Obituary of manuel antonio noriega: the man who played all pianos

The man who once defiantly stood up to the U.S. died in a humiliating house arrest in his native Panama.

Noriega long determined Panama’s fortunes Photo: ap

Manuel Antonio Noriega was once a close confidant of nationalist dictator Omar Torrijos, who wrested the Panama Canal from the U.S. in 1977. Thanks to successful intrigue, the longtime CIA liaison took over leadership of the National Guard three years after the popular general’s death, and thus de facto rule of the country. In 1984, he prevented the 83-year-old right-wing populist Arnulfo Arias from winning the election by openly pushing his candidate, the compliant economist Nicolas Ardito Barletta, into the presidential palace.

For years Noriega tried to play all the pianos: He was in the pay of the CIA with the mission of busting drug lords in the country, but he himself snacked heavily on the cocaine business. He served the nationalist forces in the army with a rabidly anti-imperialist discourse and the poor with socialist slogans, but at the same time ensured that Panama’s banking center remained well in business.

When the Panamanian middle and upper classes began demonstrating against the general’s despotism in 1986, the United States still showed little interest in regime change. The National Guard made generous use of tear gas and truncheons. But in his balancing act between drug trafficking and drug control, Noriega increasingly slid to the side of the traffickers. He rejected a face-saving departure, which the United States wanted to allow its vedient collaborator.

Thus, in 1988, trials were opened against him in Florida for drug trafficking and money laundering. One coup attempt and unsuccessful secret negotiations later, an attempted coup was hatched in Washington that included Noriega’s assassination. But the Intelligence Committee in the U.S. Senate blocked the plan. In May, opposition candidate Guillermo Endara won the presidential election. Noriega annulled the election results, and the U.S. withdrew its ambassador and sent an additional 2,000 troops to the Canal Zone.

Invaders were enthusiastically welcomed

When neither economic sanctions nor an attempt at mediation by the Organization of American States (OAS) could bring Noriega to his knees and the general had himself appointed head of state with unlimited powers in December, the U.S. came under increasing pressure to act.

On 20. December 1989, a 26,000-man military intervention – the largest military operation since the Vietnam War – ended the showdown. Although the operation cost between 4,000 and 7,000 lives, according to independent estimates (the U.S. Armed Forces Southern Command reported the deaths of 314 Panamanian soldiers and 202 civilians), the invaders were enthusiastically welcomed in most parts of the country. Except in some barracks, there was little resistance. President-elect Guillermo Endara was sworn in as the new head of state in the Canal Zone. General Noriega took refuge in the apostolic nunciature.

A diplomatic tug-of-war ensued that lasted several days. On January 3, 1990, the nuncio ended the siege and extradited the ousted dictator. In 1992, a court in the United States sentenced him to prison for drug trafficking, racketeering and conspiracy, of which he served 20 years.

In 2010, he was extradited to France, where another sentence of seven years followed. But already in 2011 the French granted the request of the Republic of Panama and extradited the prominent prisoner. Since then, he has sat in the El Renacer detention center right next to the Panama Canal. In January, he was released to house arrest due to an acute brain tumor.

Panama’s acting President Juan Carlos Varela tweeted that Noriega’s death closed a chapter in Panamanian history, saying "his daughters and relatives deserve a burial in peace."