When Manuel Noriega was taken into custody by the US armed forces in 1990, it was to the music of Van Halen’s Panama, played loudly outside the Vatican embassy where the de facto ruler of the country was hiding. The song was meant to irritate the deposed dictator, rub an erstwhile ally’s nose in his defeat. Noriega, who died on Monday at 83, was a symbol for many things: His country, and the tiny strait that made it the centre of intrigue of Latin American politics — often subservient to Cold War machinations of the great powers, particularly the US — and the flamboyant, repressive dictators before him.
The Republic of Panama did indeed produce many bananas, and the dictators that go with the cliché. From the second half of the 20th century, however, it was the narrow strait that made the country, and its rulers, important to Washington. And up to the ’80s, both before and after he was head of the government, Noriega was the CIA’s man in Latin America. The US was willing to overlook the vast wealth Noriega accrued through drug trafficking, his violent actions against dissenters and the stifling of democracy because he was the conduit for weapons and funds to CIA-backed forces against the Left in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Bolivia and even Iran. But Noriega was playing both sides — helping Cuba as much as the US. When his duplicity came to light, the “war on drugs” took centre-stage in Washington. Noriega turned against the US, declaring war, machete in hand, after citing its interference in the 1989 Panama elections.
Noriega, unsurprisingly, lost the war and spent much of his life since in prison. Noriega was made and unmade by US foreign policy. At another time, in another place, he may have been just another spook, double-crossing his handlers to make a quick buck. But as John Le Carre put it, “In Panama, when you bribe someone, you expect loyalty”.