1984-1989, Panama: If NED Fails, Send in the Marines

By Philip Agee, CIA officer in Ecuador, Uruguay and Mexico (1957-1968).

 Panama was an early example of political intervention through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).  For the 1984 elections, General Manuel Noriega selected Nicolas Barletta as presidential candidate.  The other candidate,  Arnulfo Arias, had an anti-military platform.  The U.S. wanted continued cooperation with their efforts to overthrow the Nicaraguan government and defeat the insurgency in El Salvador.  Noriega, a long-time CIA "asset," was allowing use of Panama for Contra training and resupply bases, and for training the Salvadoran military. 

      During the election, NED money passed through the AFL-CIO's Free Trade Union Institute to finance unions that supported Barletta.  A vote-count fraud organized by Noriega gave Barletta a victory.  Reagan received Barletta in the White House.  By 1987, Noriega's usefulness to the U.S. was coming to an end.  Procedures were underway for his indictment for drug trafficking.  U.S. agencies, including the CIA, began plotting to remove him. 

      In 1987, NED financed a trip to the Philippines by Aurelio Barria, president of Panama's Chamber of Commerce, to learn about the National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL).  Set up by the CIA in 1951 as a vehicle for the presidential election of the CIA's man, Ramon Magsaysay, NAMFREL played a key role in monitoring the 1986 elections.  It exposed the fraudulent "re-election" of Ferdinand Marcos and helped mobilize the "people power" that forced him out.  The U.S. Agency for International Development channelled nearly $1 million to NAMFREL through NED and the Asia Foundation (a CIA front created in the 1950s). 

      They set up a NAMFREL-style organization in Panama for the 1989 elections.  Noriega's number two man in the military, Col. Roberto Herrera, made sensational accusations against Noriega, including political murder and 1984 election fraud.  Barria launched the Civic Crusade for Justice and Liberty (CCJL).  Some 200 professional, business, religious and civic organizations participated.  As demonstrations continued, the CCJL led the call for civil disobedience, a national strike and Noriega's resignation.  The CCJL evolved into a minority white, upper-class movement.  Noriega nullified the 1989 election when the CCJL/U.S.-backed presidential candidate, Guillermo Endara, appeared to be winning.  With the CIA manipulating the CCJL, the events in Panama that culminated in the invasion followed a well-established pattern.  Journalist John Dinges wrote of "at least five covert action plans to get rid of Noriega."  The CIA reportedly had $10 million to support Endara in the election.  But, only a U.S. military invasion would end Noriega's rule.  A lynching atmosphere created by the CCJL outside the Papal Nuncio's residence forced Noriega to surrender. 

      Justification for "Operation Just Cause" was to combat drug trafficking and bring Noriega to justice.  This could not be real because the CIA and other agencies knew of his drug dealing since the early 1970s.  The real reasons were that Noriega was no longer needed for support of U.S. goals in Nicaragua and El Salvador, had become an embarrassment by defying U.S. hegemony and was the source of instability.  Using Noriega as a pretext for invasion, the U.S. destroyed the Panamanian Defense Forces and reversed social reforms favoring the poor majority, that were underway since the Torrijos period began in 1968.  With the traditional white political elite back in power, the U.S. could retain military bases and control of the Panama Canal past the 1999 turnover set by the Carter-Torrijos treaties. 

      On the night of the invasion, Endara, representative of the white upper class, was sworn in as President on a U.S. military base, and democracy was "restored."  Within a short time, drug dealing and money laundering in Panama exceeded that of the Noriega period and the poor would presumably be back in their place.


Source: "Tracking Covert Actions into the Future," Covert Action Information Bulletin, Fall 1992.





Manuel Noriega

(1938-  )







Robert Matthews, "The Panama Connection," Covert Action, Summer 1990.