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The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega: America's Prisoner.

Gen. Colin Powell, the Mr. Clean of American politics, once described Panamanian Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega as pure "evil" To reach the pinnacle of power in Panama, Noriega surmounted many obstacles, but none compare to the challenge of his memoir -- to defend a reputation that seems indefensible.

Noriega was a brutal, corrupt dictator with a dossier overflowing with actual and alleged crimes that include pushing a priest out of a helicopter, beheading a political rival, forcing two of Panama's presidents to resign, and trafficking in drugs. December 20, 1989, after two American soldiers were shot for running a roadblock next to Noriega's headquarters, President George Bush ordered a massive attack against Panama. Noriega was captured and brought to Miami where, in 1992, he was convicted of drug smuggling and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Now, in an unusual memoir, Noriega comes to his own defense, finally telling all that he had previously threatened to tell. With the help of Peter Eisner, a talented journalist who has covered Latin America for 15 years, Noriega's story is readable and, at times, credible.

In the book's introduction, Eisner calls the invasion of Panama "completely unjustified" and an "abominable abuse of power." In his view, Noriega was unfairly demonized because "the Bush administration wanted to invade." Why? Eisner and Noriega offer numerous answers to this question, all of which can be summarized in three arguments.

The first is that Bush wanted to retake control of the Canal. But this argument was not persuasive at the time and is even less so today. Just a month after the invasion, Panamanians assumed predominant control over Canal operation, and that control will become complete in 2000. No one in either the Bush or Clinton administrations has suggested that the United States should take back the Canal. Indeed, despite opinion polls showing that 75 percent of Panamanians want U.S. forces to remain in Panama, both governments have shown little interest in completing the talks to extend a small U.S. presence beyond the year 2000.

The second reason is that Panama's "civilian elites" convinced Bush to help them get rid of the lower-class Noriega. Although its true that the upper class hated Noriega, the invasion can hardly be classified as an elitist plot. Panamanian polls showed that 92 percent of the population supported the invasion -- not because they liked Americans, but because they despised Noriega.

The third explanation is that the United States hated Noriega because he said "no" to the American colossus. He repeatedly rejected efforts by the Reagan and Bush administrations to enlist him in the war against the Sandinistas, and he resisted U.S. efforts to drive him from power. Noriega's defiance made Bush seem so weak that Bush felt compelled to act.

But the fact is that Noriega usually said "yes." He helped Reagan in his war against the Sandinistas, and Noriega describes many missions he undertook at the CIA's request. It was not Noriega's rejection that led Reagan to impose sanctions against his regime; rather indictments against Noriega for drug-trafficking compelled the U.S. to change its policy.

The one part of Noriega and Eisner's thesis that's harder to dismiss is one they cite from Gen. Fred Woerner, head of the Panama-based U.S. Southern Command until late 1989. Woerner characterized the U.S. invasion as "a response to U.S. domestic considerations. It was the wimp factor." Having been criticized for his failure to remove Noriega, Bush had to act. Woerner also says that he "never saw any credible evidence of drug trafficking involving General Noriega" That is a surprising statement, although Eisner notes that virtually all of the witnesses who testified against Noriega were felons paid by the U.S. government and who had their sentences reduced or suspended.

Noriega and Eisner agree on these charges, but Noriega's memoir includes a string of other accusations that Eisner, to his credit, evaluates in an extensive "afterword," based on other documents and interviews, including one with President Bush.

A M.A.N.'s Life

He liked to refer to himself by his initials, M.A.N. -- English for "hombre." Short, brown, and with such bad skin he was often called "pineapple face" (though not in his presence), Noriega had the added burden of being illegitimate. Soon after his birth in Panama City, his mother, a young peasant woman, took him with her to the southern province of Darien to attend to her dying mother. Following her own mother's death, Noriega's mother contracted malaria and tuberculosis and dispatched her baby to live with her godmother in Panama City.

What is most interesting about this troubled background is that one can only piece it together after reading two obscure appendices at the end of the book, written by a half-brother and another acquaintance. Noriega himself begins his history by writing: "Our family lived humbly, but there was food and I remember being a happy boy."

Noriega studied hard and was accepted by a Peruvian military college. Upon returning to Panama, he found a country dependent on the Canal, foreign trade, and the U.S. military. Governed since its founding in 1903 by a small, predominantly white elite, there were few avenues for advancement by the poorer people of mixed racial background. Like other militaries in Latin America, the National Guard of Panama was one of the few institutions in which people of color could be promoted.

Still, Noriega went to work for the International Geodesic Service as a cartographer and engineer and claims he would never have joined the National Guard had it not been for a chance encounter with Omar Torrijos, a handsome, charismatic officer, who would change Panama and its relationship with the United States more than any leader in the 20th century.

A child of school teachers, Torrijos graduated from the Salvadoran military academy, and on returning to Panama, rose quickly through the ranks of the National Guard, recruiting educated young lower class men like Noriega along the way. When a military coup in 1968 unseated Panama's President Arnulfo Arias, a populist with fascist sympathies and racist inclinations, the officers asked Torrijos to take charge. He remained in control until his death in an airplane crash in 1981.

Noriega found in Torrijos not only the father he never had, but a leader who transformed Panama: "For the first time, people from the country's poor neighborhoods ... rose up from poverty into the middle class with newfound social status, no longer pariahs in their own country." Torrijos had little respect for democracy, but under pressure from his friend Jimmy Carter, he gradually began to liberalize the political system. Most of all, he negotiated the Panama Canal Treaties with Carter, thus giving the country a sense of national purpose and dignity.

Torrijos found in Noriega a person of unquestioned loyalty and reliability. When Torrijos was almost toppled in 1969, Noriega organized a risky but triumphal return for his mentor. Torrijos believed that the United States was behind the aborted coup, and he turned to Noriega to establish a serious intelligence capability for the first time in Panama's history.

Whose Intelligence?

Torrijos shut down all contacts with the United States. He was smart enough to know, however, that he would drive the U.S. government to desperation if he kept it completely in the dark, so he opened up lust a few channels. Noriega writes that he became Torrijos's single channel with the CIA, but Torrijoslet several people think that each was the only channel.

Relations with the CIA began improving, to the point that in late 1975 or early 1976, according to Noriega, CIA Director George Bush delivered a sensitive message to Torrijos. Bush was concerned that U.S. politics was delaying negotiations on a Canal Treaty, and proposed that the CIA train a group of Panamanian military "in demolition tactics and then send them back to the Canal Zone for a high-profile but harmless bit of sabotage, which would add urgency to the canal negotiations."

On December 8, 1976, Noriega met with Bush in Washington. According to the Panamanian Foreign Minister, who attended the meetings, there was a brief exchange on the bombings and indirect references to spies. Noriega claims that Bush wanted the meeting to be reassured that Noriega would not disclose that the CIA was involved in the bombings. Noriega writes that he "told him not to worry." (When Eisner checked the story, Bush denied it.)

The idea that the CIA would have trained Panamanians to attack the Canal area is implausible, but a legitimate question could be asked as to why Bush met with him at that time. By this time, the CIA had evidence of Noriega's involvement in the bombings and other unsavory acts. One reason might have been that the U.S. owed Noriega a favor for a mission that he had recently undertaken in Cuba at the request of the CIA. His job had been to persuade Fidel Castro to release the captain of a ship that helped Cuban exiles attack villages on the coast of Cuba. Noriega takes great pride in this success, which he achieved by persuading Castro that such a favor would help Panama in its Canal Treaty negotiations with the U.S.

It is not easy to understand why the U.S. government would ask Noriega to be its intermediary with Castro. Noriega tries to use his book to show that he was an effective instrument of the CIA, particularly during the tenure of director Bill Casey, who used him at least two more times to convey messages to Castro -- once to release some Cuban exiles in prison and again on the eve of the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada. Noriega believes that, had Casey lived, he would have prevented the U.S. invasion of Panama.

The real story, however, is in what Noriega omitted -- from the sources of his wealth to the brutal way he trained and dispatched his goon squads. Also omitted is the fact that the Nixon administration considered assassinating Torrijos in 1971-72 and that the Carter administration stopped paying Noriega because it saw no reason to trust him. Of course, both episodes would have contradicted Noriega's thesis that he was a close ally of the United States until Reagan and Bush turned against him.

His Greatest Blunders

Noriega also fails to offer a credible explanation of his reaction to the 1989 Panamanian elections and the invasion.

I helped organize the Carter-Ford observation of the '89 elections. When I arrived in Panama, I was given, by sources I judged to be close to the CIA, a hefty volume describing how Noriega would manipulate the election. It turned out to be bogus; Noriega had no plan. However, we had one, based on a "quick count" that permitted us to determine by the early morning after the election that Noriega's candidates had lost by a sizeable margin. He discovered this rather late in the game and tried to shut down the count with his usual brutality; then he replaced the results with obvious forgeries. Carter and I tried to meet with him to persuade him to accept the results and offer a face-saving "exit," but he refused to see us.

In his memoir, Noriega blames me for pressuring him to accept international observers: "We had been reluctant to do so ... I had argued weeks earlier with Pastor and others, that given the United States' attitude, this would just be another infringement on our rights." In our conversation, Noriega, who was half-drunk, at one point began stomping on a table and began throwing things at me. But he did agree to let observers come. Some Bush administration officials opposed Carter's monitoring of the election, fearing he was so wedded to the Canal Treaties that he would conceal the election fraud. In fact, Carter's announcement that the opposition had won and his denunciation of the fraud left Noriega no alternative but to annul the election. This left his government without any legitimacy, and opened the way for OAS condemnation.

Similarly, the U.S. intelligence community believed Noriega had a detailed plan to resist a U.S. invasion. But either this plan was also a fake, or Noriega simply didn't implement it. In his account, Noriega stretches credulity when he describes the cheers that greeted him as he marched along the main avenue of Colon on the eve of the invasion. Later, he describes his heroic fire-fights against vastly superior U.S. forces, comparing himself to de Gaulle fleeing the Nazis. In contrast, his principal aide later admitted that, when the invasion occurred, Noriega was with a prostitute in a hotel near the airport and that he was drunk, incoherent, and scared until he finally escaped to the Vatican Embassy.

Eisner calls Noriega "a useful tool." In another book, John Dinges similarly describes him as "our man in Panama." Both characterizations have a small grain of truth but are far from the mark. There were moments in the Nixon and Reagan eras when the United States turned to Noriega for some specific task; these were serious mistakes, displaying a short-sightedness that led both administrations into the destructive blunders of Watergate and Iran-Contra. But the United States was not responsible for Noriega. It was foolish to deal with him during those moments, but he was no one's tool. He was his own person, and he knew the code of his profession: He used others as others used him.

In the end, whatever one thinks of the U.S. invasion, the world is better off with Noriega behind bars.
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Author:Pastor, Robert A.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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