Does Panama’s Gen Noriega know something we don’t?
Returning home, ‘Old Pineapple Face’ is due to spend two decades in jail – or is he?
OLD PINEAPPLE FACE, once among the world’s best known dictators, was back home in Panama last night for the first time in 22 years, all of which he has spent in prison in America and France for drug running.
But General Manuel Noriega, 77, nicknamed for a complexion cratered by acne, does not have much to celebrate. At least not yet. He had only a few minutes to breathe the tropical air as he landed from Paris before being whisked away to a prison by the Panama Canal for another 20 years in jail.
He has been handed to a democratic Panamanian government following convictions in absentia of murder and embezzlement during his rule as military dictator – he preferred the title of Maximum Leader of National Liberation – from 1983 to 1989.
In today’s world of al-Qaeda and Arab upheaval, his story belongs to a bygone era of banana republics and Cold War, a romp through the shades-of-grey world of Graham Greene.
It is also a cautionary tale for any dictator tempted to do deals with America’s CIA.
Noriega came of age via officer cadet school as Fidel Castro was upending the old America’s Backyard order of Central America in Cuba, and was recruited by the CIA while on postgraduate studies in America.
He was on the payroll from 1967 as he rose from second lieutenant to lieutenant-colonel before seizing power after his mentor General Omar Torrijos was killed in a plane crash. Torrijos was a US-baiter and it was a big win for the CIA when their man replaced him.
It is now believed that the plane crash was caused by a bomb, and that Noriega was behind it.
But it was no such skullduggery that turned Noriega from CIA asset into Prisoner 38699-079 in a Florida jail. It turned out that he had been playing a double game, colluding with the Columbian cocaine cartels to turn Panama into a narco-state.
He had been too dumb or too greedy to notice that by 1989 the Cold War was won and the War on Drugs was on. America invaded Panama with 200,000 troops to arrest him, blasting him with “psych-ops” rock and roll music in his hiding place – the Vatican Embassy in Panama City - until he turned himself in.
At his trial, the CIA admitted having paid him $320,000 for his services. His defence said the figure was more like $10m, but was barred for “national security” reasons from detailing services provided. The stench of collusion and betrayal has not lifted.
Noriega spent 17 years in a Miami jail before being released early “for good behaviour”, only to be extradited to France and convicted of using a French bank to launder his drug money.
His lawyers say he is happy to be back. There is a law in Panama that those over 70 can serve out their time at home. Perhaps he knows something we don’t, and a deal has been done.