Manuel Noriega (The Real Noriega) Is Dead – An Obituary

8 months ago Ricardo Hylton 0


In 2017, when we live in an era that surges with new monsters, fanatics and tyrants, the former Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega, who died in a hospital last Monday, at the age of 83, seem an almost quaint throwback to another time. Noriega had been all but forgotten by the world since his precipitous fall from grace, in 1989, when U.S. military forces invaded Panama to remove him from power.

While the world moved on and changed, Noriega spent the past twenty-seven years in prison, most of it in a U.S. federal penitentiary, after being convicted on drug-trafficking and money-laundering charges, then briefly in France, for money laundering, and finally, since 2011, back home in Panama, for murder.


Came from the Bottom Now I’m here

More than other caudillos of his day—Fidel Castro and Augusto Pinochet come to mind—Noriega was a creature of the Cold War, someone who thrived in the no man’s land of allegiances it sometimes created. To an unusual extent, his rise and fall also spoke to the peculiar warps and perversities of that era.

Noriega came from a modest family, joined the Panamanian National Guard as a cadet, and rose through its ranks in the fifties and sixties. At the time, Panama was a vassal of the United States, with Americans in control of the Panama Canal and the strip of land that straddled it, the U.S. Canal Zone.


A Body Without A Head

Noriega soon earned a reputation, and it was not long before rumors spread that he was also involved in the narcotics business, in partnership with Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel. When Noriega was asked if it was true about him and Escobar, he denied it, but conceded that he had allowed the Colombian narco-traffickers to launder their money in Panama’s banks—because the Americans had asked him to. “They wanted to follow the money,” he said. It felt like a half-truth.

In 1985, a Panamanian revolutionary named Hugo Spadafora emerged from the Nicaraguan jungle to tell anyone who would listen that his next battle was against Noriega. While travelling in Panama, Spadafora was forcibly removed from a bus by a pair of National Guardsmen, who led him away and, apparently after torturing him, sawed his head off with a knife. Noriega denied any complicity in the murder, but few believed it.

The sheer brutality of Spadafora’s killing was a watershed for many Panamanians, who began protesting Noriega’s rule and demanding justice. It was a precursor to a unique form of domestic terror.


Class and Race Warfare

According to Noriega, what was really happening in Panama was a class war, pitting Panama’s poor dark-skinned mestizos and blacks—people like himself—against the upper-class white-skinned rabiblancos (white-tails), who were supported by the Americans. Outwardly, there was some truth to Noriega’s claim, but it was also true that, under his control, Panama was becoming a thugocracy, and a scary place. In 1989, the Americans ended their military and economic assistance to Noriega, and supposedly removed him from the C.I.A. payroll as well.


Mr Pineapple Face

The invasion of Panama by the United States in December 1989 involved more than 27,000 troops, a parachute assault, and tanks. It was the biggest American military operation since Vietnam.

This was ‘Operation Just Cause.’ The proximate cause, as President George H.W. Bush explained it, was General Noriega’s “reckless threats” against Americans. Some 35,000 American soldiers and civilians lived in the Canal Zone, a decade or so after it had been controversially handed back to Panamanian control. The United States still needed a strategic grip on the country. Increasingly, it also had to keep a grip on the small, grinning, fatigues-clad, acne-scarred man (“Cara de Piña”, “Pineapple Face”), who had run it absolutely for six years, and de facto for eight.

The reasons for nabbing him were not far to seek. He had rigged presidential elections in 1984 and in October 1989, when he sent his “Dignity Batallions” to beat bloody the candidates who had won. In 1985 he had ordered the murder (“What do you do with a rabid dog?”) of another opponent who was found, headless, in a US Postal Service mailbag on the Costa Rican border.

After each attempted coup against him, the leaders were killed by firing squad. He and his associates were implicated in many more killings, including the death of his predecessor, Omar Torrijos, in a plane crash in 1981; after which “El Man” as he called himself, gathered all power into his clenched, raised fists.


Cocaina Baby…

As bad, though, in the eyes of the Bush administration was his lively role in the drugs trade. As the cold war faded, Mr Bush’s focus had turned to the narcos of Central and South America; and there, front and centre, stood General Noriega. With his help, the Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel were using Panama to ship Colombian cocaine to the United States.

His illicit takings from the business, as estimated when he was indicted for trafficking and embezzlement in federal court in Miami in 1988 and 1992, were at least US$772m, with perhaps US$200m-300m for himself. He laundered it through Panamanian and French banks; the French too brought charges against him.

At home, he showed few signs of that high life. He and his family lived in a modest two-storey house in a nice part of town: already not bad for a slum boy, abandoned young by his parents. With his mixed-race background and dark skin, he pitched his appeal to the poor and “humble”; in his high-school yearbook, he was already tipped to be a workers’ leader.

In perhaps his most famous speech, after a cut-off in American aid in 1988 had battered Panama’s economy, he urged the crowds, swinging a long machete, “Not One Step Back!” “¡Ni Un Paso Atrás!”—a phrase that quickly went up on billboards all over Panama City.


A CIA Seduction

In the eyes of the United States, General Noriega had to go. The deed was done, and he was tried, convicted and locked up first in Florida, then France, then Panama. But when his lawyers claimed that his indictment “smells all the way to Washington”, they were not wrong.

For as long as it suited the Americans, the general was their asset. The CIA recruited him as a fresh-eyed cadet in a Peruvian military academy, and trained him in counter-insurgency and jungle ops at the School of the Americas in Panama, run by Americans. There he was taught mostly to fight communists, at which he proved—he thought—not avid enough for his trainers. Double-dealing was more his style. Later he happily sold Panamanian passports at $5,000 each to the Cuban government, while passing Cuban secrets to the CIA.

From 1967 to 1988, a year before his ejection, he was on the agency’s payroll—and paid handsomely. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, he was an invaluable conduit of cash and weapons to the Nicaraguan contras. As head of Panama’s secret police and head of all its defence forces from 1983, he could capably lend a hand, as he offered, with sabotage and assassinations.

For almost all this time he was also assisting the hemisphere’s traffic in cocaine. He was not stopped. When he rigged the elections of 1984, the United States said nothing. He was too useful. It took a report from the narcotics subcommittee of the Senate in 1988, pointing out that wilfully turning a blind eye was not in America’s national interest, to change the wind.

After several days on the run, Noriega gave himself up, and he was later photographed being led meekly aboard an American military aircraft, for his extradition to the United States. Another photograph from that time shows Noriega pliantly holding up his identification card as his mug shot is taken. It was the end of an era.


Chavez Learns Lessons

Years later, early in his own time in power, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, after launching a failed military revolt, in 1992, to overthrow the country’s then President, he surrendered himself so as to save the lives of his men. When television cameras appeared on the scene, he said, “All I knew was that I didn’t want to appear before the nation looking like Noriega when he surrendered to the gringos, defeated and with a number hanging around his neck.”


Repent or Die

When Noriega was asked if he was resentful of the Americans for his long incarceration, he demurred. “I’m not bitter,” he said. “I try and understand them.” He suggested that, as a soldier, he understood that his adversaries had merely done what they felt they had to do.

In March, after being diagnosed with a brain tumor, Noriega was taken to the hospital for surgery, but he slipped into a coma during the operation and never regained consciousness. Upon hearing the news, a Panamanian who survived his regime wrote that Noriega had died “without glory. In my opinion he dies as he lived his life, as a coward, because at the end, he could not bring himself to tell his countrymen the truth about what he had done, so that they could heal their wounds.”