This essay was originally written for a media literacy class at university, where I was required to write about the difference between mainstream and alternative media.

Might Makes Right: How the US Government Controlled Panama and the People

Any in-depth analysis of the mass media will inexorably come to the conclusion that there are two distinct groups in the field: mainstream media, which is consumed by the majority of people and typically represents the "official" government position; and alternative media, which is the more obscure, often independent coverage that gives another perspective. This distinction is especially apparent when sensitive geopolitical issues get involved. The exact goings-on in other parts of the world are covered up by the mainstream media and not properly reported on, almost always due to political pressure from the government.

Sydney Schanberg, an American journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, had his attempts to cover stranded American prisoners of war in South Vietnam shot down by corporate news sources. He indicated that more than three hundred soldiers were left behind during the retreat from the Vietnam War, and that these losses were barely mentioned at all by the American mainstream media. Schanberg says that a private message written by Nixon proves that he knew about the stranded POWs, but that he was so anxious to get out of Vietnam because of his campaign promises that he told the public that everything was fine. In an article written more than forty years later, Schanberg stated, "The government had told these soldiers that if they were wounded or captured, it would do everything in its power to save and heal them. Well, sometimes that isn't the whole truth. Maybe their platoon buddies would do everything possible, but governments have multiple agendas."1

The United States claims to be a democracy. The entire point of a democracy is exemplified in the word's etymology: from the Greek words demos and kratos, "common people" and "rule".2 In a democracy, the government is ruled by the common people; a democratic government exists to serve the people, yet this action of censoring media coverage is quite the opposite. Selectively altering the common people's main source of information is manipulation of the very people the government is supposed to serve. So if the United States government does this, does it not stand to reason that the United States is not truly a democracy at all? At the very least, the political system in the USA, while it may potentially be democratic, is undermined by the powers that be. There have been numerous examples throughout history of the United States government lying to its people to garner public support for a cause they refused to fully explain.

The 1989 invasion of Panama by the US military is another example of the government's multiple agendas being hidden from public scrutiny. The official story was that President George H. W. Bush wanted General Manuel Noriega of the Panamanian Defense Forces arrested for drug trafficking and election fraud, and the entire invasion was simply a means to capture him.3 But this story does not seem to hold up when compared to what actually happened as the evidence indicates.

To really understand the situation in Panama -- and all of Central America -- one has to look back at how the country itself was formed. Originally Panama was a part of Colombia, the nation to its south, but there was a growing separatist movement. The USA signed the Bidlack-Mallarino Treaty in 1846, which stated that they would help Colombia if the Panamanians ever really tried to separate. Then in 1898, the battleship USS Oregon had to travel more than 22 000 kilometres to join the Spanish-American War in Cuba, leaving from the west coast of the United States and travelling all the way around South America.4

Panama is an isthmus -- a small strip of land that connects two islands, North America and South America. Is it a coincidence that the United States violated their treaty with Colombia in 1903 to assist the Panamanian rebellion? This action caused Panama to be an American protectorate, allowed the US government to construct the Panama Canal, and let them station thousands of US military personnel in the country.5 The Spanish-American war proved that the Americans had a motive to build a quicker route from their west coast to their east, and the canal in Panama was just such a route. Panama from its conception was the product of American interference in foreign political matters, not for the reasons of spreading democracy or fighting for freedom, but to make the US military force more powerful than it already was.

The citizens of Panama were not blind to the power the USA had over their country, however. During World World II, the US government stationed as many as 67 000 troops in Panama. This display of power seemed to make Panamanians wary, and could be one of the causes for the riots that erupted in the Canal Zone in 1964. These riots were started because some citizens wanted their own nation's flag to be flown in the zone, not only the flag of the United States, even though the United States did technically own the canal and surrounding areas. Eventually this issue of ownership was dealt with by President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos when they signed a treaty in 1977 that promised to transfer control of the canal by December 31, 1999.6

Then Ronald Reagan became president of the United States. Eight months later, Torrijos died in a mysterious plane crash. Torrijos was famous for his support of Panamanian independence. He said to his people shortly before his death, "You may rest assured that in our negotiations with the US you will always find us standing on our feet and never on our knees. Never!"7 Was his untimely death a coincidence, or a planned assassination? There are supporters on both sides, but no actual evidence of anything. As far as we know, it was a tragic accident. Regardless, Torrijos was soon replaced by the aforementioned Manuel Noriega, a CIA contact. Noriega became a general in the Panamanian Defense Forces, thus becoming de facto ruler of Panama.

The story in the mainstream media was that the invasion of Panama was about arresting Noriega for drug trafficking, but evidence shows that the CIA knew from the start that he was smuggling drugs. Not until 1988 did the American mainstream media start reporting on his drug trafficking; coincidentally a few years after Noriega hosted the Contradora peace talks, where Latin American leaders came together and called for an end to foreign intervention in Central America.8 Noriega was not the yes-man the United States wanted him to be -- he was starting to show a spine, though perhaps not as honourable as Torrijos before him.

In the year leading up to the invasion of Panama, the US military carried out a number of operations. When interviewed after the invasion, Major General William A. Roosma admitted that these operations (Sand Flea, Purple Storm, and others) were to tell Noriega that "we're bad guys" and "don't fool around with us." They were practice for the upcoming invasion, not merely routine military operations as the government claimed at the time.9 On December 20, 1989, President Bush announced Operation Just Cause, his codename for the invasion of Panama. The invasion was allegedly for the purpose of arresting Noriega due to his dealings with drugs.

Estimates of casualties caused by this invasion range from 2 000 to 4 000 Panamanian civilians.10 Many of the military targets were densely-populated residential areas, such as portions of Panama City around the headquarters of the Panamanian Defense Forces. Journalists were not allowed to enter Panama until after the first few hours of the attacks. The US military destroyed radio towers, halted production of newspapers, and highjacked television stations during their stay in Panama.11 Control of the media was of utmost importance to the United States government; what did they have to hide?

Wanting to put a foreign power in its place for daring to stand up to your country's interference is already a far cry from the allegations of drug trafficking, but there seems to be more to this invasion than just showing Manuel Noriega who is boss. The actions of the United States in regard to the Panama Canal throughout history, and the fact that they specifically tried to bring down the Panamanian Defense Forces, seems to suggest that Operation Just Cause had as much to do with the Carter-Torrijos treaty as it did Noriega's betrayal. With the only military body in Panama gone, presumably for long enough to reach the deadline at the end of 1999, the United States could have made the claim that the treaty was now invalidated. Panama would have no means of defending the canal, therefore control of the Canal Zone could remain with the United States military. Granted, this violation of the treaty did not actually end up happening, but former Panamanian diplomat Humberto Brown is certain that this was the intended goal.12

That the United States had a vested interest in controlling Panama is obvious from its history, but not even a year prior to the invasion, the US government proved it by supplying presidential candidate Guillermo Endara with $10 million for his campaign. Accepting election funds from foreign sources is actually illegal in the United States, and it caused the Panamanian government to annul the election. This happened just before the military operations in the Canal Zone that were preparations for the invasion of Panama. One of the first steps in Operation Just Cause was for the United States military to swear in Endara as the new leader of Panama.13 Whether or not the government wanted to control the canal specifically, there is ample evidence that some element of control over Panama was one of the agendas that was hidden from the public eye.

Peter Kornbluh says that "Panama is another example of destroying a country to save it. And it's another case of how the US has exercised a 'might makes right' doctrine among the smaller countries of the Third World."14 The Globe and Mail, however, defended this "might makes right" attitude, saying that Noriega's drug charges did affect the United States due to its proximity, and that the indictment was justifiable on legal grounds as well as moral.15 Regardless, the statements of Major General Roosma and the funding provided by the United States government in the presidential election prove that there was more to Just Cause than an anti-drug agenda.16

Clearly, mainstream media coverage of the invasion in Panama was suppressed and controlled by the government. The fact that the military would not let journalists into the country while they were invading, that the media coverage in the USA focused entirely on drug charges, and that the media did not even mention the Carter-Torrijos treaty is all proof of this. The mainstream mass media blindly accepted the government's stories about the invasion, displaying none of the journalistic integrity that would require them to dig for facts and present all sides of an issue fairly. Information was kept from the public eye because the government did not want to make itself unpopular, as the charade of a democratic society has to be maintained; the people still have to be able to vote, so the government needs to trick people into voting for them.

The actions of the USA in Panama were condemned by the United Nations as a "flagrant violation of international law", invading a sovereign nation without due cause and violating the Geneva Convention with an unacceptable number of casualties. This story was not emphasized in the mainstream American media, and was in fact barely mentioned at all.17 This suppression of information ties into the charade mentioned above. The facts about Panama and the involvement of the United States military were kept secret for the same reasons as the abandoned soldiers in Vietnam.

In the words of Sydney Schanberg, "We Americans are the ultimate innocents. We are forever desperate to believe that this time the government is telling us the truth."18

Is the United States truly a democracy? Literally yes (in the sense of being a republic), but ideologically no. While the political system itself could have the potential to be used justly, the evidence that the government lies to its citizens for political gain is overwhelming. The people technically control the government, but the government actually controls the people through its use of the mainstream media. It is undeniable that, whatever potential there is, it is wasted on a population that accepts everything the government says as true, and a mass media that allows itself to be controlled by a political entity and the interests of plutocracy. A more critical public that took the time to peruse alternative points of view and demanded fair reporting would be a huge step towards fixing this.


1 Schanberg, Sydney. "Silent Treatment: My four-decade fight to report the truth." The American Conservative. N.p., 1 July 2010. Web. 21 Nov. 2010. [link]
2 "democracy." Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. 20 Nov. 2010. [link]
3 "FINALE: Frontline examines Manuel Noriega's rise and fall." The Globe and Mail. 27 Jan. 1990, Canadian Newsstand Major Dailies, ProQuest. Web. 20 Nov. 2010.
4 Tucker, Spencer. "Oregon, USS, Voyage of." The encyclopedia of the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars: a political, social, and military history. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009. 449. Print.
5 Matthew Abramovitz. "Panama, U.S. Military Involvement in." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. John Whiteclay Chambers II, ed., Oxford University Press 1999. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of Windsor. 18 Nov. 2010. [link]
6 Restrepo, Luis. "50 U.S violations of the Carter-Torrijos treaties." Skeptic Tank. N.p., 10 Jan. 1988. Web. 21 Nov. 2010. [link]
7 Time Magazine. "Panama: A Historic No." CNN, 2 Apr. 1973. Web. 19 Nov. 2010. [link]
8 The Panama Deception. Dir. Barbara Trent. Perf. Elizabeth Montgomery, Abraham Alvarez, Carlos Cantu. New Video Group, 1993. Film.
9 Wright, Dr. Robert K., Jr. "Oral History Interview JCIT 025." U.S. Army Center Of Military History. United States, 15 March 1990. Web. 19 Nov. 2010. [link]
10 "Operation Just Cause." GlobalSecurity. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2010. [link]
11 The Panama Deception.
12 Ibid.
13 Franklin, Jane. "Panama Invasion by United States in 1989: Background and chronology." Rutgers-Newark: The State University of New Jersey. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. [link]
14 The Panama Deception.
15 Colin MacKenzie. "Noriega indictment justifiable, experts say." The Globe and Mail. 18 Jan. 1990, Canadian Newsstand Major Dailies, ProQuest. Web. 19 Nov. 2010.
16 Wright, Dr. Robert K., Jr.
17 The Panama Deception.
18 War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. Dir. Loretta Alper. Perf. Norman Solomon, Sean Penn. The Disinformation Company, 2007. Film.