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Manuel Noriega: Despotism in Panama

By Benjamin Chadwick


In 1981, an aircraft crashed in Coclesito, Panama, in an event that would change the course of the country’s history. Buried among the wreckage was Omar Torrijos, Panama’s de facto ruler since the military coup of 1968. Within two years of Torrijos’ death, control of the country would be consolidated by a new strongman: Manuel Antonio Noriega Moreno, commonly referred to as Noriega.


Noriega had begun his career in the Panama National Guard; previously a Lieutenant serving under Torrijos, he was promoted to Chief of Military Intelligence during the 1968 coup (Caistor). With the military regime exercising absolute political control after the coup, Noreiga’s new role was a powerful one: he oversaw the creation of a secret police force to suppress domestic political opposition through the use of violence, intimidation, and murder. In recognition of this role, Torrijos referred to Noriega as ‘mi gangster’ (Moreno).


With Noriega’s ascension to power in 1981, nothing fundamental changed about Panamanian politics; the state maintained the fall into military despotism that had begun under Torrijos. In the absence of democratic political participation, Noriega expanded state social services in order to maintain a degree of public support. There was also a noticeable increase in the brutality with which political opposition was suppressed, as the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) were given new prerogatives to survey and cajole the citizenry (Acosta).


Throughout the 1980’s, the American public grew increasingly aware of the events taking place within Panama and the cruel, repressive behavior of Noriega’s regime. One episode that reached the American spotlight was the murder of Dr. Hugo Spadafora, a Panamanian physician who had been a prominent critic of Noriega’s military, in 1986. In horrible fashion, Dr. Spadafora’s body has been found decapitated, mutilated, and stuffed into a bag. The circumstances of the murder suggested foul play by Noriega’s military: it occurred shortly before Dr. Spadafora was meant to take part in an investigation on the military’s conduct within Panamanian politics (Hersh).


Despite the mounting pressure by the American public to do so, Washington initially decided against intervening in Panamanian affairs. As it turned out, the United States (U.S.) government was caught in an awkward conflict-of-interest: it had a long history of correspondence with Noriega. For one, Noriega had received military training at the U.S Army-operated “School of the Americas” (Sciolino). In addition, Noriega had developed close ties with the DEA and CIA over the course of his career, working for the latter as a paid informant and conspirator (Sciolino). In this role, he helped the U.S. to install surveillance systems across Panama, as well as to funnel weapons and aid from Washington to Latin American destinations like Nicaragua and Colombia (Moreno).

Eventually, however, Washington did take action: in late 1989, Operation “Just Cause” was launched, and over 20,000 American troops invaded Panama to dispose of Noriega. Officially, the U.S. government claimed the invasion to be a response to Noriega’s decision to annul a round of democratic elections earlier that year - an act which Washington claimed to be a violation of the bilateral Carter-Torrijos Treaty of 1977.


The real reason that the U.S made the decision to invade Panama when it did, however, has to do with historical context. Despite promoting its image as a vanguard of liberal democracy, U.S policy in late 20th-century Latin America had been to support repressive, right-wing dictatorships - a fact that explains the country’s past correspondence with Noriega. This had to do with Cold War dynamics; Washington believed that by supporting these types of regimes, it was effectively preventing the dissemination of “Soviet”, left-wing ideology.


By 1989, with the Soviet Union on the verge of collapse, it was clear that the Cold War was near its end. With this defeat came the resolution of the U.S perception that it was necessary to protect Latin American countries from Soviet influence (Grandin). In other words, the geopolitical rationale for supporting right-wing dictators like Noriega had disappeared. Rather, it was suddenly in Washington’s interest to listen to the opinion of the American public and to put an end to Panama’s despotic rule.


Works Cited:

Image: "Manuel Noriega" by a-birdie is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Acosta, Coleen. Iraq: A Lesson from Panama Imperialism and Struggle for Sovereignty. https://web.stanford.edu/class/e297a/Panama%20Imperialism%20and%20Struggle.htm. Accessed 1 Nov. 2020.

Caistor, Nick. “Manuel Noriega Obituary.” The Guardian, 30 May 2017. www.theguardian.com, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/30/manuel-noriega-obituary.

Grandin, Greg. “How America’s 1989 Invasion of Panama Explains the Current US Foreign Policy Mess.” Mother Jones, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/12/our-forgotten-invasion-panama-key-understanding-us-foreign-policy-today/. Accessed 16 Nov. 2020.

Hersh, Seymour M. PANAMA STRONGMAN SAID TO TRADE IN DRUGS, ARMS AND ILLICIT MONEY - The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1986/06/12/world/panama-strongman-said-to-trade-in-drugs-arms-and-illicit-money.html. Accessed 1 Nov. 2020.

Moreno, Elida. “Panama’s Noriega: CIA Spy Turned Drug-Running Dictator.” Reuters, 30 May 2017. www.reuters.com, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-panama-noriega-obituary-idUSKBN18Q0NW.

Sciolino, Elaine. Fighting in Panama: The U.S. and Noriega - The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1989/12/21/world/fighting-in-panama-the-us-and-noriega.html. Accessed 1 Nov. 2020.

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