Panamanians campaign to overthrow dictator (The Civic Crusade), 1987-1989


Initially the goal was to remove dictator Noriega from office but not necessarily to overthrow the military regime. The National Civic Crusade (NCC) therefore backed Colonel Roberto Diaz Herrera in his power struggle with Noriega. The initial demands took this form:

a.) All those accused by Colonel Roberto Díaz Herrera, civilian and military, must be separated from their positions pending an investigation into the charges.
b.) An independent commission be formed to conduct the investigation.
c.) Reconstruction must begin of institutions that would guarantee justice and a truly democratic system.

Time period

June, 1987 to December, 1989


Jump to case narrative

Segment Length

Approximately 5 months

Notes on Methods

Although demonstrations were used in the 6th segment, after September 1989, there was very little direct action used by the campaigners


The National Civic Crusade (led by the president of the Panama Chamber of Commerce, Aurelio Barria and Church liaison, Father Fernando Guardia)


National Free Enterprise Council (CONEP); Chamber of Commerce; Panamanian Business Executives Association; Women’s organizations (such as Cuidadanias de Panama and Mujeres Civilistas de San Miguelito); Medical personnel and dentists associations; Some labor unions

External allies

University and secondary-school students and professors; independent journalists; U.S.A.; The Catholic Church in Panama

Involvement of social elites

Colonel Roberto Díaz Herrera (who had been chief of staff of the president, General Antonio Noriega Moreno); Catholic Church clergy wrote letters against the military regime


General Antonio Noriega Moreno and the Panama Defense Forces (PDF)

Nonviolent responses of opponent

Lockout: The government closed universities and secondary schools

Campaigner violence

Students, most of whom did not seem to be connected to the CCN, rioted and clashed with police. The campaign grew from rioting in response to Herrera's forced resignation.

Repressive Violence

Arrests, torture, suspension of constitutional rights, censorship, and intimidation





Group characterization

Panamanian business leaders
some clergy

Groups in 1st Segment

Col. Herrera
National Civic Crusade
Chamber of Commerce
Business Executives Association
Students and professors
Catholic Church in Panama

Groups in 2nd Segment

Labor unions
Women’s Organizations
Medical Associations

Segment Length

Approximately 5 months

Success in achieving specific demands/goals

2 out of 6 points


1 out of 1 points


3 out of 3 points

Total points

6 out of 10 points

Notes on outcomes

At the end of 1989 Noriega was removed from office through U.S. military intervention, after Noriega had declared war on the U.S. in response to its economic sanctions. The Panamanian nonviolent campaign can be given some credit for creating the situation that led the U.S. to impose sanctions, and weakening Noriega’s legitimacy. Some NCC leaders believed that the U.S. military should not have invaded but left it to the Panamanians to succeed through nonviolent struggle. Regarding another goal, there are few records of any court proceedings against any of the people Gen. Herrera had accused of crimes in 1987.

The National Civic Crusade was still playing an active role in Panamanian society when the U.S. government invaded Panama to overthrow Noriega in 1989.

During this time, many organizations were protesting the Noriega government and over 130 groups officially joined the Crusade. During the two years it remained active, the NCC was able to gain supporters, allies and partners from many different sectors of society.

Database Narrative

The Civic Crusade in Panama was an effort by the Panamanian population to dislodge the military dictatorship of Manuel Noriega through the creation of political organizations and the mobilization of numerous demonstrations and protests. Panama’s military regime began in 1968 when Omar Torrijos Herrera, a populist general, led a coup and ousted Arnulfo Arias Madrid from the presidency of Panama. The charismatic General Torrijos installed a military regime that promoted a mixture of populist and nationalist policy and used limited but effective repression to prevent civilian opposition groups from returning to power.

Ten years later, Torrijos decided to return the military to an indirect political role and place responsibility for economic management in civilian hands. His plan involved the enactment of a new electoral code, municipal elections in 1980, and presidential and legislative elections in 1984. However, with Torrijo’s death in an airplane crash in 1981, the country entered a period of a prolonged struggle for power. The elections were tainted by widespread allegations of fraud and whatever credibility the newly installed civilian government may have had was undermined further when General Antonio Noriega Moreno and the Panama Defense Forces (FDP) forced elected President Vallarino out of office. In the following two years, political tensions continued to increase but although there was some opposition to the regime, but it was mainly isolated events and confined to the traditional political parties.

The murder of a prominent opposition political figure, Dr. Hugo Spadatora, invoked the most organized backlash against the regime during this period. In 1985, the revolutionary activist publicly criticized the government and accused Noriega of involvement in drug trafficking and political scandals. In September of that year, Spadatora was kidnapped, brutally tortured, and allegedly murdered by PDF officers. His death made him a heroic figure and a rallying symbol for many grievances against the regime. His family led protests, symbolic actions, and religious observances to demand justice for Spadatora. Party leaders supported but were not directly involved in the protests. After six months, protests diminished, public attention faded, and the military appeared to have weathered the political storm.

The situation changed abruptly in June 1987. A power struggle within the FDP between Noriega and his chief of staff, Colonel Roberto Díaz Herrera, led to the forced retirement of Herrera on June 1. Six days later, the colonel responded with a series of public denunciations, accusing Noriega of involvement in the deaths of Torrijos and Spadatora, electoral fraud, drug trafficking, sale of visas to Cuban refugees, and giving high technology goods to Cuba. His accusations were aired on the radio and television and printed in La Prensa newspaper. Revolutionary radio journalists urged people to take to the streets to demand justice and defend their freedom of expression. The opposition that had been building for years finally had an outlet, and almost immediately there was widespread rioting throughout Panama.

Resentment over continued military domination of the political system, a perception of increased corruption and inefficiency within the government, and a feeling that political conditions were increasingly unfavorable for business all combined to make many business leaders willing to join, and even lead, open opposition to the government. During the June 1987 crisis, business groups played a key role in the organization and direction of the National Civic Crusade (CCN). This umbrella organization led many of the protests against the regime and called for the immediate resignation of Noriega, the reinstatement of the plan to transition to democracy, and an independent investigation into the accusations made by Herrera.

Many of the major bodies within the National Free Enterprise Council (CONEP), such as the Chamber of Commerce and Panamanian Business Executives Association, became formal members of the CCN. A total of more than 130 business, professional, civic, and labor groups joined the crusade, which undertook the task of organizing, directing, and coordinating the campaign to force Noriega out of power and to reduce the role of the military in government. The crusade deliberately excluded political parties from its membership and active politicians from its leadership. The presidents of CONEP and of the Chamber of Commerce took major leadership roles within the crusade, which emphasized peaceful demonstrations, economic pressures, and boycotts of government enterprises as means of forcing change on the government.

Between June and August 1987, Panamanians continued their demonstrations and participated in several business-led protest strikes. They held daily protests along main streets. The FDP attacked these protests on July 10, 1987. In a day that has become known as “Black Friday,” FDP forces killed and injured many of the demonstrators. Nonetheless, Panamanians remained in the streets for months.

As the demonstrations spread, the government responded by declaring a state of emergency, suspending constitutional rights, and instituting censorship. The FDP began a campaign of measured violence and intimidation, often focused against the crusade’s leaders and supporters. Violent actions by government forces further polarized public opinion. The government threatened to arrest those involved in the protests and seize the property of businesses that joined in the strike, closed the schools, and unleashed a virulent propaganda campaign accusing its opponents of being linked with United States interests that wanted to abort the Panama Canal treaties.

The leadership of Panama's Roman Catholic Church joined in criticism of the government but urged a peaceful solution to the national crisis. Priests were frequently present at CCN rallies and demonstrations and masses downtown become a focal point for some CCN activities. However, the church stopped short of formally endorsing the CCN or calling for specific changes in the government and FDP. Instead, it stressed the need for dialogue and reconciliation. The archbishop's insistence on pursuing a moderate, neutral course in the conflict did not satisfy all of the church leadership. In November, two assistant bishops and a large number of clergy issued their own letter, denouncing government actions and urging changes in the conduct of the military. In late 1987, the church was becoming more active but was finding it difficult to agree on the manner and nature of that activity.

Students and some teachers' groups also played a major role in the 1987 protests. At least one university student was killed by the FDP, and the government closed the University of Panama twice and closed all secondary schools during the June protests. Many professors accepted reduced salaries in an attempt to keep the universities open in defiance of regime pressures. Periodic student protests took place throughout the year, frequently producing violent confrontations with the security forces. Although most student organizations were not part of the CCN, their growing opposition to the political role of the FDP and the policies of the government made the task of restoring order and stability even more difficult.

Periodic protests, strikes, and demonstrations continued throughout the second half of 1987. Besides the CCN, many labor unions, women’s associations, and medical associations also staged protests. Relations with the United States deteriorated rapidly as the government charged the United States embassy with supporting the opposition and bitterly protested a United States Senate resolution calling for an investigation of the charges made by Díaz Herrera. An attack on the embassy by a mob and the arrest of United States diplomatic and military personnel by the FDP led to a suspension of military assistance and increased economic sanctions by the United States.

Fifty days after the Herrera’s public denouncements of the government, Noriega placed him under house arrest. Despite his previously close relationship with the oppressive government, Herrera was now being seen as a hero and many people, including opposition party leaders, clergy, activists, and journalists, visited his home to show their support. On July 27, 1987, Herrera was arrested in his home and taken to prison. After spending six months in jail, he and his family were sent into exile after several countries negotiated his release from prison.

Throughout the next year, the CCN focused on neighborhood work and outreach to gather more support for their campaign. In the spring of 1989, the government announced it would continue with national elections as planned. An alliance of political parties opposed to the military dictatorship put forth their candidate (who was also heavily backed by the United States), Guillermo Endara who ran against pro-Noriega candidate Carlos Duque. The CCN organized an election monitoring organization, MEDEO, to count results from the country’s election precincts before they were sent to the district centers. Their tally showed their candidate winning by a nearly 3-to-1 margin. Noriega halted the vote count, declared the election null and installed a provisional president on September 1st, thus maintaining his power by force.

In response to continued economic sanctions by the United States, the Noriega government declared a state of war with United States on December 15, 1989. Retaliation by the U.S. was quick and on December 17, President George Bush ordered troops to Panama with the announced mission of seizing Noriega to face drug charges in the US, protecting American lives and property, and restoring Panamanian liberties. Noriega took refuge in the Vatican embassy in Panama until he surrendered to U.S. authorities on January 3, 1990. He was transported to Miami, Florida where he stood trial, was convicted, and sentenced to 40 years in a U.S. prison. In Panama and in France, Noriega was charged with various crimes including murder and money laundering and he is expected to be extradited after he completes his sentence in the U.S.

The night before the invasion, Endara and his two vice presidents were sworn in on a U.S. military base to head the government of Panama. In the years that followed, there was much criticism of the U.S. invasion of Panama and the aftermath of the government overthrow. Some CCN leaders believed that with more time their strategy of nonviolent action could have succeeded in pressuring Noriega to step down.


Panama has had a long history of nonviolent actions, which greatly influenced the Civic Crusade. These include the sovereignty demonstrations of 1959, the teacher’s movement of 1979, numerous women’s political movements and, most recently, the Spadatora protests in 1985. They were also influenced by the election-monitoring model used in the Philippines. (1)


Scranton, Margaret. “Panama, Civic Crusade, 1987-1989.” Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Meditz, Sandra W. and Dennis M. Hanratty, eds. Panama: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1987.

Sharon Erickson Nepstad, Nonviolent Revolutions. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Additional Notes

Edited by Max Rennebohm (02/06/2011)

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy

Meghan Auker Becker, 28/03/2010