Manuel Noriega is Dead. Long Live Noriega.
On living under Manuel Noriega’s regime, the tragedy of his irrelevance, and the secrets he may have taken to the grave.
I remember coming home from our little church on the hill on Sundays, turning on the television, and being bombarded by propagandist videos of General Manuel Antonio Noriega. He would be watching the Panamanian military march past during a pass in review. Other times he would be banging his sword on the podium from which he bellowed out taunt after taunt against the United States.
I grew up in Panama as Noriega navigated the world of military intelligence, rising to prominence. American imperialists (like all imperialists), always searching for eager lackeys to do their bidding. They eventually found a purpose for Noriega as a CIA informant. That made him privy to quite a few secrets the US government would hate to see exposed to the rest of the world.
Noriega was a scoundrel, but he wasn’t alone in his terpitude in statecraft. What everyone forgets about the invasion of Panama is that it was not legal. The American government hid the fact that most of the world found it wrong to just waltz its tanks and weapons into a sovereign country. The entire time, I was fed propaganda about this man. Noriega was the bad guy. The only villain. All Panamanians were happy to see the American military.
Those were lies.
Apparently, I was too young to notice that most of the people praising the horde invading our tiny isthmus were fair-skinned, bourgeois Panamanians who were upended when Noriega — a Panamanian of color himself — came into power. I didn’t notice that the American military was bestowing brutality after brutality upon poor, brown or dark-skinned Panamanians.
My grandfather used to say that while Noriega was a bastard, he at least acknowledged, and extended, some semblance of enfranchisement to these poor Panamanians of color. That always stayed with me because in a world such as this, any act of citizenization of the more vulnerable members of the working class is radical. In fact, it is considered too radical by many governments.
I’m not saying that Manuel Noriega’s choice to engage in mayhem and murder wasn’t venal or wicked. Our government knew this much about Noriega, yet it still allied itself with a Panamanian despot. That’s very telling.
Noriega is dead. Noriega was punished for his despotism and the atrocities he committed. The people that invested in his proclivity for despotism were not. With his death, Noriega takes his experience with the American foreign policy apparatus to the his grave. We’ll never know all that Noriega knew, and as a result, justice will never be fully granted to the Panamanian people. Or the American people, for that matter.
Imperialism is a racket bankrolled by the working class via their taxes, their lives, or both.
I grieve because we, Americans and Panamanians, deserve justice, and transparency, after all the innocent lives lost to a lust for resources, or the need to make an example out of any country whose citizens are poor and of color.
With Noriega’s death, Operation Just Cause fades further from our memories… And that is a tragedy.