No return for Noriega
Out of sight and mind for almost two decades, inmate number 38699-079 completed his sentence on Sunday an older, frailer figure than the world remembered. Manuel Noriega served out his time at Miami’s Federal Correctional Institution with a gammy leg, his hair dyed and in the uniform of an army which no longer exists, a bogeyman from another era.
It was a return to the limelight, but not a return home.
The former dictator is to be sent across the Atlantic to become France’s prisoner; only afterwards, truly a relic, can he return to Panama.
The 73-year-old general no longer has a machete in his fist nor an army to command, but he still inspires enough anxiety for three governments to play an elaborate game of pass the parcel.
Noriega has served almost 18 years for drug racketeering in a special Miami cell, dubbed the presidential suite because it had two rooms, a television and an exercise bike.
He wants to return to Panama, the country he ruled and ravaged in the 1980s, despite convictions there for embezzlement, corruption and murder, including that of an opponent who was decapitated.
Rather than allow him back, the US has decided to extradite him to Paris to face money laundering charges and up to 10 years behind bars. Noriega will remain in US custody while appealing, but is likely to lose. Few want him back in Panama.
“There has been a deal to keep him away from here,” said Mario Rognoni, a friend and former cabinet minister who is one of those few. “It’s not right.”
The extradition fight is the latest chapter of a spectacular downfall. Once Central America’s alpha strongman and CIA ally, Noriega fell out with Washington in the late 1980s over deals with cocaine cartels and increasing repression. President George Bush ousted him in a 1989 invasion named Operation Just Cause. Civilian casualties, looting and suspicion over US motives prompted critics to rename it Operation Just ‘Cuz.
But the similarities with Iraq end there; today, few Panamanians question the price of deliverance. While Noriega languished in Miami, US troops withdrew and the country transformed from a cowed, bankrupt backwater into a democratic, economic dynamo. The question is whether it is ready to have him back.
“Noriega’s time brought a lot of pain and suffering, but we have been able to overcome that,” Samuel Lewis Navarro, Panama’s Vice-President and Foreign Minister, told the Guardian. “Democracy is flourishing and the economy is producing jobs and prosperity.”
Consecutive elections have been peaceful, and economic growth has roared ahead at more than 8% in 2006 and the first quarter of 2007. A forest of cranes and new skyscrapers loom over Panama City and 4x4s clog the avenues. A $5-billion expansion of the Panama Canal started last week, and a $4,8-billion Dubai-style centre is planned for the city’s outskirts. Inequality and squalor endure but are largely invisible to the tourists who pack hotels and restaurants. “We’re fashionable, everyone wants to come here to do business,” beamed Aristides Hernandez, an economic consultant.
The area around the Vatican embassy, where Noriega sought refuge before surrendering to US forces, is unrecognisable. In place of the school football pitch where thousands of protesters gathered to demand his head, there is a gleaming shopping centre selling Lacoste and Calvin Klein; where the Americans once used loud rock music to unnerve the general, the air is filled with construction drilling. “I actually prefer that to the music. God it was awful, boom boom boom, day and night,” said Alcibiadez Correa (58) a security guard present during the acoustic assault in 1989.
With more than half the population aged under 30, and Noriega’s army and “dignity battalions” of militia long since abolished, Panama is a different country. Does it fear the return of Noriega, a limping septuagenarian grandfather who says he has found Jesus?
No, said Navarro. The general is “politically irrelevant” and the government was “disappointed” he would face justice in France instead of Panama, where he faced much more serious charges. “We would like him back.”
That claim is widely scorned. “They do not want him, it’s obvious,” said Julio Berrios, one of Noriega’s lawyers. Commentators and diplomats agree the government soft-pedalled its extradition request to keep “Pineapple Face”, so-called because of his pock-marked features, on the far side of the Caribbean.
In return for pursuing his extradition for buying three Paris apartments with drug money, France will be rewarded with commercial contracts in Panama, alleged Berrios, echoing widespread cynicism about contracts and tenders.
The US has made no secret of its desire to keep Noriega out of Central America. The former intelligence chief is wealthy and astute enough to unsettle Panama’s small ruling elite, an oligarchy of half-a-dozen families which includes so many former regime cronies, such as Daniel Delgado Diamante, the Justice Minister, that it has been nicknamed Noriegaville.
A recent law change to allow those aged over 70 to serve jail sentences at home fits the general so well the tailor of Panama could not have done better.
President Martin Torrijos and other senior officials do not harbour sympathy for Noriega and could be embarrassed by his return and genteel incarceration in his own home.
“His presence would be a reminder of what many in the government did before,” said Mario Rognoni, Noriega’s friend and confidant. “People have to learn to live with their pasts.”
Some don’t need lessons. In Chorillo, a foul-smelling slum which bore the brunt of the fighting when the Americans invaded, many carry injuries from the missiles and gunfire.
Along with his lower left arm, Ricardo Samanel (46) lost his wife and his job as an electrician. Bitter and angry, he blamed Noriega for sowing disaster, the Americans for being trigger-happy, and, most of all, successive governments for ignoring him and the 40% of Panamanians who live in poverty.
“What do I care if Pineapple Face comes back? Makes no difference.” He pointed his stump skyward to a flock of seagulls circling overhead. “The sewage brings them here. Noriega went away, but the sewage never left.” - Guardian Unlimited Â