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Updated: April 29, 2010 23:58 IST

Why the U.S. wants to silence Noriega

Simon Tisdall
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General Manuel Antonio Noriega in this 1989 file photo.
AP General Manuel Antonio Noriega in this 1989 file photo.

The former Panamanian dictator is a reminder of U.S. interventionism in Central America.

As dawn broke over Panama City one morning in early October 1989, a crowd began to gather outside the headquarters of the Panamanian defence force. Inside the compound, shattered masonry and bullet holes in the walls bore witness to a coup attempt by junior officers. The putsch had failed. Now the people outside were waiting for the General. They wanted to see him, to know for certain he was still alive.

Further down the pavement on Calle 23, a woman sobbed. People said her Army officer husband had not returned home, that she feared he was among the 50 mutineers reportedly killed in the U.S.-backed coup. As the crowd grew and the sun came up, an old man sold lottery tickets and on a balcony overlooking the street, a woman hung out her smalls to dry.

Then, suddenly, the doors of the comandancia flew open and out came the man they were waiting for. Here, in crude good health, was President George Bush Snr.'s pet hate figure, America's most wanted, and Panama's answer to Colonel Gaddafi: General Manuel Antonio Noriega himself — an indicted drug trafficker and at that time perhaps the world's most infamous dictator.

Acknowledging the cheers of the crowd, Noriega, small and burly in crisp green combat fatigues and a red baseball cap, wore a triumphant smile. “Who did this?” a journalist shouted at him in reference to the attack on the comandancia. “The Americans did this. The Americans, the piranhas did this. They want to finish Panama,” Noriega replied.

Though he had no inkling of it that morning, Noriega's days in the sun were numbered. Two months later, Mr. Bush sent the American Army to finish what the coup leaders began. After causing a large and still disputed number of civilian deaths in the El Chorrillo neighbourhood around the comandancia, U.S. forces hunted down Noriega, arrested him, put him on trial in Miami, and sentenced him to 40 years.

The stated reasons for the U.S. intervention were many: anger at the harassment of military personnel based in Panama, worries over the safety of American nationals, the failure of diplomacy and sanctions, the security of the Panama canal, the city's position as a leading entrepot and money-laundering centre for illegal narcotics, and the importance attached to Mr. Bush's top domestic political priority — winning his self-declared “war on drugs”.

But Noriega's extradition to France this week, where he faces more drug-related charges, has refocused attention on the unspoken reasons why the “Maximum Leader”, also known as “Pineapple Face”, became such a threat to the then U.S. government and why such extreme measures were taken to silence him. His case also serves as a reminder of the U.S. policy of direct and indirect interventionism in Central America that bedevilled the region for decades.

America's thug

Noriega was a thug. But for many years, he was America's thug — until he turned on his mentors. Trained in military and intelligence matters at the School of the Americas, he became for a time a valued CIA “asset” working for the agency and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Government documents submitted to the Miami court in 1991-92 confirmed that Noriega was paid (at least) $320,000 by the U.S. government for services rendered.

Simply put, Noriega knew too much. He acted as a Cold War listening post for the U.S. during turbulent times in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, according to William Buckley's book, Panama: the Whole Story.

The jury in Noriega's trial on 10 narrowly defined drug-related counts heard none of this. Nor did it hear about Noriega's contacts with Oliver North, John Poindexter, CIA chief William Casey and other key figures in the Ronald Reagan and Bush administrations who, allegedly, connived in the supply of arms to Nicaragua's Contra rebels paid for with Medellin cartel drug cash.

Proof of connivance

There were many other such allegations, and Noriega claimed to have proof of senior U.S. politicians' connivance in drug trafficking for political purposes. But none was allowed in evidence. Nor was the new Panamanian government's demand that Noriega be returned there for trial accepted.

In Panama, Noriega would have been free to tell all he knew. And for many powerful men in Washington, some of whom are still alive, that prospect was potentially dangerous.

The outcome of the Miami trial, like the 1989 invasion, was never in doubt. It was a show trial, a warning to others. It was pure vengeance. It was a cover-up of decades of illicit regional meddling. But it was also a demonstration of raw American power, of which the world was soon to have more frightening examples. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

Keywords: Panamacoup

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