Dictator Ousted by U.S. in Panama, Manuel Noriega, Dies at 83
Manuel Antonio Noriega, the brash former dictator of Panama and sometime ally of the United States whose ties to drug trafficking led to his ouster in 1989 in what was then the largest American military action since the Vietnam War, has died. He was 83.
President Juan Carlos Varela of Panama announced Mr. Noriega’s death on Twitter early Tuesday morning.
Mr. Varela’s post read, “The death of Manuel A. Noriega closes a chapter in our history; his daughters and his relatives deserve to bury him in peace.”
Mr. Noriega died around 11 p.m. Monday at Santo Tomás Hospital in Panama City, a hospital employee confirmed. An official cause of death was not immediately available.
Mr. Noriega had been in intensive care since March 7 after complications developed from surgery to remove what his lawyer described as a benign brain tumor. His daughters told reporters at the hospital in March that he had had a brain hemorrhage after the procedure. He had been granted house arrest in January to prepare for the operation.
His medical problems came on the heels of a legal odyssey that had begun with the invasion and led to prison terms in the United States, France and finally Panama. While imprisoned abroad
he suffered strokes, hypertension and other ailments, his lawyers said.
After returning to Panama on Dec. 11, 2011, he began serving long sentences for murder, embezzlement, and corruption in connection with his role during the 1980s.
It was an inglorious homecoming for a man who had been known for brandishing a machete while making defiant nationalist speeches and living a lavish, libertine life off drug-trade riches, complete with luxurious mansions, cocaine-fueled parties and voluminous collections of antique guns. It was a quirky life as well: He liked to display his teddy bears dressed as paratroopers.
Dictator Playing Both Sides
Mr. Noriega, who became the de facto leader of the country by promoting himself to full general of the armed forces in 1983, had a decades-long, head-spinning relationship with the United States, shifting from cooperative ally and informant for American drug and intelligence agencies to shady adversary, selling secrets to political enemies of the United States in the Western Hemisphere and tipping off drug cartels. Whose side he was on was often hard to tell.
It was an awkward embrace that befitted the history of American and Panamanian relations since the United States built the Panama Canal early in the 20th century. The United States continued to operate the canal — and govern a strip of territory alongside it — for eight decades before turning it over to Panama on Dec. 31, 1999.
Mr. Noriega turned more violent toward political opponents, setting his feared anti-riot units — his “Dobermans” — on demonstrators.
The United States Senate in 1986 overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling on Panama to remove Mr. Noriega from the Panamanian Defense Forces pending an investigation of charges of corruption, election fraud, murder and drug trafficking. The next year, after Congress cut off military and economic aid, Panama defaulted on its foreign debt payments, and its economy contracted by a startling 20 percent.
In 1988, Mr. Noriega was indicted in Miami and Tampa, Fla., on federal narcotics trafficking and money-laundering charges. He was accused of turning Panama into a shipping platform for South American cocaine destined for the United States and allowing drug proceeds to be hidden in Panamanian banks.
Mr. Noriega responded by organizing large demonstrations in Panama against the United States. Gripping a machete as he spoke to a crowd, he declared, “Not one step back!” The slogan began appearing on billboards throughout Panama City.
There was a failed coup in 1988. The next year, Mr. Noriega annulled the results of Panama’s presidential election, ratcheting up pressure on the United States to take action. After another failed coup, in 1989, he anointed himself “maximum leader,” and the National Assembly declared war on the United States.
Then, on Dec. 16, 1989, Panamanian troops shot and killed an unarmed American soldier in Panama City, wounded another and arrested and beat a third soldier whose wife they threatened with sexual assault.
“That was enough,” President George Bush said in announcing the invasion, which included more than 27,000 troops.
A White House statement as the invasion got underway said the United States had acted “to protect American lives, restore the democratic process, preserve the integrity of the Panama Canal treaties and apprehend Manuel Noriega.” Political commentators at the time assigned other motives, including a way for Mr. Bush to shake off perceptions of weakness; his poll numbers rose significantly after the invasion.
Panamanian forces were quickly overwhelmed as Mr. Noriega escaped into hiding, surfacing days later on Dec. 24 at the Vatican Embassy in Panama City. Twenty-three American service members were killed and more than 300 wounded in the invasion; casualties among Panamanians have been disputed, with the Panamanian government at the time estimating several hundred soldiers and civilians died, while some human rights groups insist the toll was much higher.
American troops descended on the embassy, and a standoff followed. For a time, American forces blasted heavy metal music (including Van Halen’s “Panama”) to torment Mr. Noriega and prevent reporters with directional microphones from hearing conversations between military and Vatican officials. He surrendered on Jan. 3, 1990, and was flown to jail in Florida, leaving behind a new president sworn in on an American military base and a new era for Panama.
While incarcerated in the United States, Mr. Noriega wrote: “America’s Prisoner: The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega” (1997, with Peter Eisner). In the book, he expressed frustration over his captors.
“No one can avoid the judgment of history,” he wrote. “I only ask to be judged on the same scale of treachery and infamy of my enemies.”
Yet in June 2015, in an interview in prison with Panamanian television, he was more conciliatory, leaving people, once again, to guess about the real Mr. Noriega.
“I want to close the cycle of the military era as the last commander of that group,” he said, “asking for forgiveness.”