Americas

Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega is dead

Manuel Noriega, who went from Panamanian military strongman to Miami jailbird in the blink of a geopolitical eye after picking a fight with Washington that ended with the U.S. invasion of his country, died late Monday, a few months after surgery to remove a brain tumor went bad.

The 83-year-old Noriega died in Panama City, his final stop on a 27-year-long tour of the world’s prisons — 17 of them in Miami — after American troops toppled him in a brief but bloody military engagement in the week before Christmas, 1989.

Noriega served the prison time for convictions on drug-related charges in the United States and France, and for murder in Panama. In Panama, he was released to house arrest in January in preparation for his surgery.

“The death of Manuel A. Noriega closes a chapter in our history,” Panama’s president, Juan Carlos Varela, said Tuesday on Twitter.

Once a feared dictator whose political enemies were liable to go falling from helicopters or be found headless in remote jungle clearings, Noriega had been reduced by the hardships of jail and the harsh vicissitudes of time to a palsied old man in a wheelchair in the final years before his death.

“Nobody feared him anymore,” said R.M. Koster, co-author of “In The Time Of The Tyrants,” an astringent history of military rule in Panama that focused heavily on Noriega. “Nobody even knew who he was, hardly.”

It was a strange and unexpected denouement to the story of Noriega, who grew up an orphan in a festering Panama City slum but cannily and cunningly rose to be the military dictator of the country sitting astride the single most important shipping route in the world.

First as Panama’s military intelligence chief and then as head of its army — the de facto ruler in a country where the impotent civilian government didn’t even rise to the status of a puppet — Noriega spied for and upon some of the major Cold War powers, particularly the United States and Cuba.

Neither side trusted him very much, but neither side wanted to do without him, either. “He gives us incredibly good intel on Cuba,” said one U.S. intelligence official in 1986, as Washington’s relationship with Noriega was growing strained. “But who knows what he’s giving them on us?”

That wasn’t always the case. Starting in the 1950s as a low-level informer on the socialist student crowd he ran with in high school, Noriega cooperated with American intelligence services under seven U.S. presidents. And in the early days, he was a star.

A secret 1976 Defense Intelligence Report, since declassified, called Noriega, then 32, “intelligent, aggressive, ambitious and ultranationalistic. ... He is a man of action and not afraid to make decisions.” Added the report, presciently: “It should be of no surprise to some day find this officer in the position of commandant of the [Panamanian National Guard] and perhaps a dictator” of Panama. He would achieve both, but ultimately to Washington’s dismay rather than satisfaction.

Despite growing up in a ratty Panama City slum riddled by prostitution, drunkenness and random acts of violence, Noriega had a surprisingly bookish bent and graduated from the country’s best public high school. But as a poor creole in a country dominated by a well-to-do white business elite (Noriega would later contemptously refer to them as rabiblancos, white-asses), he had little chance at fulfilling his ambition of medical school.

Instead, he won a scholarship to a Peruvian military school — Panama had no military academy of its own — and after graduating in 1962, returned to join his country’s National Guard as a newly minted second lieutenant. His commander was an ambitious young major named Omar Torrijos, who recognized Noriega’s military acumen and slum-bred ruthlessness as potential assets.

Six years later, after Torrijos deposed Panama’s civilian government in a coup, he put Noriega in charge of not only military intelligence but political dirty tricks against labor unions, student groups and political reformers. The links Noriega formed with intelligence agencies around the world helped him consolidate power when Torrijos died in a plane crash in 1981.

So did the fearsome reputation Noriega had acquired as Torrijos’ enforcer. Whether it was true or not — and to some degree, at least, much of it was — Noriega was widely regarded as an assassin, a rapist, a torturer, even a deadly practitioner of black magic. (That one was true, sort of; Noriega was the only chief of state in the Western Hemisphere who had a staff witch, imported from Brazil.)

He rarely denied any of the accusations, or even seemed to take offense; the more repugnant the accusation, the more it added to the cloak of fear that gave Noriega his power. (One exception: The hateful nickname cara de piña, pineapple face, bestowed by his enemies in reference to the youthful acne scars that cratered his cheeks and forehead.)

“Noriega is like a malevolently smiling Wizard of Oz, blowing the smoke and whistles to manipulate his own image from behind a curtain,” wrote journalist John Dinges in his biography “Our Man In Panama.” He once even allowed an American reporter to — apparently jokingly — examine his head for a Satanic 666 marking.

None was found, which surely didn’t surprise the general, who believed his origins were loftier. “Ego sum qui sum,” he once told a Panamanian journalist in language that echoed God’s speech to Moses from inside a burning bush in the Biblical book of Exodus. “I am who I am. I am Manuel Antonio Noriega. I always have been. … There is nothing enigmatic about me.”

For the first several years of his backstage rule, Noriega kept his ambitions inside the ordinary parameters of Latin American military governments, enriching himself and his fellow officers through moderate levels of extortion and bribery while aggressively thwarting any attempt to return Panama to civilian rule. He made no move to compromise the Panama Canal or to disrupt the country’s economy.

But in a fatal overreach, Noriega in late 1985 forced out Panama’s elected president, Nicolas Ardito Barletta, for trying to enact some tepid anti-corruption measures. Barletta was a friend and former student of George Shultz, then U.S. secretary of state, and suddenly critics of Noriega’s bullyboy rule found a more attentive audience within the Reagan administration.

The timing could not have been worse for Noriega. The treaty-mandated turnover of the Panama Canal from the United States to Panama in 1999 was no longer looking so distant, and Washington was disquieted at the prospect of the canal being in the hands of an obviously kleptocratic government.

Even worse, in some ways, the Reagan administration was embarking on a much-publicized war on drugs that was incompatible with Noriega’s tolerance of (and acceptance of generous bribe money for) cocaine and marijuana shipments from Colombia passing through Panama.

The stresses between the two governments mounted. Noriega felt the United States was ungrateful for his past intelligence help. “When the Americans need something, they picture it very nicely and say you’re a hero, but when they don’t need you anymore, they forget you,” he told a Washington Post columnist in 1987. U.S. officials, for their part, feared Noriega was coming unhinged, going on TV to smash furniture with a machete and shriek threats against Washington.

The situation continued to deteriorate at a quickening pace as Noriega set mobs of his thuggish followers — “dignity battalions,” he called them, while U.S. diplomats preferred the term “dingbats” — on Panamanian opposition crowds. He fired another president, put down a coup attempt (and murdered the leader in cold blood in front of a crowd of witnesses) and bragged that he had the new U.S. President, George H.W. Bush, “by the cojones” over unspecified intelligence secrets. And whatever remote chance there was that the crisis could be calmed by talking it out vanished when a federal grand jury in Miami indicted Noriega as a drug racketeer.

When, exactly, the United States decided to invade Panama remains a secret. But throughout the fall of 1989, the Pentagon began sending a steady trickle of heavy weaponry into U.S. military bases in Panama under the guise of ordinary training and maneuvers. Tensions boiled over in mid-December 1989 during a week in which Panamanian troops shot and killed one U.S. military officer, severely beat several others and sexually molested the wife of another while she was in police custody.

On Dec. 20, thousands of U.S. troops invaded. The Panamanian army broke and ran almost immediately, though not before losing 300 men. (About 300 civilians were also killed, as well as 23 Americans.) Noriega snuck into a Vatican diplomatic compound in Panama City on Christmas Eve to ask for political asylum, but — after a couple of weeks surrounded by U.S. troops blasting heavy-metal music at Armageddon volume — surrendered.

Noriega was transferred to a federal detention cell in South Florida almost immediately, where local entrepreneurs made a considerable chunk of money selling T-shirts bearing his jail mug shot over a parody of a Miami marketing slogan of the day: MIAMI — SEE IT LIKE A DICTATOR.

His trial two years later resulted in convictions on eight counts of narcotrafficking and money laundering, immeasurably aided by a herd of accused drug dealers who struck deals with the Justice Department bargaining down a collective 1,435 years in prison to 81 in return for their testimony.

Noriega, sentenced to 30 years, served 17 in the Federal Correctional Institute in South Dade, but his early release for good behavior in 2007 only sent him to face prosecution in France. The French turned him over to Panama in 2011.

Fears, particularly in the United States, that Noriega’s return would destabilize Panamanian politics proved to be unfounded. Despite occasional attempts to coherently codify his political philosophy (“Thought, Doctrine and Praxis Of Comandante Noriega,” his attempt to imitate Mao Tse-Tung’s little red book of Marxist aphorisms, was a giant dust-gatherer in Panamanian bookstores), Noriega and his supporters shared not an ideology but a mutual venality. Once the general was out of power, his following vanished almost instantly, and soon, much of the nation’s collective memory of Noriega followed.

“Panama is a country where people move on from things, looking forward, not back,” said Surse Pierpoint, the manager of the gigantic free-trade zone at the eastern end of the Panama Canal. “My daughter was 1 year old when Noriega fell. Now she’s 28. People her age have no memory of him.” Koster, the historian, was leafing through a Panamanian high-school history textbook recently and was astonished to discover it contained only a single paragraph on the entire 12 years of the country’s military rule.

“And it wasn’t a very long paragraph,” he added.

For many years, Noriega himself seemed to share the American delusion that he was still a significant factor in Panamanian politics. Nearly every morning during his stay in federal prison, he made a permitted local call to a friend in Miami who then patched him into a series of long-distance calls to Panama.

“He catches up on the political gossip, and then he starts giving advice and even orders,” one of the regular recipients of Noriega’s calls told a Miami Herald reporter in 2001. “And everybody says, ‘Si, mi general,’ and then goes about their business. He’s completely delusional.”

Nor did he apparently achieve much understanding of his fall from power. In 1992, federal marshals drove him to Atlanta to get him out of the way as Hurricane Andrew bore down on Miami. Chatting during the trip, one of the marshals asked Noriega about that incident where he waved the machete at the gringos. Man, the marshal said, what were you thinking? Said the general, sheepishly: “I guess I f----d up.”

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