No one is weeping at the death of a former Panama President
On May 30, former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, a quirky and eccentric one-time ally and one-time foe of the United States, passed away. His death brought to a close a painful period in Latin American history, complete with CIA spies, lavish drug-fueled excesses and a full-scale American invasion of tiny Panama.
Noriega – who ruled Panama with an iron fist between 1983 and 1989 – had, to put it mildly, an interesting career path, characterised by a turbulent relationship with the United States, which was for over a century, deeply involved in Panamanian politics out of a desire to protect the all-important Panama Canal.
Born in 1934 to a relatively poor family, in Noriega’s own mind he was always destined for greatness. In his high school yearbook which was recently posted online by a reporter from (itals)The New York Times (itals) whose father went to school with him, Noriega noted that he wanted to be either a psychiatrist, or president of Panama.
Noriega’s path to power came as a result of his military career and close ties to another Panamanian leader, Omar Torrijos, who took power in a coup in 1968. Torrijos would remain in power until his death in a mysterious plane crash in 1981.
Two years later, Noriega, by then a Colonel and head of the country’s military intelligence service, came to power after negotiating a deal in which he was to be handed control of the Panamanian Armed Forces by its then leader, Ruben Dario Paredes, who was to be President. Once the deal was made, Noriega had Paredes arrested and took control of the country.
Noriega’s presidency, and indeed his life, was marked by double-dealing and constantly shifting alliances. For decades, Noriega was a paid agent of the CIA, giving the Americans intelligence and helping them fight Communism across Central America. At the same time, he was often making deals with America’s enemies, such as selling secrets and thousands of Panamanian passports to Fidel Castro’s Cuba for $5,000 each. In return for tipping off drug traffickers to American anti-drug activities, he took cuts from cocaine proceeds and amassed a personal fortune. By some estimates, it topped $770 million.
“He craved power and became a tyrant,” journalists Richard Koster and Guillermo Sanchez Borbon wrote in a 1990 biography. “He craved wealth and became a criminal. And the careers came in conflict.”
Among many, Noriega is infamous for being a sort of stereotype of an unstable Latin American dictator. He had a voracious appetite for whisky – and women – and for many years maintained a strange pen pal relationship with Sarah York, a 10-year old American girl who repeatedly visited Panama to meet with the dictator.
Despite his clear corruption, ties to cocaine trafficking organisations, and acts of violence against his own people – often at the hands of “dignity battalions” he set up to protect his regime – America was, for many years, willing to turn a blind eye, seeing Noriega as ‘their man’ in the fight against Cuban, Nicaraguan, and, by proxy, Soviet influence in the region.
“Noriega was able to manipulate US policy towards his country, while skillfully accumulating near-absolute power in Panama,” a US Senate Committee later concluded. “It is clear that each US government agency which had a relationship with Noriega turned a blind eye to his corruption and drug dealing.”
Over time, however, “Pineapple Face” (as he was known to many for his face scarred by pockmarks), became too much to handle for his one-time paymasters. In 1987, Congress cut off military and economic aid to Panama, and in 1989, he was indicted in an American court for drug trafficking and money laundering, accused of letting drug cartels use Panama as a transshipment point and of laundering the proceeds in Panamanian banks.
The ever-combative Noriega responded by organising anti-American rallies, and, in a famous speech, clutched a razor-sharp machete as he shouted the slogan “not one step back!”
In 1989, following the second of two failed coups against him, Noriega annulled the results of an election and assigned himself the title of “Maximum Leader” and the Panamanian national assembly declared war on America.
On December 16th of that same year, Noriega’s soldiers killed an unarmed American soldier in Panama City, wounded a second, and arrested a third, whose wife was threatened with rape.
“That was enough,” then President Bush said in a televised speech.
Four days later, over 27,000 US troops backed by combat aircraft and attack helicopters invaded Panama. They attacked Panamanian military bases and seized key installations “to protect American lives, restore the democratic process, preserve the integrity of the Panama Canal treaties and apprehend Manuel Noriega.”
With his forces quickly overwhelmed by American firepower – hundreds were killed and parts of Panama City heavily damaged by US bombing – Noriega took refuge in the Vatican Embassy. It was here that his rule of Panama came to a bizarre end, with American troops surrounding the embassy and blasting heavy metal music (notably AC/DC and Van Halen) at “deafening levels” to break the pop music-hating Noriega’s morale – he later described the music as “scorching diabolical noise.” He surrendered on January 3rd, 1990.
Quickly whisked away by American commandos, Noriega spent the rest of his life behind bars and fighting legal case after legal case, first in the US, then in France (where he also faced money laundering charges) and finally in his native Panama, where he was put on trial for the forced disappearances of his political foes in the 1980s.
“No one can avoid the judgment of history,” he later wrote in an autobiography penned with journalist Peter Eisner. “I can only be judged on the same scale of treachery and infamy of my enemies.”
Few Panamanians will weep for his passing.
“The death of Manuel A. Noriega closes a chapter in our history,” Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela tweeted.