Our Monster in Panama

in Politics by

This week the United States buries one of its monsters. Manuel Noriega has finally croaked.

I had just turned five when the United States invaded Panama (again) in December 1989. A 2010 survey for Political Science Quarterly begins by describing the U.S. intervention as “the first American use of force since 1945 that was unrelated to the cold war,” but of course that isn’t exactly true. The military dictator of Panama since 1983, General Noriega, had been in “our man in Panama” since the sixties, a paid foreign agent of the CIA helping Washington in its decades long campaign to keep communism out of Central America.

President George H. W. Bush, a former head of the CIA who’d met with Noriega, used the general’s connections to drug trafficking and money laundering as a pretext for the invasion, even though the Senate subcommittee on terrorism, narcotics and international operations had concluded in 1988, a year before the invasion, that:

the saga of Panama’s General Manuel Antonio 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 towards 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, even as he was emerging as a key player on behalf of the Medellín Cartel.

The Medellín Cartel, for those living under a rock or without a Netflix subscription, was the Colombian drug-trafficking empire headed by Pablo Escobar.

The U.S. government today, as then, would like us to believe they toppled Noriega’s regime — at a cost of around 500 civilian lives — because he was a drug-dealing anti-democratic thug, but that’s not true. It was the same U.S. government, in fact, that trained Noriega to be an anti-democratic thug at the School of the Americas’s former campus in Panama. It was Washington that taught him its ways in the use of psychological warfare, and that kept him on the CIA payroll till 1988.

As far as the U.S. government was concerned, Noriega’s being a major narcotrafficker in the region presented merely a minor inconvenience, that is until the American public found out about him and his connection to Washington. And yet, it was only after Noriega had grown too unwieldy for his guayabera — murdering a prominent political opponent in 1985, nullifying the 1989 presidential election which the opposition won by a landslide, and killing (through his Panamanian Defense Forces) Marine First Lieutenant Robert Paz a few days before the invasion — did Bush I decide “our man in Panama” was more trouble than he was worth.

The invasion, codenamed “Operation Just Cause,” began at one in the morning local time on December 20, 1989. Fourteen days later, Panama’s “maximum leader of national liberation” surrendered to U.S. forces surrounding the Vatican embassy in Panama City where he’d sought sanctuary.

In April 1992, a federal court in Miami convicted him on eight counts of drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering, sentencing him to 30 years. He was released in 2007 for good behavior (#smh) but extradited to France where he was also wanted on charges of money laundering. He was sentenced to another seven years and had the over $3 million frozen in his French bank account seized.

He was extradited again in December 2011, this time back to Panama, where he was imprisoned for the crimes he committed during his rule.

Noriega died this past Monday night in a hospital in Panama City, having suffered a brain hemorrhage during a surgery weeks before to remove a brain tumor. At 83, the bastard lived to a ripe old age.

He lived 33 of those 83 years in relative comfort and safety, thanks to an annual six-figure salary from the CIA. The actual figure is still debated, with some reports as high as $200,000 a year during the Reagan years. For their part, the U.S. government in 1991 admitted to paying Noriega a total of $322,336, which, considering the source, is probably much lower than the truth.

As I began with, I was only five years old when the United States invaded Panama (again), and so I have no memory of General Noriega or the years in which he ruled Panama with a U.S.-gloved iron fist. But for leftists of my generation, the name Noriega is more a byword for U.S. imperialism and double-dealing across Latin America and beyond. “Noriega” is a censure against those who want to convince the American people and the world that the U.S. government is “peaceful [and] democratic,” that its activities in places like Central America are for its inhabitants “prosperity,” and that what Washington says and what it does are usually the same thing.

As for Noriega’s death, it means absolutely nothing to me — as with Washington’s word.


Featured image: Gen. Manuel Noriega is escorted onto a U.S. Air Force aircraft by agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (Jan. 3, 1990)

Hector is the founder and editor of MANO as well as the host of the LATINISH podcast. A Chicagoan living in Las Vegas, he's also the senior editor of Latino Rebels, part of Futuro Media, as well as a former managing editor of Gozamos, an art-activism site based in his home town. He was a columnist at RedEye, a Tribune-owned daily geared toward millennials. His work has been mentioned by The New Yorker, Good Morning America, TIME, the Washington Post, and other outlets, and his writing was featured in 'Ricanstruction, 'a comic book anthology whose proceeds went toward recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. He studied history at the University of Illinois-Chicago where his concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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