Panama and Me, 22 Years Later

Dmitri Prieto

Manuel Noriega. Photo:

HAVANA TIMES, Jan 2 — In December 1989 (22 years ago!), the United States militarily attacked Panama. The purpose of the “mission” was the capture of Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian general involved in a major international drug trafficking operations.

Nevertheless, he was the same man who had built an image as a popular political and military leader, as well as the guarantor of the early implementation of treaties in which the US would transfer the Panama Canal to the Panamanian nation.

I remember very well, throughout 1989, Cuban TV cameraman Antonio Gomez and reporter Nelson Notario Castro would make daily reports on how the people of that Central American isthmus were preparing to resist the expected Yankee attack.

They organized people’s militias and even a kind of block-level network similar to Cuba’s Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. In the meantime, Noriega dismantled the traditional institutions of elite rule to create a centralized state built around him and his charismatic leadership.

There’s no doubt that many Cubans were sympathetic to Noriega based on this information. However, it turned out that it was known that Noriega had been a CIA operative, despite the insistence by the US of his ties with drugs and corruption.

At the time of the invasion I was a freshman in biochemistry at the University of Havana. On that day, classes were suspended and we went en masse to protest in front of the offices of the US Interests Section. I remember people shouting improvised slogans in support of Noriega, ones like “No-holds-barred, hit the Yankees hard!”

I hated and still hate military invasions, but I had enough reasons to have my doubts about Noriega.

That whole year was one of momentous events: the Ochoa-La Guardia military drug-trafficking case in Cuba, the repression in Tiananmen Square in China, but especially the changes in Eastern Europe.

Also in December of that year, one of the last “socialist” strongholds came to an end: the totalitarian Ceausescu regime in Romania.

Against this panorama, we watched what was going on in Panama. Yet while we were shouting sincerely-felt slogans against the invaders (and I still think that invading a country is not the best way to “fix” its destiny, as was well proven in Eastern Europe itself), many people had doubts about General Noriega.

Indeed, after a few days, Noriega surrendered to the military invaders. Then came a trial — an extraterritorial one, the type preferred by the US regime — and the general was sentenced to prison.

Everything was like a big show, though thousands of people were killed. Noriega’s “popular” government, like all of his patriotism, was nothing more than a sham.

Perhaps it was clear from the very outset to many people in Cuba what kind of human being Noriega was. So I don’t know why the hell he was described in our media as some kind of “revolutionary.”

In any case, the Panama experience reinforced in me and in others my age the idea that revolution can’t be “like that.”