Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, a onetime US ally who was ousted as Panama’s dictator by an American invasion in 1989, died at age 83. Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela wrote in his Twitter account that “the death of Manuel A Noriega closes a chapter in our history.” Varela added, “His daughters and his relatives deserve to mourn in peace.” Noriega died yesterday.
Noriega served a 17-year drug sentence in the United States and was later sent to face charges in France. He spent all but the last few months of his final years in a Panamanian prison for murder of political opponents during his 1983-89 regime. He accused Washington of a “conspiracy” to keep him behind bars and tied his legal troubles to his refusal to cooperate with a US plan aimed at toppling Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government in the 1980s. In recent years, Noriega suffered various ailments including high blood pressure and bronchitis. In 2016, doctors detected the rapid growth of a benign brain tumor that had first been spotted four years earlier, and in the following January a court granted him house arrest to prepare for surgery on the tumour. He is survived by his wife Felicidad and daughters Lorena, Thays and Sandra.
Following Noriega’s ouster Panama underwent huge changes, taking over the Panama Canal from US control in 1999, vastly expanding the waterway and enjoying a boom in tourism and real estate. Today the Central American nation has little in common with the bombed-out neighbourhoods where Noriega hid during the 1989 invasion, before being famously smoked out of his refuge at the Vatican Embassy by incessant, loud rock music blared by US troops. Known mockingly as “Pineapple Face” for his pockmarked complexion, Manuel Antonio Noriega was born poor in Panama City on February 11, 1934, and was raised by foster parents. He joined Panama’s Defense Forces in 1962 and steadily rose through the ranks, mainly through loyalty to his mentor, Gen. Omar Torrijos, who became Panama’s de facto leader after a 1968 coup. As Torrijos’ intelligence chief, Noriega monitored political opponents and developed close ties with US intelligence agencies guarding against possible threats to the canal.
Two years after Torrijos died in a mysterious plane crash in 1981, Noriega became the head of the armed forces and Panama’s de facto ruler. Noriega ruled with an iron fist, ordering the deaths of those who opposed him and maintaining a murky, close and conflictive relationship with the United States. At the apex of his power he wielded great influence outside the country as well thanks to longstanding relationships with spy agencies around the world, said R M Koster, an American novelist and biographer of Noriega who has lived in Panama for decades.
Noriega was considered a valued CIA asset and was paid millions of dollars for assistance to the US throughout Latin America, including acting as a liaison to Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Washington ultimately soured on him, especially after a top political opponent was killed in 1985 and Noriega appeared to join forces with Latin American drug traffickers.