In mid-December of 1989, years of tensions between the United States and Panama reached a peak when military dictator Manuel Noriega asked lawmakers to declare a state of war, and an off-duty U.S. Marine was shot and killed by Panama Defense Forces (PDF).
In response, then-U.S. President George H. W. Bush authorized “Operation Just Cause,” sending additional troops to the Panama Canal Zone to arrest Noriega on drug trafficking charges.
Thirty-three years later, Russia’s top diplomat cited the U.S. action in Panama as justification for its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, including widespread bombardments of non-military targets, the deaths of thousands of civilians and the illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory.
“Washington has never hesitated to use force under fabricated pretexts anywhere in the world, using false claims to justify its actions such as the need to protect the lives and well-being of U.S. citizens ...
“Before the occupation of Panama, then U.S. President George H.W. Bush … told the dramatic story about one fatally shot American soldier, another one arrested, and yet another one beaten, whose wife, allegedly, underwent rough interrogation and was threatened with rape.
“This was enough to invade these countries and install governments that suited Washington.”
That effectively fictionalizes the Noriega story by omission and oversimplification, while extending a line of Soviet disinformation hatched in the Cold War climate of the time.
References to false precedents are a favorite tool of Russian propaganda. Polygraph.info previously debunked Moscow’s comparison between this war and the NATO-United Nations intervention in Kosovo in 1998-99 to stop the Serbian attacks on Albanian Muslims.
Lavrov’s version of the Panama conflict is another flawed example.
Start with Noriega, an iron-fisted, corrupt general who ruled Panama like a mob boss from 1983 until U.S. troops captured him. From the 1950s, Noriega had collaborated with U.S. diplomats and intelligence agencies. Over time, the relationship deteriorated as he dealt with other spy agencies and drug cartels.
In February 1988, U.S. grand juries in Miami and Tampa charged Noriega with racketeering, smuggling cocaine and marijuana, money laundering and taking some $5 million in bribes from the Medillin cartel in Columbia.
Prosecutors said Noriega allowed the cartel to run operations out of Panama after U.S. authorities had cracked down.
In April of 1988, Noriega infamously waved a machete over his head at a rally and vowed never to buckle to U.S. pressure to remove him.
After the indictments, Noriega’s downfall played over a matter of months. As Britannica.com recounts, he’d been no paragon of democracy, either:
“Despite the presence of international observers (including former U.S. president Jimmy Carter), Noriega annulled the results of the May 1989 Panamanian presidential election when it appeared that it had been won by a wide margin by Guillermo Endara, the opposition civilian candidate. In addition to overturning the results of the election and installing a former classmate, Francisco Rodríguez, as a puppet president, Noriega had Endara and his supporters beaten in the streets.
“The Organization of American States (OAS) responded by calling for a ‘peaceful transfer of power’ to an elected government, and U.S. Pres. George Bush dispatched 2,000 troops to U.S. bases in the Panama Canal Zone. In the meantime, having survived a coup attempt in October, Noriega persuaded the Panamanian National Assembly to name him “maximum leader” on December 15, 1989.
“At his behest the Assembly also declared that a state of war existed between Panama and the United States.”
That appeared to put the safety of approximately 35,000 American citizens in Panama at risk.
That risk was real. Here is what happened the next day, according to an official U.S. military history:
“During the evening, four U.S. officers, apparently on a Saturday night outing, took a wrong turn and approached a PDF checkpoint at the Comandancia. At about [9 p.m.], guards from the Panama Defense Force stopped the car and tried to force the officers outside.
“When the Americans refused to leave their vehicle, a PDF soldier loaded a magazine into his AK-47; the car pulled away. As the guard fired, the car sped off, only to approach another PDF guard post. The soldiers there also began firing. Their bullets wounded three of the officers in the car; one of them, Marine First Lieutenant Robert Paz, died of his wounds in the Gorgas Military Hospital.
“While the U.S. officers were trying to escape, a U.S. couple who witnessed the incident, a junior U.S. naval officer and his wife, were brought to a police station for questioning. Interrogators kicked the officer in the groin, hit him in the mouth, and pointed a gun at his head. Other PDF members forced his wife to stand against a wall while they groped her; she collapsed.”
Valid treaty obligations also were at stake regarding the U.S.-built Panama Canal.
In 1903, the United States and Panama signed a treaty granting the U.S. exclusive canal rights and establishing the Panama Canal Zone. The canal was completed in August 1914, and the U.S. eventually established bases and a garrison to protect the zone and ensure free travel of ships.
In 1977, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Gen. Omar Torrijos, who preceded Noriega, signed treaties under which the canal was to revert to Panamanian control by 2000. Bush cited the need to make good on those treaties when announcing the plan to go after Noriega in December 1989.
So, Lavrov’s allegations of “fabricated pretexts” and “false claims” are both bogus and hypocritical.
After ousting Noriega, the U.S. didn't annex Panama. In 1999, it handed over the canal as promised.
Noriega was captured and taken to the United States, where he was tried and sentenced to decades years in prison. In 2010, Noriega was extradited to France and sentenced to even more time in a conviction for money laundering.
In 2011, France extradited him to Panama, where he was sentenced to 60 years for crimes committed during his reign. Noriega asked Panamanians for forgiveness in 2015, then died two years later at age 83 after a brain tumor.
We presume Lavrov is not defending a special Russian prerogative to launch invasions based on fabrications. Except that is exactly what Russia has done in service of Putin’s aims against Ukraine.
Here are some prior Polygraph.info fact checks on Russia’s pretexts for invasion: