San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

General Noriega: Gone But Not Forgotten

Having just returned from a visit to Costa Rica, the unexpected extradition of former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega to a grim prison in southern France was front page news there. As Panama’s northern neighbor, Costa Ricans were quick to offer their opinions of the pockmarked Noriega, who is often referred to harshly in Central America as “pineapple face.”

People in Costa Rica were well aware of the fact that Noriega had once been a key informant and handler for the CIA in the 1970s and early 1980s. But he would eventually become a major liability for the U.S. administration of President George H.W. Bush – particularly once the general started to freelance and stray from U.S. control.

Shortly after the United States ousted Noriega in “Operation Just Cause,” a military invasion in late 1989 (often cynically dubbed “Operation Just Because”), the initial charges that landed him in a prison in south Florida involved drug-trafficking (and hob-knobbing with the Colombian cartels), racketeering and money-laundering.

Needless to say, most Costa Ricans knew better. The real reason for General Noriega’s imprisonment was to keep him quiet, since he had begun to speak publicly and loudly about U.S. involvement in the contra war in Nicaragua.

In fact, part of the reason why former president George H. W. Bush wanted to dump Noriega was to burnish his own war-fighting credentials and to quickly shed the “wimp factor” image that he had become associated with. Ultimately, of course, it failed in the end, when he was soundly defeated by Bill Clinton in 1992.

However, the conventional wisdom in Costa Rica – even though Noriega had been found guilty in absentia of three murder counts in Panama and sentenced to 20 years – was that the Panamanian government itself did not want Noriega back in the country.

There was a fear that Noriega’s return might trigger some sort of violent episode, by unearthing painful memories and dredging up bad feelings that some Panamanians would like to keep locked away.

There was certainly no love lost for Noriega in Costa Rica either. One observer pointed out that the unexplained plane crash of former Panamanian President, Gen. Omar Torrijos, was allegedly the handiwork of the power-hungry Noriega himself.

This incident alone spoke volumes about Noriega, I was told, because Torrijos was Noriega’s supposed mentor, close friend and confidant.

The thuggish dictator also had secret files on prominent Panamanians, especially those who might pose a challenge or threat to his arbitrary rule.

Others couldn’t understand how a man who came from a good family, from an upbringing of poverty and want could turn into such a monster and heartless killer. They claimed that he had forgotten about righting society’s many wrongs when he assumed the presidency in a military coup in 1981.

Another person told me that he was ruthless in the pursuit of his opponents – even those who came from his own village.

In one stark example, Panama’s vice minister of health, who evidently challenged Noriega over the way he was running the country, turned up at the border with Costa Rica with his body separated from his head.

Not surprisingly, family members of those who were brutally murdered and tortured at Noriega’s command want to see him brought to justice in Panama. In the words of Panamanian Patria Portugal, “I wanted Noriega to come here and tell the truth and be condemned.”

She added, “We are losing hope with this. I don’t know what is more important for people: money laundering or justice for unresolved crimes against humanity.”

However, those of a younger generation, who probably know very little about Noriega, are not particularly interested in him. “I don’t care if he goes to France or comes to Panama,” said university student Carolina González. “He’s an old man, he can hardly walk. The damage is done and now the country thinks about other things.”

You might also think that with all of the cash that Noriega allegedly stashed away in foreign bank accounts, his army of lawyers would be able to reverse the extradition to France.

One of his lawyers, Julio Berrio, was quoted in The Tico Times as saying: “Sooner or later, if God allows General Noriega to continue living, he will return to his country to face charges here.”

To be honest, it’s unlikely that Noriega will ever see the inside of a Panamanian courtroom. Indeed, the U.S.-friendly government of Ricardo Martinelli will most assuredly not push hard for Noriega’s repatriation.

Time will tell, of course. But with Noriega’s failing health, he will likely die in prison before he will have to answer for his many crimes in Panama. That’s the real injustice here.


Peter McKenna is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Canada Looks South: In Search of an Americas Policy.

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