(Theguardian.com) The atmosphere outside Gen Manuel Noriega’s battered, bullet-scarred comandancia, headquarters of the Panamanian Defence Forces, one early morning in October 1989, bordered on hysterical. Beyond the railings a woman sobbed with grief. Her husband, an officer involved in the previous night’s failed coup attempt against Noriega, was missing. It later transpired he and dozens of co-conspirators had been shot out of hand.
The headquarters was guarded by heavily armed, paramilitary thugs from Noriega’s feared Dignity Battalions. A crowd of supporters cheered and shouted insults about the US president, George HW Bush. Then, without warning, Noriega, Panama’s feared dictator, spy chief and self-styled “maximum leader”, appeared on the steps wearing combat fatigues, a red baseball cap and a broad smile.
“Who did this? Who did this?” waiting journalists shouted through the railings, meaning who was responsible for this crude attempt at forcible regime change. “The Americans did this! The piranhas did this. They want to finish Panama!” Noriega shouted back in Spanish. Then, as if fearing the Yanquis might take another shot at him, “Pineapple Face” (as Noriega was known, due to his pock-marked skin) hurried back inside.
Noriega, who died on Monday at the age of 83, was right to be nervous. The October coup attempt marked a turning point in Washington’s attitude to a man whose rise to power it had assisted, who became a valued CIA cold war asset and go-between in Central America’s dirty wars, but who turned into a monster US spy bosses could no longer control. Noriega had outlived his usefulness. Now he was an embarrassment. So Bush made him America’s most wanted.
When Noriega subsequently launched a vicious wave of repression, threatened American personnel guarding the Panama Canal and declared a “state of war” with the US, Bush pounced. Economic sanctions and quiet diplomacy had failed. Control over the strategically and economically vital canal was threatened. And Noriega knew too much. In December 1989, Bush ordered Gen Colin Powell, then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, to launch Operation Just Cause, sending 26,000 invasion troops into Panama in a rehearsal of the Powell “doctrine of overwhelming force” that was next employed two years later in the first Gulf war.
The invasion was over quickly and relatively bloodlessly, although the number of civilian deaths in the Chorrillo neighbourhood is disputed. A pro-American government was duly installed and Noriega was captured after a bizarre siege at the Vatican embassy in Panama City where he had sought sanctuary. The US army used loudspeakers to blast high-decibel rock music into the compound until Noriega (and the papal nuncio) could stand it no longer. Ignoring demands that he be tried in Panama, Latin America’s “last dictator” was spirited away. In effect, the Americans disappeared him.
Human rights and security aside, Bush had plenty of personal reasons for wanting Noriega out of the way. As CIA director and two-term vice-president to Ronald Reagan prior to 1988, Bush was implicated, by association, in often illegal, covert interventions in the civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua. During this period, Noriega, who rose to head the Panamanian security forces, became a highly paid informant and CIA “asset”.
Noriega helped the US to combat Cuban, and thus Soviet, influence in the region. He acted as an intermediary with US-backed contra rebels fighting Daniel Ortega’s leftwing Sandinista government and with the Salvadoran government and rebels. Death squads, random killings and torture characterised these murderous conflicts. Noriega was also closely associated with the Colombian Medellin drug cartel of Pablo Escobar.
Funds from drug trafficking were used to buy arms, pay fighters and suborn government officials. Noriega later claimed it was his refusal to help Lt Col Oliver North provide arms for the contra rebels in Nicaragua that triggered the US decision to drop him. North was the White House’s infamous covert operations pointman and a central figure in the Iran-contra scandal that shook the Reagan presidency.
Noriega’s knowledge of US operations in Central America was detailed and highly compromising. He was said to have met Bush in person on more than one occasion. During the 1988 presidential campaign, Michael Dukakis, the Democrat nominee, attacked Bush for his close relationship with “Panamanian drug lord Noriega”. When Bush, as president, launched his signature “war on drugs”, Republicans worried about possible embarrassing contradictions.
In 1988, in the wake of Iran-contra, a Senate committee concluded: “The saga of … Noriega represents one of the most serious foreign policy failures for the United States. Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, Noriega was able to manipulate US policy toward his country, while skilfully accumulating near-absolute power in Panama. It is clear that each US government agency which had a relationship with Noriega turned a blind eye to his corruption and drug dealing.” Noriega was allowed to establish “the hemisphere’s first narco-kleptocracy”.
Two years after his overthrow, Noriega was put on trial in Miami. Sitting glumly in the dock day after day, he cut a much-reduced figure compared with the bumptious dictator who strutted outside the comandancia. Noriega was convicted on a restricted list of charges including money laundering and drug trafficking, and sentenced to 40 years in a maximum security jail.
The court refused to allow Noriega’s defence to present any evidence relating to his work for the CIA, his payments from the US government, his knowledge of US subversion in Central America, his contacts with senior figures such as Bush, and their knowledge of his activities as Panama’s dictator. His lawyers protested, but in vain. In many respects, the Miami proceedings resembled an east European show trial, with the outcome never in doubt.
Bush got his man, Noriega was silenced, nefarious US behaviour in Central America was effectively concealed, and the concept of justified, forcible regime change was fatefully reinforced.