by Kurt Fernández
As former Panamanian dictator and CIA employee Manuel Noriega faces money laundering charges in France after spending nearly 20 years in a U.S. prison for drug trafficking, my mind wanders back to the mid-1970s, when I met the then-colonel at a New Year’s Eve party in Panama City.
The party was at the home of a wealthy Panamanian family that owned a cement company. My mother and father, the latter a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, had been invited on account of my mother’s charitable work with the Inter-American Women’s Club. My wife and I, visiting from Mexico, tagged along.
There was a live band playing salsa, an endless supply of Ron Cortez and Cerveza Panamá delivered by fast-moving waiters, and an abundance of prettily dressed debutantes and their dates dancing around a pool. In other words, the wealthiest families in Panama were hurting under the government of Noriega’s populist predecessor General Omar Torrijos.
To stay on Torrijos’ good side, many of the rich had begun paying taxes they had ignored for decades. And to avoid offending the country’s leadership, they were obliged to invite the likes of Noriega and other members of Torrijos’ inner circle to their parties.
Noriega arrived in civilian attire – a white guayabera and black slacks – a little before midnight. His entrance with five similarly dressed armed guards brought the merrymaking to an abrupt halt. As he began to dance with debutantes around the pool, revelers young and old fled to their cars. Little by little his audience was reduced to his guards, who looked like quintuplets, pistols protruding slightly from the smalls of their backs.
Now that Noriega was left with no dance partner, my father led my wife and me over to meet him. I had waist-length hair and a beard – a blow no doubt to my father’s esteem as “The Colonel.” As for Noriega’s nicknames, these included Cara de Piña or Pineapple Face, for reasons of skin texture.
My dad, Colonel Joseph Fernández, knew Noriega well. He was stationed at Quarry Heights, then the seat of the U.S. Southern Command in the Panama Canal Zone. A career military intelligence officer, he had previously “read” photographs of Soviet military installations in Cuba and briefed Defense Secretary Robert McNamara daily during the Cuban missile crisis. He once sped in a Jeep down a runway at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii to manually stop a U 2 spy plane from taking off to surveil the Soviet Union.
In later years in Panama, as Noriega gained notoriety, my father would brag about his erstwhile meetings with the general. He would tell about how Noriega showed up at his Quarry Heights base, dug into the jungly hillside rising up from Panama City, in an armored vehicle, each window covered by a guard clutching a machine gun.
According to my father, intelligence on Noriega revealed that he dutifully applied techniques learned at the U.S.-run School of the Americas at Albrook Air Force Base in the Canal Zone, such as dropping political opponents out of helicopters to their deaths in the Bay of Panama. Noriega – who was paid millions of dollars as a servant of the CIA and was referred to as “my boy” by former CIA Director William Casey – may have additionally been responsible for the plane crash that killed Torrijos, possibly with a nudge from the U.S. He rigged elections and murdered opponents. He didn’t share Torrijos’ redeeming quality of helping the poor.
That many of the records pertaining to Noriega remain sealed by the U.S. government on national security grounds says much about his coziness with U.S. officials.
In fact, a political and moral DNA test would show a close match with officials of the Ronald Reagan administration, not to mention other Latin American leaders.
Take, for example, the Iran-Contra scandal: a Mafia-like operation in which top-ranking U.S. officials, perhaps including Reagan himself, illegally used profits from arm sales to Iran to destroy left-wing opponents in Nicaragua, often by permitting the Contras access to funds from drug trafficking – the very crime for which Noriega was imprisoned in the U.S.
Or take the lesser-known Operation Condor, in which the U.S. government nurtured Latin America dictators in their Dirty War against political opponents in the 1970s and 1980s, providing arms, training, funding, communications assistance, and a pat on the head to sadists, torturers, and murderers.
As his trial gets underway in France, we may rightly wonder why Noriega has been denied the same get-out-of-jail-free card that his soulmates in the U.S. and other Latin American countries have enjoyed.
And hopefully the trial will shed some light on why exactly Noriega was awarded the French Legion of Honor medal in 1987.