Aged and in prison, Noriega tries to draw a ‘Get out of Jail’ card in Panama

Panama's ex-dictator Manuel Noriega no longer looks like the machete-wielding chief of state deposed by an American invasion in 1989. Now 81, he recently pleaded for forgiveness from his countrymen.
Panama's ex-dictator Manuel Noriega no longer looks like the machete-wielding chief of state deposed by an American invasion in 1989. Now 81, he recently pleaded for forgiveness from his countrymen. AP

Now in a wheelchair, living his days in prison, 81-year-old Manuel Antonio Noriega cuts a far more docile figure than during his years as a machete-waving dictator. Yet still he evokes passions in his countrymen.

Noriega demonstrated that recently when he went on television to read a statement asking for forgiveness for his dictatorship, which ended when U.S. troops invaded Panama in late 1989.

Now, Panamanians are parsing whether Noriega displayed true contrition when he pleaded to leave prison for house arrest. Now they face a challenge: Whether to demand a full accounting from Noriega, including details of a beheading of a hated foe, or to turn the page on a history that is a generation old.

These days, Noriega dwells in a one-bedroom apartment in the Renacer Prison in a jungle-strewn area alongside the Panama Canal. The climate is sultry, but Noriega’s apartment has air-conditioning, a television and a computer. He spends much of his days reading news articles online. A doctor is on hand daily.

“Because of the strokes (that he suffered in years past), he has a lot of difficulty walking,” said Guillermo A. Cochez, a former Panamanian ambassador to the Organization of American States who has visited Noriega four times in the past month

Even his few supporters acknowledge that Panamanians generally believe the former strongman harbors secrets about complicities and abuses.

“They feel that there’s a secret truth that only he knows,” said Mario Rognoni, a former legislator for the Democratic Revolutionary Party, which once supported Noriega. Still, he added, Noriega presents no danger to Panama.

“Noriega is as harmless as a baby. He’s 81 years old. He has no followers,” said Rognoni, one of the onetime dictator’s few known friends.

After the U.S. invasion, Noriega spent more than two decades in detention in South Florida on drug trafficking, racketeering and money-laundering charges, then several more years in prison in France, returning to Panama in late 2011, only to remain in prison on charges of killing political opponents.

The televised statement and brief interaction with a television reporter at the prison June 24 was Noriega’s first televised appearance since speaking to former CNN television host Larry King in 1996.

“I apologize to anyone who was offended, harmed, injured or humiliated by my actions or those of my superiors in compliance with orders or those of my subordinates in the same status,” Noriega said, reading from his statement.

Noriega declined to answer questions about specific incidents of abuse during his regime, saying he’s paid his punishment. “I’ve been in captivity for more than 25 years,” Noriega told television reporter Alvaro Alvarado.

President Juan Carlos Varela and Panama City Archbishop José Domingo Ulloa both suggested that a pardon was in order. But a public backlash has built.

“The reaction has been so negative that if anyone in the present government were thinking of it, they are probably rethinking it,” said Roberto Eisenmann, the founder of La Prensa, Panama’s leading daily newspaper.

Eisenmann said Noriega wasn’t convincing in his appeal for forgiveness.

“There was no emotion attached to it. He didn’t convince anybody that it was a heartfelt appeal for forgiveness,” he said.

Relatives of murder and torture victims under Noriega express outrage.

“Noriega didn’t voice regret for anything,” said Carmenza Spadafora, sister of Hugo Spadafora, a physician and guerrilla fighter who disappeared upon entering Panama in 1985. His decapitated body was later found in a postal bag. The head was never found. The murder was blamed on Noriega’s henchmen.

“I think (the statement) backfired on him because he couldn’t hide the falsity of his repentance,” she said.

Spadafora, a scientist, said she “cannot imagine him going home to swing in a hammock.” Noriega, she added, should remain in jail “until his death.”

Cochez, the former ambassador, takes a sharply different view. As a former opposition legislator, Cochez was jailed twice during the Noriega years and feared in 1989 that he would be murdered upon returning from a trip to Miami. But Cochez said he believes Noriega has paid a sufficient price. When he tweeted about the case in early June, he was surprised to receive a phone call from Noriega himself.

“He said only, ‘Thank you for your support,’” Cochez recalled.

As a practicing Christian, Cochez felt moved to visit Noriega at the prison, and with the help of Catholic prelates he arranged the televised statement. During some of his visits, Noriega’s three daughters – Thays, Lorena and Sandra – were present, he said.

Questions remain about killings of political opponents during the Noriega years. In addition to the 1985 Spadafora murder, killings include the execution of Maj. Moisés Giroldi Vera, leader of a failed coup attempt in October 1989. Twelve others were executed for their part in the coup attempt in what is known as the “Albrook massacre.”

Opponents also blame Noriega for the excessive use of force by security forces against public protests in 1987 and deadly electoral violence in May 1989.

Cochez said he doesn’t know details of Noriega’s alleged role in such crimes.

“Any acceptance of a pardon for Noriega will not make him innocent,” Cochez said, adding that many Panamanian businessmen, politicians and judges never paid a price for collaborating with the Noriega regime.

“A lot of people were accomplices of what happened,” Cochez said. “They all abandoned Noriega. . . . He only has two or three people who visit him.”

It is up to criminal judges to grant or refuse Noriega permission to serve out time under house arrest, perhaps at the home of one of his daughters.

“He doesn’t have a lot of time,” Cochez said. “Noriega is the kind of guy who could die tomorrow because he has so many (health) complications.”

Tim Johnson: +52 155-2971-0360; @timjohnson4