Exactly 20 years ago I was at a nightclub in Panama, where I had gone to spend my Christmas holidays. I had just gone for dinner with my brother and his new girlfriend and gone to watch the movie
, with Al Pacino. Just after midnight, the owner of the club shut the music off, made an announcement that there were “disturbances” and that we should all finish our drinks and go home.
We knew what “disturbances” meant – for the last weeks there had been several mini-clashes between the Panamanian military and American soldiers stationed in Panama, which had led General Manuel Noriega to go on national television and declare that Panama was in a state of war against the U.S.
As my friends and I made our way to one their homes, we passed three U.S. army trucks rolling down one of Panama city’s main avenues – and we knew these were not just normal disturbances. Thus began one of the most surreal and life-altering nights in my life – anyone who’s been in a war can probably say the same.
We stayed up all night as we heard bomb blasts, and airplanes and choppers flying overhead. In the distance, out the window, we could see fires from the blasts -- at the airport and in the other direction at the Panamanian Defense Forces headquarters. We followed the developments on radio and television... this was what made it surreal: it was all televised! We could watch the live coverage!
This was Operation Just Cause
, the U.S. invasion of Panama, carried out to protect the Panama Canal, to capture dictator Manuel Noriega and to return the country to democracy.
For the next week, leading us to Christmas, I experienced the real meaning of the holiday, as we were in a city in lock-down, with limited mobility, with army tanks and trucks parked on the side of the road and street barricades reinforced with U.S. army-issued barbed wire.
Operation Just Cause was exactly that – a just cause. Not that violence is ever warranted, but we do believe in the concept of a just war. But let me be really clear: I am not speaking about Vietnam or Grenada or Iraq – I am very specifically speaking about the invasion of Panama 20 years ago. In my opinion, and in the opinion of millions of Panamanians, it was a successful mission – it lasted about 8 hours and the so-called occupation lasted 2 weeks. About 500 people lost their lives and that is very serious. Many ended up in mass graves, and many, many thousands lost their homes, but Panama today is a much better place because the three goals of Operation Just Cause were achieved. Panama is now a democracy, no longer recovering, but thriving. So tonight, please join me in remembering the people who lost their lives 20 years ago – and in thanksgiving for how God has blessed the Panamanian people despite, or rather, in the midst of our struggles.