Hardly mentioned in the justified celebrations of the life and leadership of George H. W. Bush was his highly controversial invasion of the Republic of Panama just days before Christmas in 1989.
Picture left: H.W. Bush, when serving as US Vice-president, meeting with Manuel Noriega
As the anniversary of the US invasion of Panama (Dec 22) [approaches] many commentators will be focusing on the role of George H.W. Bush in the event that led to the deaths of up to 4,000 Panamanians (depending on whose figures you use).
During the week surrounding his death and burial tributes poured in for his foreign policy achievements, but missing from most assessments was any reference to Panama.
Washington based Inter American Dialogue filled in the gap on December 7 after a writer visited the Bush museum in Texas.
The most controversial episode in Latin America during the Bush administration was the 1989 invasion in Panama to oust strongman Manuel Noriega. And the only thing related to Latin America in the Bush Foundation are the handcuffs used in Noriega’s arrest. Noriega was wanted in the US on drug trafficking charges, and the administration was determined to forcibly remove him from power and bring him to justice. The invasion provoked a strong reaction in Latin America, however. Though Latin Americans had no love for Noriega’s criminal, dictatorial rule, for many the unilateral, military action had a dubious legal foundation and evoked memories of US interventionism during the Cold War and before. That Noriega had long been a CIA asset didn’t help assuage their concerns. It was a troubling throwback that cost many lives and much destruction and seemed out of character for an administration so committed to multilateralism.
Of course, some parts of the Bush legacy in Latin America have proved more enduring and fruitful than others. After three decades since the start of the Bush presidency, there are sharp differences and much intense debate about the evolution and current state of trade, drugs, and democracy throughout the hemisphere.
Still, what the Bush administration showed is how crucial “style” is in diplomacy. Genuine and regular consultations are key to building trust and a sense of community. This is true generally, but especially so in Latin America, where the asymmetry with the United States is so pronounced and has strongly shaped inter-American relations, often with unhappy results.
George HW Bush’s record in Latin America teaches many lessons for constructively dealing with today’s hemispheric challenges. Perhaps, with time, that part of the 41st president’s legacy will be recognized, and find a well-deserved place in the Bush Museum in College Station, Texas.
[INTER AMERICAN DIALOGUE & NEWSROOM PANAMA]