Former Panamanian Dictator And CIA Informant Manuel Noriega Dies | KERA News

Former Panamanian Dictator And CIA Informant Manuel Noriega Dies

May 30, 2017
Originally published on May 31, 2017 12:19 am
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One-time Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega is being remembered as a ruthless strongman of volatile CIA operative and a brash drug trafficker. Noriega was removed from office in the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama. He died last night in a Panamanian hospital after complications from brain surgery. He was 83. NPR's Carrie Kahn has more.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Manuel Noriega ruled Panama through much of the 1980s, crushing democratic rule at home, running drugs and money laundering operations for Colombian drug traffickers and maintaining an erotic alliance Manuel Noriega ruled Panama through much of the 1980s, crushing democratic rule at home, running drugs and money laundering operations for Colombian drug traffickers and maintaining an erratic alliance with the U.S.

JOHN DINGES: This guy is a very, very shrewd operator.

KAHN: Former journalist John Dinges wrote the book "Our Man In Panama" about Noriega and his complicated relationship with the Americans.

DINGES: He was a very, very important asset for the CIA to keep track of what was going on in Central America.

KAHN: Noriega was key to U.S.-backed anti-communist efforts in both Nicaragua and El Salvador at the time, says Dinges. Always more an opportunist than ideologue, Noriega also managed to maintain good relations with the U.S.'s No. 1 communist enemy in the hemisphere, Cuba's Fidel Castro. But in 1985, U.S. patience with Noriega seemed to run out. Evidence mounted of his prolific drug trafficking and alliances with Colombian cocaine smugglers while Noriega's illicit fortune ballooned, growing as high as $300 million according to U.S. prosecutors.

Noriega's love for womanizing and whiskey grew, too, as did his belligerence toward the U.S., like in this infamous political rally in the late 1980s when the dictator brandished a machete and defied U.S. pressure on him to step down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MANUEL NORIEGA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "This machete represents the dignity of the people of Panama," Noriega yelled as he repeatedly struck the weapon on the podium. In late-December of 1989, an unarmed U.S. soldier was killed. That set the stage or was the excuse many analysts said for George H.W. Bush to invade Panama.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE H W BUSH: As president, I have no higher obligation than to safeguard the lives of American citizens. And that is why I directed our armed forces to protect the lives of American citizens in Panama and to bring General Noriega to justice in the United States.

KAHN: At the time, it was the biggest U.S. military operation since the Vietnam War. Twenty-seven-thousand troops quickly toppled Panama's small defense forces. Twenty-three Americans died, as did hundreds of Panamanians, including civilians. Noriega hid out in the Vatican Embassy, but the U.S. tactic of blaring loud rock music 24 hours a day finally forced him out. He was whisked to Florida where he was convicted of drug trafficking and money laundering. Noriega spent 17 years in a U.S. prison and eventually spent the last years of his life in a Panamanian jail for the murder of political opponents. In 2015, he apologized on national TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NORIEGA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I ask for forgiveness to all the people I have offended, affected or humiliated," read the aged former dictator from a script. Noriega had little support back home and died last night in a local hospital from complications after brain surgery. Panama's current president tweeted news of Noriega's death, noting it was the close of one chapter in the country's history. Carrie Kahn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.