do you think?

Hopefully you realize that the events leading up to, during, and after the U.S. invasion of Panama are very complex, and there isn't one easy, simple answer to the question of what happened or should have happened differently. You can be sure that the U.S. deserves some blame for the bad results of the invasion! 

In the meantime...

Today's world holiday was depressing and depressingly complicated, so I thought I would end with something much simpler and much more peaceful and nice:

Some photos of Panama NOT at war:

Also on this date:

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