Manuel Noriega has been compared to Genghis Khan, Richard III, and the Antichrist, among others, but he never deserved anything more flattering than the second rank of demonology. Noriega was a fixer—not a major trafficker—for Colombia’s cocaine kings, hiding their factories and fugitives and laundering their profits. As an intelligence “asset” for the United States, Cuba, and a half dozen others (including France, Israel, and Taiwan), Noriega traded in scandal more than in state secrets. Even his record as a brute and a dictator was tame, by Central American standards: only about a dozen of his opponents died during the struggle in 1987-89 to oust him.
So why were we so fascinated? A part of the explanation, of course, can be found in Noriega’s made-for-the-tabloids figure: a physically repellent and sexually ambiguous murderer and con artist who made millions for himself and made a fool of the United States, all with our knowledge. Noriega also had the good (and then bad) luck to be placed, by geography and vocation, at the center of two of America’s most frustrating policy failures of the 1980s: the war on drugs and the civil wars in Central America. His overthrow, capture, and trial will not solve these problems, but at least they have given Americans the sense that we are fighting back. And some Americans also hope that the exposure of Noriega’s secrets might reveal some of our own; if our leaders won’t tell the truth about the Iran-contra affair, maybe their rogue will.
For most Americans, the Panama story began and ended with Noriega. It is an impression reinforced by our press, which has largely ignored Panama since American troops pulled back in mid-February. Noriega-centrism has also been promoted by the Bush administration, and by Panama’s new government. For years Noriega’s opponents titillated reporters with sensational (and difficult to prove) tales of the general’s perversions and powers. Within days of the invasion, the U.S. Southern Command was running guided tours of Noriega’s house, with its pornography, its “witch house,” its Nazi paraphernalia, its 110 pounds of cocaine (which turned out to be tamale flour). The hype was intentional. If Noriega was really satanic, the invasion looked reasonable, looked even like the “Just Cause” that the White House spin doctors called it. Never mind that his sins were rather banal, by the standards of drug lords and tinhorn despots; or that the dispatch of 25,000 U. S. soldiers to oust Noriega is evidence of his opponents’ political weakness and of Washington’s diplomatic incompetence.
John Dinges and Frederick Kempe trace Noriega’s rise to power and crime, and his rise and fall in the favor of the United States. Both their books more than make the case for Noriega as satan, eagerly detailing his public and private crimes and America’s complicity in both. Kempe and Dinges say little, unfortunately, about the society in which most of their villain’s crimes were committed. What is it about Panama that allowed this monster to rise so high and stay for so long? They never ask the question. Still, even the half of the story that they do tell is fascinating. Although neither book has come up with the smoking gun that conclusively links George Bush to the Iran-contra scandal, there is still plenty of embarrassment to go around.
As early as the summer of 1960, an American intelligence agent cabled Washington that a recent recruit, a cadet named Manuel Noriega, had been arrested for beating and raping a prostitute. Noriega stayed on the roster. In exchange for spending money, Noriega was reporting to the Castro-obsessed Americans on the leftist inclinations of his instructors and fellow students at the Peruvian military academy.
Noriega returned to Panama in 1962, and almost destroyed his new career. A beat cop in the mean streets of the port city of Colón, he was accused of raping another prostitute, this time in the back of a police car. Still, Colón’s garrison commander, Omar Torrijos, saw some thing in the young Noriega--he was bright and loyal, if more than a little strange--and smoothed over the scandal. When Torrijos was made commander of Chiriqui province, he brought Noriega along as head of the transit police. It was in Chiriqui that Noriega resumed his work with the CIA. At Torrijos’s request, he began spying on union organizers at the United Fruit banana plantations. As Torrijos moved up in the ranks of the National Guard, so did Noriega. In 1969 he repaid his mentor in full, foiling a countercoup against Torrijos, who was by then Panama’s strongman. Torrijos rewarded Noriega by making him head of military intelligence.
Not long after, American drug agents began hearing that several members of Torrijos’s entourage--notably his brother Moises and his protégé Noriega--were involved in heroin trafficking. By 1972, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (the predecessor of the DEA) was so worried about Noriega that they briefly considered “immobilizing” him. But the bureau was more concerned about reopening its Panama City office, and when Torrijos gave his permission and named Noriega his official liaison, nobody in the Nixon administration complained.
Bush’s troubles began in 1976, when he became director of the CIA under Gerald Ford. Noriega was already earning top Agency dollar, around $110,000 a year. The problem was that he wasn’t only spying for the United States, he was also spying on the United States: he was paying American soldiers to bring him copies of audio tapes recorded by the Army’s high-tech listening post in Panama. Kempe says that the CIA suspected Noriega of selling the tapes to the Cubans. The National Security Agency wanted to make an example of the “Singing Sergeants,” as they were known, but the Army didn’t want the heat. Bush deferred to the Army, and to Ford’s political future. The soldiers were discharged quietly, and Noriega stayed on the CIA payroll.
But Noriega wasn’t a problem just for the Republicans. He was, you might say, a bipartisan burden. Stansfield Turner, Jimmy Carter’s reforming CIA chief, took Noriega off the payroll, but the Canal treaties were too important to Carter to permit any more provocative action against Noriega. When federal agents discovered that Noriega was buying arms in Miami, at Torrijos’s behest, and shipping them to Sandinista guerrillas, they made plans to arrest him. But officials in Washington, apparently from the State Department and the Pentagon, warned Noriega to stay out of Miami, and then quashed the investigation.
Dinges’s and Kempe’s books are quite entertaining (in the way that slasher films are entertaining) when they recount the sordid details of Noriega’s private life. Kempe charges Noriega with rape, sexual torture, political assassination (and sexually motivated political assassination). He alleges that Noriega ordered the beheading of Hugo Spadafora, a dashing young doctor and a hero of both the Sandinista and contra wars, in part because Spadafora once rejected Noriega’s overtures. I’ve met Noriega, and I’m willing to believe almost anything about him. Almost anything. Kempe, however, has written his book in a rather breath less voice and suspends all disbelief when it comes to tales of Noriega’s depredations. This is always dangerous for a reporter. It can be disastrous in a country like Panama, where slander is the national sport. In this matter and throughout, Dinges is more circumspect, suggesting that Noriega, a master of psychological warfare, was the likely source of a good part of the morbid hype, because he believed that it only increased his power: “When Panamanian opposition leaders spread stories that he was a sexual pervert, a psychopath, a sadist, a rapist, a practitioner of dark cults ... Noriega might have approved; he certainly would have smiled.”
Both Dinges and Kempe shine when they are delivering the Washington side of the story. They write with authority and with impressive detail about the bureaucratic infighting, the egos, the epidemic of expedience, the constant willingness to compromise values for political gain. They ably trace the decision to indict Noriega on drug trafficking. Those indictments were probably the biggest mistake in a saga of big mistakes. Everyone with eyes to see understood that the indictments would back Noriega and the United States into a corner: Noriega would never willingly step down with indictments hanging over his head, and no American politician could afford the political flak for lifting them. Still, in the months after Iran-contra, nobody was willing to block the indictments and risk the charge of a cover-up.
Kempe stands out in his reporting of the last two years of the U. S.-Noriega drama. He gives an hour-by-hour account of the secret missions--of diplomats, lawyers, even a psychiatrist--that failed to negotiate Noriega out of power. The last mission, in May 1988, might have worked, says Kempe, except for Ronald Reagan’s inattention, George Shultz’s impatience, and George Bush’s anxieties about the 1988 election. Kempe provides wonderful color on Noriega’s last days in Panama, particularly his stay with the Papal Nuncio. Dinges rushes through this period in a chapter and an epilogue, but he provides one of the best analyses of American policy failures in Panama that I have read. He rightly warns of how much we still don’t know about the American relationship with Noriega.
Both authors fervently argue that the United States tolerated Noriega for one reason above all: his usefulness to the anti-Communist crusade in Central America. Noriega hosted American intelligence operations in Panama, transshipped arms to the contras and may have trained them, too. He also offered to assassinate Sandinista leaders, if the United States would help clean up his image. And yet the venality in the American policy toward Panama extends far beyond one man and four administrations. For the sake of economic and strategic advantage, this country has been compromising its values in Panama since 1903. Both Kempe and Dinges fail to provide the badly needed historical perspective. Without history, however, it is impossible to grasp not only why the Americans put up with Noriega for so long, but why the Panamanians put up with him, too.
The most common explanation for what ails Panamanians is that they lack national pride. It is a view that was reinforced during the recent crisis by the opposition’s frequent pleadings to send in the U.S. Marines. In truth, if Theodore Roosevelt had not answered a similar request in 1903, there probably never would have been a Panama. And after nine decades of the United States calling the shots, it’s not surprising that Panamanians are confused about their identity and uncertain about their responsibility.
But they have an even bigger problem: they lack even the sense of belonging to a single polity. Panamanians have never developed a collective identity that links all citizens and transcends the society’s profound differences of class, race, and language. To be sure, by the time of the American invasion in December 1989, both rich and poor alike wanted Noriega out; but they never pooled their hatred and their resources to get rid of him. Now that the United States has done the job for them the new government must work to overcome those differences. If not they too will fall, perhaps to another Noriega.
The Canal is the source of Panama’s wealth and importance, but it is also the source of many of the divisions that enfeeble Panamanian society. For Panama, more than for most places, geography has always been destiny. Fifty miles across, the country is the narrowest point in the Western Hemisphere, linking North America to South America and barely dividing the Atlantic from the Pacific. Spanish colonial officials surveyed for a canal in 1534, but instead they built a Camino Real, or royal road; and so for 200 years gold, silver, and slaves traversed the continents along the slender Panamanian thread. Americans first planned a canal as early as 1825, but a group of New York investors, inspired by the California gold rush, chose instead to build a railway line across the isthmus.
But the dream of a canal remained. Ferdinand de Lesseps, backed by French investors, arrived in 1878 to repeat his triumph at Suez. He gave up eleven years later, defeated by rains, mud slides, malaria, and yellow fever. Twenty-thousand people died in the attempt. American interest persisted, however, and as America’s Navy and possessions expanded a canal became a necessity. In 1902 the United States offered Colombia $10 million for the rights for ninety-nine years to a six-mile-wide zone across the heart of its province of Panama.
The Colombian Senate decided that $10 million wasn’t enough. The United States first won concessions on the isthmus by promising to defend Colombia’s control over the distant and frequently rebellious province. American troops and warships were sent to Panama four times in the second half of the century to put down uprisings, the last time in 1902. In 1903, however, with the Colombians now standing in the way of his canal plans, President Theodore Roosevelt switched sides. When Panamanians rebelled again in November of that year, the U.S.S. Nashville and a goodly sum of Wall Street gold were on hand to ensure their success. The revolution was bloodless. In Panamanian eyes, the revolution was genuine.
For a brief moment, that is. The humiliation of Panama came two weeks later, when Panama’s new leaders were presented with a new treaty granting the United States control “as if it were sovereign” over a ten-mile zone down the center of their country. The lease ran “in perpetuity.” Panama’s constitution of 1904 granted the United States the right to intervene anywhere in Panama. At Washington’s orders, moreover, the new government adopted the American dollar as legal currency, and disbanded the army.
For the next three decades, power in Panama was traded among the families of the small white oligarchy, descendents of European settlers--known derisively as rabiblancos, or white tails. Then, as now, most Panamanians were mestizo, mulatto, black, or Indian. Political parties were formed around personalities--there were no ideological differences--and organized solely to win elections; the parties were ginned up for the brief and costly campaigns and then they were abandoned. Elections still provoked violent passions, however, and regular calls for American intervention. As it had intended, the United States remained the final arbiter of Panamanian politics. But the really striking fact was that Panamanians seemed comfortable as permanent political adolescents. They could blame the United States for their failures, and they could call on the United States to put down any rebellions. There was no need to take responsibility, no pressure to work out a political consensus.
With the Canal driving the economy, Panama developed no large industries and no trade union movements. Its middle and lower classes remained weak, dependent, and divided. The oligarchy dominated the urban service and commercial sectors that sprang up to meet the needs of the Canal. Squeezed out of business, the middle class became professionals and bureaucrats, and they voted--at least in the early years--with their betters. The country’s two largest employers outside the government--the Canal and United Fruit--were foreign-owned, so any resentment was foreign-directed. And the working class was further split by language and race: between Spanish-speaking mestizos, mulattos, and blacks--the descendants of colonial-era African slaves--and English-speaking blacks, as many as 100,000, brought in from the Caribbean to work on the railroad and the Canal. When the lower classes did rebel in the rent riots of 1925, the oligarchy called on American troops to restore the peace. But most of the time such intervention was not necessary; the oligarchy could co-opt and divert popular discontent simply by blaming American domination for the country’s ills. The United States was useful to the Panamanian powerful in many ways.
Arnulfo Arias Madrid was the first Panamanian leader to recognize the political power of the masses. For that reason, he became the country’s most important politician for more than fifty years. Arias was born in 1901, in the interior town of Penonome, to middle-class parents. His father died when he was young, but his mother managed to send all five children to school abroad. Arnulfo received a B.S. from the University of Chicago and his M.D. from Harvard. His political baptism came in 1931, when, brandishing a shotgun and a revolver, he overthrew a newly elected president.
Arias was a gifted practitioner of the politics of resentment. His political coalition, Acción Communal, was a fiercely nationalistic group of middle-class urban professionals who chafed under the oligarchy’s domination of politics, under American control of the Canal, under the commercial success of “foreign” Panamanians: English-speaking blacks, Hindus, and Chinese. A fiery speaker, with the white suits and the flashing eyes of a Latin movie idol, Arias eventually broadened his base to include the Spanish-speaking working class and the extreme right of the oligarchy. In 1940, running on a platform of “Panama for the Panamanians,” he was elected president.
Was Arias a Nazi demagogue, as Washington believed, or was he merely a charismatic nationalist, as his followers insisted? His record was mixed. He established the country’s first social security system and gave women the vote. But he also disfranchised Panama’s English-speaking blacks and threatened to send them “home” to the Caribbean, he confiscated businesses from Chinese and Hindu owners, he spoke of Zionist conspiracies and the need to purify Panama genetically. Above all, he wanted the Canal back. He hinted broadly that the increasingly powerful Axis states of Europe might be willing to get it for him.
Washington became convinced that Arias--who served as ambassador to Italy in the late 1930s--was a budding fascist. The fears up north turned to hysteria when Arias refused to grant the United States a hundred new military sites in Panama, each for 999 years, and refused to permit the arming of Panamanian-flagged U. S. merchant ships ferrying supplies to Europe. When the military overthrew Arias in late 1941, the United States denied any involvement, but it was clearly pleased. It was the beginning of an enmity of fifty years between Arias and the military, and between Arias and the United States. Arias toned down his ideology in the years that followed. (Hoping to turn the United States against Torrijos, Arias even advised Reagan during his 1976 campaign against Carter and a Canal treaty.) But Washington never fully forgot. Fear of Arias was a central reason that the Americans were willing to overlook the abuses of military strongmen like Torrijos and Noriega, and were so slow in coming to an accommodation with their civilian opponents.
Arias may have been the first Panamanian leader to express the interests of Panama’s dispossessed. Still, like his predecessors, he did not build a lasting political organization; his party remained a vehicle to elect Arnulfo Arias president. He paid the price for this: though he won three presidential elections between 1940 and 1984, and likely had another two stolen from him, each time he was overthrown his fervent but disorganized followers were incapable of resistance. Arias’s problems were less ideological than temperamental. He seemed incapable of taking office without suspending the constitution, firing a top general, or otherwise self destructing. In the intervals, during the years from the 1940s to the 1960s, when Arias was in jail, exile, or banned from politics, leadership reverted to the traditional oligarchy. Some presidents were more progressive than others; all were sworn to recovering the Canal; but none, not a single one, ever tried to build a modern political party.
The 1960s were unsettled times for Panama. Workers demonstrated for higher wages, the urban poor for lower rents, the students for control of the Canal. Bloody riots in the Canal Zone in 1964 convinced Lyndon Johnson to begin serious negotiations for a new Canal treaty, although they took another thirteen years to complete. Arias most probably won the 1964 presidential elections, but by a margin small enough for the ruling party to jigger the results. Four years later, however, the vote for Arias was too large to deny. And back in office, Arias’s authoritarianism returned. He immediately transferred several top military officers and began recruiting his own independent presidential guard. The National Guard overthrew him ten days after his inauguration.
Except for a brief intervention in the mid-1950s, Panama’s military had always avoided politics. By U.S. order, Panama in the early years had only a police force, and its members were allowed to carry only revolvers. Rifles and anything larger were kept inside the Canal Zone. The United States more than made up for that during the cold war, particularly after the signing of the 1977 treaties, training and arming the National Guard for the future defense of the Canal; and the opposition later argued for American military action against Noriega on the grounds that the United States had created the Guard and was thus morally obligated to remove it. The Guard did serve one very important social function, though: it offered the surest route of social and political mobility for mulattos and blacks.
Colonel Omar Torrijos, a military man and Panama’s new populist leader, was a lot like the leader he helped overthrow in 1968: charismatic, authoritarian, committed to ousting the Americans from the Canal. Like Arias, he never trusted his followers enough to give them real political power. Torrijos was born in 1929, the son of middle-class schoolteachers from the town of Santiago de Veraguas. He was ruggedly handsome, a dark-skinned mestizo with a puckish wit and an infinite charm that were unimpaired by his legendary capacity for drink. Torrijos became the second-most-important leader in Panama’s history. One American diplomat summed up the Torrijos era to me this way: “Before 1968 Panama was democratic but not representative. After 1968 it was representative but a dictatorship.”
Torrijismo was an idiosyncratic and often paradoxical mix of socialism, free market capitalism, and all-sides-against-the-middle pragmatism. Its goal, he said, was to heal, to make Panama’s divided society whole. Torrijos began a badly needed land reform and rewrote the labor code to make collective bargaining compulsory. He built public housing and hospitals in the cities, and schools, roads, and clinics in the neglected countryside. He filled his Cabinet and the swelling bureaucracy with darker-skinned Panamanians. While he pilloried the oligarchy in his rhetoric, he worked closely with business leaders to open up the economy.
Still, benevolent or not, Torrijos was unmistakably a dictator. His civil improvements came at the cost of military rule. Torrijos suspended elections, disbanded the national assembly, outlawed political parties, jailed and exiled opponents, closed the national university, imposed strict censorship on the press. He was right when he attacked Panama’s old political system as elitist, but what he replaced it with was even more authoritarian. A puppet assembly named Torrijos the Líder Maximo and the Guard the country’s governing body. There was nothing that the Guard did not control and corrupt--immigration, customs, public utilities, casinos, hotels, banks.
In the late 1970s, with the economy faltering and strong pressure from the Carter administration, which feared that the Senate would never accept a treaty with a military dictator, Torrijos pledged to lead the Guard back to the barracks. He lifted political restrictions, and in 1978 he formally handed the presidency over to a civilian. But Torrijos and the Guard continued to run the country.
As it later did with Noriega, Washington overlooked Torrijos’s many sins--his poor human rights record, his brother’s heroin trafficking, his protégé Noriega’s arms deals, the fact that he was a dictator. For Nixon, Torrijos was valuable because he kept Panama stable, and only gestured in the direction of curtailing America’s military presence on the isthmus. Even Carter was convinced that Torrijos was the only Panamanian pragmatic enough to negotiate a treaty that could sway the U.S. Senate and the only Panamanian charismatic enough to sell it to the Panamanian people. Carter was correct, but just barely. The Panamanian left attacked the agreement for allowing the United States to stay in Panama until 2000; the right attacked the agreement for legitimizing the Guard’s rule. Even with the Guard counting, the treaty passed with only 67 percent of the vote; Torrijos had promised 80 percent.
Torrijos died in July 1981, when his plane crashed into the side of a mountain. According to subsequent mythology, Noriega had placed a bomb aboard the plane, but it is more likely that the ever macho and frequently inebriated Torrijos foolishly ordered his young pilot to take off into a violent thunderstorm. He left a mixed legacy. He bequeathed to Panama’s excluded majority a sense of belonging, but he failed to furnish it with the political means to direct its future. His land reform failed to improve productivity and the lot of Panama’s rural poor. Other development programs, such as public housing and highways, were more successful, but they saddled the country with one of the largest per capita debts in the world. Most important, it was under Torrijos that the National Guard developed its twin appetites for politics and corruption. Still, Torrijos died a national hero, revered for winning control of the Canal and securing a long-deferred national dignity.
Was Noriega a part of Torrijos’s legacy? Torrijos promoted and protected Noriega, giving Noriega the dirty jobs so that he could maintain his own reputation for benevolence. But there is no evidence that Torrijos wanted his intelligence chief to succeed him. Kempe writes that in his last months Torrijos considered firing Noriega and the whole general staff: “We are too accustomed to being dictators,” Torrijos remarked. It took two years and all of Noriega’s considerable Machiavellian talents to win control of the Guard (re-christened the Defense Forces by Noriega in 1983) and the country. But by then the prize was seriously tarnished. The world recession and debt crisis hit Panama hard: growth dipped and unemployment soared, as international banks cut loans and forced the government to adopt a strict austerity program. By 1984 two out of every five Panamanians were either out of work or working sporadically.
Noriega tried to carry on the Torrijos tradition--that is, he tried to run the country through a series of puppet presidents. But he had none of Torrijos’s charisma or good spirit or reputation as a nationalist. For Noriega, loyalty had to be bought or bullied. Under his leadership the Defense Forces became increasingly brutal and even more corrupt. Kempe and Dinges report that Noriega first began doing business with Colombia’s cocaine traffickers in the late 1970s, as an adjunct to his gunrunning. Once he took over in 1983, Panama became a free port for the Colombian cartels, which used its airfields for shipping, its jungles for labs, and its banks to launder profits. The United States was aware of some of what was happening--but Noriega was always careful to throw his friends at DEA just enough mid-level dealers and launderers (often ones who had crossed him) to keep his American clients happy and his Colombian clients in line.
Noriega picked the official candidate for president in the election of 1984: an unknown, colorless vice president at the World Bank named Nicolás Ardito Barletta. Arias, eighty-two, who had spent most of the Torrijos years in comfortable exile in Miami, opposed Ardito Barletta. Campaigning against military rule and the government’s austerity program, Arias almost certainly won. After a week’s delay, however, the electoral board declared Ardito Barletta the winner. Arias’s supporters briefly rallied to protest the fraud, but they gave up after government thugs fired on the crowd. The United States recognized Ardito Barletta. He may have been unknown in Panama City, but he was a favorite of New York bankers and Washington policy-makers, and he had the special good fortune to have been taught by George Shultz at the University of Chicago. According to Kempe, Shultz traveled to Panama for the inauguration with a briefing book that included a cable detailing the fraud. Less than a year later, Noriega forced Ardito Barletta to resign after he ordered an investigation into the beheading of the dissident Spadafora.
The legitimacy of the Panamanian military had been unraveling steadily since Torrijos’s death. The explosion came in June 1987, when the Defense Forces’ second in command, Colonel Roberto Diáz Herrera, publicly broke with Noriega, accusing him of a long list of crimes (some believable, others not), including rigging the 1984 elections and ordering the murder of Spadafora and Torrijos. Panama City erupted for three days in a frenzy of rioting and looting that stretched from the slums of San Miguelito to the banking center’s posh 50th Street. These riots had a particular historical significance: they represented the first time, other than driving the United States out of the Canal Zone, that rich and poor Panamanians united in a single cause.
They all wanted Noriega out. The Civic Crusade that emerged to lead the opposition was an improbable group of revolutionaries. Its headquarters was the downtown Chamber of Commerce building, its leaders were drawn from business and civic groups. And yet these were not exactly Panamanian Babbitts out to restore rabiblanco rule. Calling for a moral renovation in Panama, the leaders of the Crusade consciously distanced themselves from the traditional parties and traditional politicians. “They offer no alternative, no new leaders; they’ve made no attempt to reach out to the people,” said Aurelio Barria, a founder of the Crusade and head of the Chamber of Commerce.
Barria, a thirty-five-year-old graduate of Villanova and a political novice, discovered his political vocation earlier in 1987, during a visit to the post-Marcos Philippines sponsored by the U. S. Democratic Party’s National Democratic Institute. He returned to Panama committed to creating a Panamanian version of NAMFREL, the Filipino free elections movement. After Diáz Herrera turned on Noriega, Barria became convinced that Panama, too, needed “people’s power.” In the beginning it looked like the Crusade might pull it off. They rallied thousands of protesters across Panama City twice daily for pot banging, horn honking, and handkerchief waving. The Crusade’s cartooned white knight decorated almost as many T-shirts as the more evocative “pineapple busters” that ridded Noriega’s cratered complexion.
To the cynical Central American press, however, the Crusaders looked more than a little ridiculous. They didn’t know how to build barricades. They weren’t even willing to march in the midday sun, preferring to protest by auto caravan, tinted windows ,oiled up, tape decks and air conditioners blasting. On weekends, or during the annual trade fair, protests were suspended. The Crusaders also had an embarrassing tendency to disappear whenever the water cannons or the tear gas trucks came out. But they weren’t cowards. Their problem was the old one: like the traditional politicians they criticized, the Crusaders failed to reach out to all of Panama, to the broad mass of Panamanians who were just as fed up with Noriega and more likely to put their lives on the line to rid themselves of him.
The Crusade’s leaders blamed Noriega for their own insularity. “He had spies everywhere. No one would dare talk to us, not the army, not the unions,” another Crusade leader now serving in the government recently told me. Some of that was true; but the real difficulty began long before Noriega. After decades of ignorance, separation, and mistrust, the different classes of Panama simply do not know how to talk to each other. And they may not have tried harder because they believed--both the rich and the poor--that the United States would, as ever, bail them out. That, too, was history’s gift to the recent crisis.
The Crusade’s failure was foreshadowed in early 1988. For months, Crusade leaders had been predicting a massive popular uprising on the day that Noriega could no longer meet the government payroll. With government funds frozen in New York, that day finally arrived on March 16, 1988. Thousands of public employees planned a massive protest in downtown Panama City. The evening before the big day, I dined with Barria. I had spent the day with striking port workers, and I asked him what the Crusade had planned to back up their demonstration. Barria said that they had planned nothing. When I asked why not, Barria admitted that the Crusade had no contact at all with the government unions. When I voiced my disbelief, he asked me for the union chief’s phone number.
March 16 was also the day that Panama’s national police chief and a dozen other officers tried to oust Noriega in a coup. The coup was pure comic opera. The rebels, too, had failed to contact either the striking workers or the Crusade. Noriega put down both the coup and the strike with only minimum force.
The Crusade’s ultimate defeat came the following spring, when the opposition picked a politics--as usual slate for the May 1989 elections. Arnulfo Arias had died the previous summer, at the age of eighty-six. In his place the opposition chose as its standard-bearer Guillermo Endara, an amiable, roly-poly attorney with no charisma and no political experience. Endara had spent fifteen years as a personal aide to Arias, which is probably the single most telling political fact about him. After Arias’s young widow refused the nomination, the coalition leaders were unable to agree on anyone else, and they hoped that some of the old man’s magic had rubbed off on his protégé. Endara’s running mates were chosen from the politically savvy but still untested Christian Democrats and another old-style elite party.
Running on a pro-democracy, antiNoriega platform, the opposition won big, although the true numbers will never be known. Noriega destroyed the tallies and annulled the elections before the results could be announced. The opposition hoped that the fraud would spark a massive protest. It didn’t. When the three candidates led a march into the center of the city they were attacked by Noriega’s “Dignity Battalions,” T-shirted thugs wielding iron bars. The image, captured by foreign photographers and straight out of Costa-Gavras’s Z, of vice presidential candidate Guillermo “Billy” Ford covered with blood punching back at his attackers horrified the world, but it left Panamanians numb. Seven months later the United States finally answered the opposition’s calls, sending 25,000 troops to oust Noriega. By then the United States probably had no other choice. And that is the most tragic indictment of American policy. The blustering diplomats of the Reagan administration had failed to negotiate Noriega out of power, and the opposition was clearly incapable of driving him out.
Noriega is in a cell in Florida now. The new danger of Panamanian politics is that the new government has not learned the lesson of its failure. Panama has a new leader, but not quite a new political dispensation. The columnist Guillermo Sánchez Borbón, the opposition analyst most willing to blame Panamanians for the Noriega debacle, still describes his countrymen as accessories to the crime: “If the United States was Dr. Frankenstein creating the monster, then Panamanian politicians played the role of Igor.”
Politically, the Endara government is a mix of old and new. Consider its three leaders. President Endara, the Arias accolyte, has not shown any of his mentor’s dazzle and decisiveness, nor any of his racism or fascism, although those close to Endara say that he must struggle to restrain a native anti-Americanism. He resents the United States for opposing Arias, for backing Torrijos and Noriega, for waiting so long to invade. Endara does have Arias’s common touch, though; cartoonists nearly swooned with mischievous glee when the overweight president went on a hunger strike to protest a delay in American aid, but Panama City’s poor were mollified, at least temporarily.
Panama’s First Vice President is Ricardo Arias Calderón, a dour philosophy professor and former seminarian, who may be the most uncharismatic Panamanian ever to run for office. He may also be Panama’s best political hope. His Christian Democratic Party, founded in the early 1960s with strong European and Latin American support, is Panama’s first truly modern political party: it has a well-articulated ideology and activists and organizations in cities and small towns across the country. The button-down Christian Democrats, with their credo of democracy, Catholicism, and capitalism, seem out of place in sin city, that is, in Panama. But their relentless organizing paid off big in last May’s legislative elections; they now control nearly half the Assembly. The success of their political style may infect the other parties, too.
Panama’s Second Vice President Billy Ford is pure rabiblanco. He may be Panama’s most talented politician--gravelly voiced, silver-tongued, intuitive and charismatic with a mass appeal to rival Arias’s. His small splinter party, however, has yet to reach out beyond its base of bankers and businessmen. After his brutal public beating last May, he reassured his admirers that “there’s a Ford in your future.” The fact that he kept saying it in English didn’t seem to faze him or his backers.
Taken together, these three--Endara, Arias Calderón, Ford--could make one perfect leader for Panama. Despite the grousing of American liberals and Latin American nationalists, the Endara government does have legitimacy in the eyes of most Panamanians. Their reasoning is pragmatic: Endara clearly won last May’s election, and even if he had to be inaugurated on an American military installation in the middle of an American invasion, he was inaugurated.
Still, the new government’s 80 percent-plus approval rating will not survive if the government fails to address the country’s desperate economic crisis. The invasion--and more important, the preceding two-and-a-half years of American economic sanctions--took a disastrous toll. Since 1987 the economy of Panama has shrunk by 25 percent. One-third of its labor force is unemployed. Hundreds of Panamanians lost their lives and more than 10,000 lost their homes in the invasion. Bush has promised to try to undo the damage, calling on the Congress to vote Panama $500 million in U.S. aid, and after months of wrangling Congress will likely approve $420 million soon. But the wrangling illustrated not only the insensitivity of Congress (which goaded the Reagan administration into imposing the sanctions that strangled Panama’s economy), but also the passivity of the Endara government, which refused to criticize Washington for dragging its feet when the Panamanian people were suffering. After meeting with Bush at the White House recently, the ever amiable Endara declared: “Everybody in Panama loves President Bush.”
The new government faces another challenge, too: cleaning up the military and placing it firmly under civilian control. Many Panamanians, including leaders of the Civic Crusade, believe that this particular mission is impossible, and argue that the military should be dissolved and replaced by a modest police force. Costa Rica did just that in the late 1940s, and it has enjoyed stable, democratic rule ever since. But the five days of anarchy and the wave of violent crime that followed the invasion convinced the Endata government that it needed a large force to keep order, and that the old Defense Forces would have to provide the manpower.
Arias Calderón, who is in charge of building the new Public Force, has weeded out the most notorious offenders from the Noriega officer corps. (His first choice for commander had to resign, however, after investigators discovered a million dollar bank account in his name.) The new force has had its automatic weapons, rifles, and truncheons taken away; they carry only revolvers and handcuffs. And every member must take American-taught courses in police work, which include lectures on respecting human rights and civilian authority. But there is no getting around the fact that the new Public Force is staffed exclusively by members of the old Panamanian Defense Forces: of the 1,069 officers working for Noriega, more than 900 are now with Arias Calderón. The habits of corruption and brutality die hard.
It is unlikely that the military will try to seize power soon. The Noriega debacle discredited the military even in its own eyes. But there is only one certain way to guarantee civilian rule: for the first time in their history, Panamanians must build a government that is democratic and representative. The early record is mixed. Endara’s new Cabinet is almost completely white; it reads like a Who’s Who in the Panamanian oligarchy. The three top leaders are convincing, though, when they say they are committed to representative democracy; and they have rejected calls for vengeance and mass purges of Noriega backers from government ministries. “The last thing we need right now is more people out of work,” says Ford.
The government displayed an alarming insensitivity, however, when it began an anti-Torrijos campaign; Noriega’s tenure may have tarnished Torrijos’s memory, but it hasn’t erased it for many humble Panamanians. The new leaders have yet to make any overtures to Torrijos’s populist coalition. More than anything else, this government must learn to talk to its own people. Noriega’s supporters may be gone forever, but populism, Arias-style or Torrijos-style, is not. The Endara government will either reach out to the masses of Panamanians or it will be swept away like its predecessors.
The United States must also learn the lesson of its Panamanian involvements. It must finally allow Panama to become a real country in its own right. As Dinges notes, the invasion was not an auspicious beginning: “[Panama] ended as it began in 1903, barely a country at all, and one whose destiny was determined not by its citizens but by the power reflexes of the United States.” The United States must back away, or its long occupation of Panama will never end. It takes more than Marines to fix a political culture.