ROSARIO, Argentina — It’s been 31 years since the United States invaded Panama, and according to a local archbishop only truth will heal the open wounds left by that military incursion.
Operation Just Cause was launched on Dec. 20, 1989, by the United States. Some 25,000 troops were deployed by then-President George H.W. Bush in an attempt to capture one man: Dictator Manuel Noriega.
Among other things, Noriega was accused of drug dealing and of threatening democracies in Latin America, after having been an asset for several U.S. administrations in the fight against communism in the region.
Official figures list 300 Panamanian soldiers and 214 civilians killed in the month-long occupation, while 23 U.S. soldiers also perished. However, regional human rights groups put the number at between 2000-3000 people.
“This wound suffered 31 years ago is still open,” said Archbishop Jose Domingo Ulloa of Panama City. “We still don’t know how many lives were lost. We know there were thousands of victims, but we need to know with precision the events that took place around this painful moment.”
During his Sunday Mass homily, which coincided with the anniversary of the invasion, the prelate called for the people of Panama to read the signs of the time and to have “historic memory” to not make the mistakes that led to the conflict.
With his appeal, Ulloa is adding the voice of the Catholic Church to that of hundreds of Panamanian families who are asking authorities to clarify the events surrounding the United States invasion.
As Ulloa noted, in recent years the details of the invasion have been questioned, to the point that there’s even an argument regarding the real date of the military incursion. But for the archbishop, having a clear sense of what happened will also help the people of Panama to not forget the events that led to that invasion, “full of mourning and pain.”
With the invasion, Bush also claimed to be protecting the lives of Americans living in Panama and intending to restore democracy, so that the country could take full control of the then-U.S. owned Panama Canal by 2000.
Just after midnight, the invasion began with the fierce bombing of the neighborhood known as “El Chorrillo,” with mostly wooden homes where Noriega had his base of operations. The military deployment continued until Jan. 31, 1990.
Noriega found refuge in the Vatican’s embassy to Panama on Christmas Eve. The then-papal spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, is quoted by reports from that time saying that “based on my knowledge of international law and diplomatic procedures, I cannot see any possible way in which a nuncio accredited to one country, in this case Panama, can hand over to another state someone who has taken refuge.”
Soon after, the Panamanian bishops conference sent a letter to Pope John Paul II in which they warn that the “process of pacification and the orderly return to life in freedom is impeded for as long as General Noriega is in the nunciature.”
The dictator eventually left the nunciature Jan. 5, dressed in his uniform and accompanied by the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Sebatian Laboa.
An archive article of The New York Times argued that Noriega’s decision to leave the Vatican embassy put an end to an embarrassing diplomatic dispute in which the Holy See felt caught between its commitment to international law and the tradition of asylum and its desire not to be seen by public opinion in the United States and Panama as protecting Noriega.
Most of the Panamanian dead were buried in common graves in a cemetery that were exhumed months after the U.S. left, at the request of relatives of those who had died. Many bodies were identified, but many others remained unknown, with even more still missing.
In 2017, the government of Panama established the “20 of December 1989 Commission,” to try to investigate the crimes committed during that invasion, but the results have been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Only the truth over the facts will lead us, necessarily, to justice and reconciliation,” Ulloa said on Sunday. “It’s an open wound which we must heal as we find out the truth about what happened.”
During his homily the archbishop quoted his predecessor, late Archbishop Marcos Gregorio McGrath, who on Jan. 1, 1990, invited people to conversion, reconciliation, and the material and moral reconstruction of Panama.
“We’re certain that these words have not lost their urgency, because our evils are still rooted in the same things: in having more than being, in selfishness, in our moral and ethical crisis,” Ulloa said.
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