FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Puppet of History: Panama’s Manuel Noriega

“Bush appeared on television to praise the invading troops and to say his cowardly vision – all that a wimp with an inferiority complex could be capable of.”

–Manuel Noriega on George H. W. Bush

The late General Manuel Antonio Noriega has done more to demonstrate the bipolar nature of US foreign policy in the Americas than any single, historically anointed individual. In its tendency to veer between outraged morality and cynical cold steel Realpolitik, US foreign policy found in Noriega a thermometer of sorts, though the temperature readings were often confused.

When it suited Washington, Noriega was the CIA’s man in Panama, a glorified errand boy who got above his station. Then, the winds turned, leaving Noriega high and dry. It was not that he wasn’t a serial human rights abuser, though this was used against him in due course. (The role of the US School of the Americas, located in Panama till 1984, remains a memorably disturbing stain behind various Latin American death squads.)

What mattered was his cultivation, in time, of a network of power interests and influences across Latin America, including Havana. His lukewarm response to assisting Washington in that dirty conflict against Nicaragua with the aid of the Contra army sounded another nail into coffin. Then came the drugs and the dance with the Colombian cartels.

Noriega would subsequently claim in his memoirs that Colonel Oliver L. North had requested he mine Nicaraguan harbours as a willing servant of Washington’s interests. The General preferred to ignore him. He was no longer in favour in the morally weary halls of Washington. He had to be gotten rid off.

The US invasion of Panama in December 1989 was typically imperial: brute force masquerading as moral mission. The ground had been softened by a massive campaign singling out Noriega’s human rights abuses, and the threat to American lives. Provocations by US soldiers were initiated. Few media outlets in the United States bothered to question the accounts, humming to the sound of government press releases.

Noriega, and Panama, had become symbols of convenient outrage and props for the projection of US power in the closing chapters of the Cold War. (The previous month, the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Iron Curtain rapidly parting.)

In purely power terms, the General had stepped out of turn, having helped himself to the largesse of US interests and Latin American favour. He would simultaneously supply secrets about Cuba to US authorities while happily selling Fidel Castro thousands of Panamanian passports to be used by Cuban agents.

Murray Kempton captured this predicament well: “To feed off the United States is to subject yourself to all sorts of inconveniences from a Senate where Jesse Helms arraigns your friendship with Fidel Castro one day and Christopher Dodd your human records the next.” These subtleties evaporate before the decision to transact with the Medellín and Cali cartels, liberating the subject “from even the lightest chains of ideology.”

Would this caricatured, cartoon villain be able to withstand the US? Initial suggestions were made that Noriega might manage to bring about another quagmire for US forces. The “Dignity Battalions” were taken as representatives of genuine patriotic worth. But there was little getting away from the fact that an Uncle was providing some stern discipline for a pygmy relation. The invasion resulted in a good deal of slaughter.

The Medellín temptation was powerful, assuming a galloping temptation that supplied Noriega with cash and power broking prestige. The Senate subcommittee on narcotics and terrorism fielded material about Noriega’s conversion to the narcotics market in the late 1980s. The tainted Ramon Lillian Rodriguez was a source of ratting inspiration, explaining to the Committee chaired by Senator John Kerry that Noriega had assumed money laundering responsibilities while also supplying Panamanian security forces to the cartels. The golem had gotten out hand.

The more astute operatives would have worked out that he was never controllable in the least. Furtive sexual encounters do not necessarily suggest understanding, let alone influence. Links forged in 1976 with George H. W. Bush, who was then the director of Central Intelligence, were not blood insured covenants, but understandings of interest. But no US leadership can keep unctuousness out for long. There is always an understanding about who sets the terms.

After the invasion commenced, Noriega fled to the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See. A reluctant Monsignor Jose Sebastian Laboa relented to the imposition, having had next to no time to consult the higher-ups in the Vatican. US special forces, in the meantime, were charged with the task of capturing the diminished figure.

What followed was an ignominious effort to force Laboa’s hand. The State Department hectored him; military operatives rained psychological warfare upon the compound. Laboa, in time, decided that the church’s promise of sanctuary needed to be reneged – by dissimulation if necessary. Surrender was a foregone, bitter conclusion.

Noriega would subsequently face a farcical and poorly conducted trial. (Resorting to 40 convicted drug traffickers as witnesses for the prosecution is treacherous ground indeed.) In 1992, he was sentenced to 40 years in Florida as prisoner No. 41586, convicted on cocaine trafficking charges, racketeering and money laundering.

Subsequent in absentia trials took place in Panama (the execution of soldiers in the 1989 coup attempt) and France (money-laundering). His release in the US lead to extradition battles that landed him first in France, then back in Panama.

Was he being punished for being too American, the showman who went just a touch too far? Ultimately, the puppet can never be permitted to be the puppet master.

More articles by:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Weekend Edition
August 17, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Daniel Wolff
The Aretha Dialogue
Nick Pemberton
Donald Trump and the Rise of Patriotism 
Joseph Natoli
First Amendment Rights and the Court of Popular Opinion
Andrew Levine
Midterms 2018: What’s There to Hope For?
Robert Hunziker
Hothouse Earth
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Running Out of Fools
Ajamu Baraka
Opposing Bipartisan Warmongering is Defending Human Rights of the Poor and Working Class
Paul Street
Corporate Media: the Enemy of the People
David Macaray
Trump and the Sex Tape
CJ Hopkins
Where Have All the Nazis Gone?
Daniel Falcone
The Future of NATO: an Interview With Richard Falk
Cesar Chelala
The Historic Responsibility of the Catholic Church
Ron Jacobs
The Barbarism of US Immigration Policy
Kenneth Surin
In Shanghai
William Camacaro - Frederick B. Mills
The Military Option Against Venezuela in the “Year of the Americas”
Nancy Kurshan
The Whole World Was Watching: Chicago ’68, Revisited
Robert Fantina
Yemeni and Palestinian Children
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Orcas and Other-Than-Human Grief
Shoshana Fine – Thomas Lindemann
Migrants Deaths: European Democracies and the Right to Not Protect?
Paul Edwards
Totally Irrusianal
Thomas Knapp
Murphy’s Law: Big Tech Must Serve as Censorship Subcontractors
Mark Ashwill
More Demons Unleashed After Fulbright University Vietnam Official Drops Rhetorical Bombshells
Ralph Nader
Going Fundamental Eludes Congressional Progressives
Hans-Armin Ohlmann
My Longest Day: How World War II Ended for My Family
Matthew Funke
The Nordic Countries Aren’t Socialist
Daniel Warner
Tiger Woods, Donald Trump and Crime and Punishment
Dave Lindorff
Mainstream Media Hypocrisy on Display
Jeff Cohen
Democrats Gather in Chicago: Elite Party or Party of the People?
Victor Grossman
Stand Up With New Hope in Germany?
Christopher Brauchli
A Family Affair
Jill Richardson
Profiting From Poison
Patrick Bobilin
Moving the Margins
Alison Barros
Dear White American
Celia Bottger
If Ireland Can Reject Fossil Fuels, Your Town Can Too
Ian Scott Horst
Less Voting, More Revolution
Peter Certo
Trump Snubbed McCain, Then the Media Snubbed the Rest of Us
Dan Ritzman
Drilling ANWR: One of Our Last Links to the Wild World is in Danger
Brandon Do
The World and Palestine, Palestine and the World
Chris Wright
An Updated and Improved Marxism
Daryan Rezazad
Iran and the Doomsday Machine
Patrick Bond
Africa’s Pioneering Marxist Political Economist, Samir Amin (1931-2018)
Louis Proyect
Memoir From the Underground
Binoy Kampmark
Meaningless Titles and Liveable Cities: Melbourne Loses to Vienna
Andrew Stewart
Blackkklansman: Spike Lee Delivers a Masterpiece
Elizabeth Lennard
Alan Chadwick in the Budding Grove: Story Summary for a Documentary Film
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail