Former dictator of Panama and erstwhile ally of the United States, Manuel Antonio Noriega, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 83, bringing to close a long drawn, important chapter in the history of the tiny central American country. Frequently compared to former president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, Noriega too went from being accomplice to enemy of the United States. From being a valuable resource of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to being accused of being a major cocaine dealer, Noriega played an imperative role in defining relations between America and Panama.
Born in 1938 in Panama City, Noriega underwent extensive training in military and intelligence services before being hired as a CIA informant. While he worked with American intelligence services, he served as lieutenant in the Panama National Guard. Noriega’s rise in the military ranks in Panama came when he supported Omar Torrijos in a military coup. Under Torrijos, who was the dictator of the central American republic before him, Noriega rose to become head of Panama’s military intelligence. When Torrijo died in a plane crash in 1981, Noriega consolidated his political capacity and became the effective ruler of Panama. However, once he assumed dictatorship of the republic, his increased brutality brought him into huge conflict with the US, eventually resulting in his downfall.
From the 1950s Noriega started working with the intelligence agency of America and was on the payroll of CIA till the late 1980s. At a point in time when leftist movements were on the rise in Central and Latin American countries, Noriega proved to be an important intermediary force to the United States. He was instrumental in helping US campaign against a leftist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. In his efforts to provide assistance to the Ronald Reagan-led government, Noriega allowed Panama to be used as a conduit for channeling funds and military equipment to the right wing military groups stationed to fight against the Sandinista regime. Noriega’s activities in Panama included his role in being a major cocaine dealer. Reportedly, although the US was aware of his drug trafficking activities, they remained absolutely quiet about it by virtue of the dependence on him for intelligence services.
Once Noriega became the dictator of Panama he turned increasingly brutal and corrupt, much to the concern of the United States. When the people of the country rose in protest against his dictatorial methods, he declared a national emergency and shut down media outlets and sent his opponents on exile. Matters came to a boil when Noriega got his opponent Huga Spadafora beheaded in 1985.
By the second half of the 1980s, the United States was opposed to Nicaragua and cut off all kinds of aid to the country. They further started attacking his drug trafficking activities and considered the use of military action to put an end to them. Later, when Noriega declared a state of war with the United States and when an American marine got attacked by Panaman soldiers, the then president of America George H W Bush, in late 1989, initiated what came to be known as “Operation Just Cause”. As part of the operation, US military invaded Panama and took control of Noriega. He was later tried at a Miami court on several cases including drug trafficking and money laundering. He was expelled to France and then brought back to Panama and imprisoned.
While in prison, Noriega suffered several health issues. More recently, he underwent a major brain surgery and was put into an induced coma. His death was announced on Tuesday morning by Panama’s president Juan Carlos Varela, who said Noriega’s death marked a closure in their country’s history.