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The long battle between the United States and General Manuel Noriega

General Manuel Noriega had declared war on the United States, and a war is what he got.

Noriega refused to yield to U.S. pressure and evaded capture for two weeks after invasion in Panama

On Dec. 20, 1989, Peter Mansbridge brings viewers up to speed on the events unfolding in Panama. 1:08

Thirty years ago, General Manuel Noriega declared war on the United States, and a war is what he got.

On Dec. 20, 1989, American forces roared into Panama by land, sea and air in a bid to oust the dictator, just five days after Noriega said his country was in formal conflict with the U.S.

"It was a full-scale invasion of Panama: Fighter jets and helicopters, ships and tanks, and wave after wave of American supply planes," the CBC's Peter Mansbridge told viewers, as coverage of the events there filled much of The National's newscast that night.

"It was a forceful attempt to end the regime of Panama strongman General Manuel Noriega."

Panama forces 'overpowered'

The bombed-out Panamanian Defense Forces Headquarters are seen in Panama City, about a week after American forces launched their invasion campaign in December 1989. (Matias Recart/Associated Press)

The military action led to casualties on both sides, including scores of civilians. But it also rapidly eroded Panamanian military defences, as well as the grip Noriega had held on power — as a U.S.-backed government was sworn into power in Panama that same day.

"By daylight, the U.S. forces controlled most of the country," said the CBC's Joe Schlesinger, in a report filed from Washington on the day's events.

"They overpowered the Panama Defence Forces with an invasion of more than 20,000 men, backed by modern air power." 

By the day's end, Colin Powell, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, said the U.S. forces were working on "mopping up" any remaining pockets of resistance.

'No one is sure where he is'

General Manuel Noriega, seen here in an Aug. 31, 1989 file photo, eluded capture when American forces entered Panama on Dec. 20, 1989. (Matias Recart/Associated Press)

However, the invasion effort, which the Americans had dubbed Operation Just Cause, did not lead to the immediate capture of the intended target.

"Noriega wasn't where the Americans thought he would be and no one is sure where he is now," said Mansbridge.

The general did get a message out on Nicaraguan radio, telling Panamanians "to win or die" and calling on the world to come to his country's aid.

The decision to go into Panama had been made at a time when tensions had escalated between the 55-year-old Noriega and the United States.

Resisting the pressure

Tensions had been escalating between Gen. Manuel Noriega, shown above in a May 1989 photo, and the United States for some time before the invasion of Panama. (The Associated Press)

Noriega's path to power began with a close association with Gen. Omar Torrijos, the head of Panama's armed forces.

Torrijos died in a 1981 plane crash and two years later, Noriega became the head of the armed forces in Panama.

And while Noriega once had a more collegial relationship with the U.S. — helping the Americans seize drug shipments and also assisting the CIA — those ties steadily deteriorated in the 1980s.

In 1988, Noriega was indicted on drug charges in the United States and his regime faced sustained pressure from Washington, which endured after newly elected U.S. President George H. Bush took office the following year.

In May 1989, Terry Milewski reports on tensions between the U.S. and Manuel Noriega, following Panama's national election. 2:01

In May of 1989, Panama held a national election of its own, but Noriega soon nullified the results. Washington continued its efforts to remove Noriega from power, but the dictator resisted and even survived an attempted coup that fall.

'An imminent danger'

In this Dec. 20, 1989, file photo, President George H.W. Bush addresses the nation on television from the Oval Office in Washington as he explains his decision to deploy American troops to Panama. (Barry Thumma/Associated Press)

That December, Noriega made his declaration of war. Soon after that, an incident involving Panamanian soldiers left an off-duty U.S. soldier dead and several other Americans injured.

"That was enough: General Noriega's reckless threats and attacks upon Americans in Panama created an imminent danger to the 35,000 American citizens in Panama," Bush said in a televised address.  

"As president, I have no higher obligation than to safeguard the lives of American citizens."

'A puppet of the United States'?

The National's Wendy Mesley reports on the Canadian reaction to the invasion of Panama. 2:38

Despite the provocations the United States cited in its justification for entering Panama, Operation Just Cause didn't have much support across the Americas, with the exception of Canada.

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had reportedly learned of the invasion after receiving a phone call from the U.S. president in the middle of the night.

Afterward, Mulroney and External Affairs Minister Joe Clark spoke to consider Ottawa's response to the news.

"We regret the use of force, but in the circumstances, we understand and sympathize with the position the United States government has taken," Clark told reporters.

Mulroney was seemingly irked when reporters asked him if the line he and Clark were walking gave the appearance of Canada being "a puppet of the U.S. government."

"What would you have us do? I hear you've got a drug-runner and a thug running a country? He declares war on the United States? He assassinates some innocent American citizens?" Mulroney asked. "We're going to be 'a puppet of the United States?' Of course not."

A justified exception?

New Democrat Leader Audrey McLaughlin did not agree with the Canadian government's take on the situation in Panama, when the U.S. invaded in 1989. (The National/CBC Archives)

Opposition members in the House of Commons were not supportive of the U.S. actions in Panama.

"It is not good enough to simply give words of regret," said Audrey McLaughin, the rookie New Democrat leader.

Liberal MP Christine Stewart asked how Canada's reaction to the Panamanian situation would affect its ability to respond to other such events in future.

"If we make an exception for the U.S. now, how can we [expect] to be credible when in the future some other country invades a sovereign territory on the same pretext?" said Stewart.

Noriega found, but 'out of reach'

On Dec. 24, 1989, Sunday Report brings viewers news on the whereabouts of Gen. Manuel Noriega. 2:58

Four days after the American troops landed in Panama, news broke that Noriega was at the Vatican embassy in Panama City — a move to safer ground that had apparently caught the U.S. by surprise.

"The ousted general apparently drove there earlier today, walked inside and asked for political asylum," the CBC's Ian Hanomansing told viewers on Sunday Report on Dec. 24, 1989.

But as Hanomansing explained, it was not clear how, or if, the U.S. forces could apprehend Noriega given that he was "out of reach" at the embassy.

Reporter Tom Kennedy provided more detail on the options at hand for the Americans, as well as the circumstances that had tied their hands in Panama City.

"Washington says it has the right to bring Noriega back to the States to face drug-smuggling charges," said in his report that aired on Sunday Report.

"Earlier today, the new [Panamanian] government, that is in power because of the U.S., said it may not necessarily bend to American will."

For the dictator or the media?

The CBC's Tom Kennedy reports on the situation in Panama on Dec. 28, 1989. 2:28

Kennedy was again reporting from Panama four days later, providing some detail on the rock music that American forces had been blasting on speakers directed toward the embassy.

"It's unclear if it's designed to harass Noriega, or the media whose parabolic microphones in nearby buildings could eavesdrop on the negotiations going on inside," Kennedy said.

CBC News reported the invasion had, to that point, caused an estimated $500 million of damage to the Panamanian economy.

The end of the embassy drama

On Jan. 2, 1990, the CBC's Anna Maria Tremonti reports on the ongoing stalemate in Panama involving Manuel Noriega. 2:07

The stalemate involving Noriega and the United States dragged into the new year, even as hints emerged it might be coming to an end.

"Now the process of finding a way to get Noriega out has taken a new twist," the CBC's Anna Maria Tremonti reported on The National on Jan. 2, 1990, the day before Noriega would surrender.

"A Vatican emissary is now in Panama City to aid in the negotiations. [U.S.] President George Bush has shuffled ambassadors, sending his Central American troubleshooter Deane Hinton to take over in Panama."

Tremonti said the sight of "several official motorcades" fuelled speculation a deal had been made for Noriega to surrender. But that hadn't happened at the time her report aired.

The following day, Noriega left the embassy and turned himself in to American authorities.

Manuel Noriega left the Vatican embassy in Panama City on Jan. 3, 1990 and turned himself over to American authorities. He was then taken to the U.S. and eventually put on trial. (Associated Press)

He was subsequently put on trial in the U.S. in 1992 and served a lengthy drug sentence, before being sent to France to face other charges in that country.

Noriega died in May 2017 at the age of 83, following a battle with cancer.