Remembering the 1989 US invasion of Panama as a racist attack on Black people.
For many people, the illegal US military invasion of Panama in December, 1989 is often forgotten, overshadowed by the onset of the Gulf War and the US invasion of Iraq half a year later. But not for Panamanians. Thirty years after “Operation Just Cause” unleashed a nightmare of violence on the isthmian republic in the name of arresting former CIA asset Manuel Noreiga, memories are still surfacing, records are still emerging, and the dead are still being unearthed. Indeed, the death toll from the invasion – which saw nearly 30,000 US troops and 300 aircraft descend on the tiny Caribbean country – is still unknown. Was it hundreds of Panamanians killed, or thousands? As late as 2021, bodies were being exhumed from mass graves as family members tried to identify their loved ones. At the same time, many Panamanians have not recovered from the destruction of their communities. The neighborhood of El Chorillo, for instance, was almost entirely razed during the hunt for Noriega. About 20,000 people lost their homes as a result of urban warfare and were forced into SOUTHCOM refugee camps.
El Chorillo’s residents were mainly Afro-Panamanians, the descendants of West Indian migrants who came to the Isthmus as laborers in the first decade of the twentieth century to build the Panama Canal. They were victims of the racist policies of the US that forced them into segregated and second-class neighborhoods, and of the racist policies of the Panamanian elite that kept them there. Moreover, as Afro-Panamanian activist Alberto Barrow asserts, Panama’s Black citizens were also victims of the racism that was central to the US invasion. In January 1990, an Independent Commission of Inquiry on the U.S. Invasion of Panama was established by a diverse group of activists from Panama, the Caribbean, and the U.S. On April 5, 1990, the Commission held a program titled, "Voices from Panama" in New York City. In his speech, Barrow, representing the Panamanian Black Congress, notes the long history of racism in Panama since the beginning of the twentieth century. He also shows how US strategy during the invasion, directed by Colin Powell (himself the descendant of West Indian migrants), displayed an unusual viciousness towards “Blacks, Mestizos and Mulattos” – including a disturbing eagerness to use forms of brutally disproportionate violence. It is because Panama is Black that the US acted with such callous impunity.
Racism was central to the invasion of Panama, just as it is central to all US imperial operations. While we must not forget what happened to Afro-Panamanians in 1989, we must also remember that their experiences are shared across the Black World. Alberto Barrow’s speech is reprinted below.
Racism Was Central to the Invasion
Speech by Alberto Barrow of the Panamanian Black Congress.
Tonight I appear before you as a Black voice from Panama. You may ask why? I would answer right up front. The U.S. invasion of Panama took the lives of over 4,000 fellow citizens. All of them precious lives. And in addition to that human condition, most of them were Black and Mestizos.
I beg you to bear with me as a Black voice because as a Panamanian of African ancestry I experience this double condition of mine. Moreover, the first death reported was a friend of mine. His name was Torreglosa. His brains were smashed by a bullet, but he died resisting the U.S. invasion. Torreglosa, a Black Panamanian, died with an AK-47 in his hands.
My friend Torreglosa was part of the resistance in Panama, but our babies, our women, our elder folks, they were innocent victims. Again, they were non-white. I will stress this because it is my strong belief that racism was in the center of the brutal invasion of Panama.
Blacks have been part of the oppressed people in our country since very, very early. During the canal construction the U.S. government introduced apartheid in Panama. Yes, Black Panamanians knew about apartheid before South Africans. This was 1907. The U.S. government structured a gold and silver roll system. White laborers were paid in gold currency, non-whites were paid in silver. They both drank from different water fountains, lived in separate barracks, of course with separate and different conditions, separate health services, all the works that still prevail at present in South Africa. The United States called it gold and silver rolls.
These racial practices became part of the social conduct of our government in Panama. Throughout our national history, racism has always been present. Our ruling classes have exercised political power with a heavy accent on racism. They even went as far as prohibiting non-white immigration in our 1941 Constitution.
I must tell you that the U.S. government has played a major role in Panamanian domestic policy, at least until 1968. So you must understand that the U.S. government has been part of the negative racial practices against Blacks, Mestizos and Mulattos in Panama. This was reinforced, it is my belief, during the U.S. invasion of Panama. I am quite sure that the U.S. military wouldn't have used a Stealth [fighter] bomber, such a destructive missile beast, in the neighborhoods where the non-Blacks reside.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not justifying the use of the F-117 Stealth bomber anywhere. What I'm saying is that it is clear there had to be racist criteria to kill thousands of people, all non-white people. When you look at formal and informal reports that show not one oligarch casualty, you can't think of anything else but racism. I don't.
Let's look at what's happened since the U.S. invasion took place on December 20. Over 18,000 war refugees are stuffed in concentration camps. If the U.S. media were to exhibit views of these camps, you would see babies, children, women, and elderly folk in those disastrous concentration camps. It has been terrible. And all these babies, all these women, all these men, all these elderly folks, aside from having in common being Panamanian, they also have in common the color of their skin.
The U.S. troops have carried out five major raids in the Republic of Panama, they claim seeking arms and drugs. Do you want to know where those raids were conducted?
The U.S. media won't tell you. I'll tell you. Most of you present here tonight may not know Panama. But these raids were carried out in Curundu, Cerro, Cocowalo, Santa Marta, and San Joaquin. As I said, most of you aren't Panamanian. Those five neighborhoods are inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Blacks, Mestizos and Mulattos. Over 2,000 men and women were put away in barbed-wire improvised jails. This happened just two weeks ago.
Thousands of people have lost their jobs since December 20th. Twelve thousand in the public sector, as Mr. Aleman stated. Mr. Hector Aleman, Secretary General of the Public Servants Association in Panama, is here tonight. He could tell you who are the folks that have been fired in the last three months. He can tell you which is the color of their skin.
Those are some of the things that are taking place in our newly installed democracy. And do you know who are the folks in power today? Panama is an array of ethnic groups and races. Approximately 60% Mestizos and Mulattos, 20% Black, 10% Indigenous, and 5% white or what we could call white in Panama. Do you know which one of these groups is in power?
Take a look at our President and Vice President. They don't look like any of the members of this delegation. And those of you who have been in Panama, those Panamanians present here tonight, you know as I do that people like us are the majority in Panama.
They claim they have installed democracy in Panama. I challenge them. There is more racism in Panama today. You must be aware of this. Finally, a special request. Today I was informed at City College that there is a proposal to extend an honorary doctorate to General Colin Powell, chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. Armed Forces. This is planned to take place in the upcoming graduation ceremony in June at City College. He is Black, somehow. But make us proud of the decent Americans just like you present here tonight. Thank you.
[Editor's note: After the students announced there would be demonstrations against him. General Colin Powell canceled his appearance at City College.]
Source: Independent Commission of Inquiry on the U.S. Invasion of Panama, The U.S. Invasion of Panama: The Truth Behind Operation 'Just Cause' (Boston: South End Press 1991.)