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Manuel Noriega, the former dictator of the Central American country of Panama, rose to power through the art of destruction deception and detail. Manuel Noriega was able to profit and flourish as Panama’s new leader because of the Cold War environment. Due to the Cold War, its geographical positioning, and financial liberties, Noriega was able to manipulate all parties involved while making him very wealthy, powerful, a political asset, and finally a threat to the United States National Security.
Manuel Noriega was born in 1934 in Panama City, Panama. Noriega grew up very poor and could not afford any high level of education. Like most who could not afford schooling he attended a military college in Peru. His schooling in Peru would ultimately give him his start to gaining contacts, friends, and most importantly American connections.
To understand Noriega’s rise to power first you must understand the environment in which he did so. After World War II a communist movement began to slowly spread throughout the world. This went against America’s belief in democracy and created a riff between the Soviet Union and The United States creating the Cold War.
What importance does this have to Noriega and Panama? On January 1, 1959 Fidel Castro led a successful coup against the government in Cuba which at the time was controlled by Fulgencio Batista. By Castro taking control of the Cuban government, he placed communism within a close range of America. This was important because it was feared by most Americans that this takeover by Castro would lead a domino effect throughout Central America, and third world countries further extending the arm of Communism and the reach of the Soviet Union.
During the same time Castro took control of Cuba, Noriega was in the Peruvian military school. America fearing that these third world military schools would be a breeding ground for future communist leaders, implanted many agents to keep watch over them. One of these recruitment’s would be Manuel Noriega. America first employed Noriega in these early years to inform them on the schools leftist teachings and slowly helped and inspired him to become one of America’s best assets and later their worst enemy.
After returning home to Panama, Noriega furthered his studies by taking courses in America and also at American bases in Panama. Some of his courses included “military engineering, jungle engineering, and counter insurgency Battle'; (Kempe 58).
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The irony that America helped to develop Manuel Noriega into a Panamanian Dictator raises questions as to why they did, and what made them shift from friend enemy.
Noriega rose to power in Panama by first becoming a sublieutenant in the National Guard in 1968. Later, Noriega ascended higher into power by being part of a successful coup against then president, Arnulfo Arias who ironically was Noriega’s hero when growing up. After the coup in 1968, and under the power of Omar Torrijos, Noriega became lieutenant colonel and was also appointed Chief of Military Intelligence.
The high status in the field of military intelligence is where his assistance was even more sought after. America still trying to gain information on the Communist movement still employed Noriega to supply information on Castro and other related topics. Noriega’s ability to play both sides of the fence was now beginning to fully develop.
At the same time that he was Chief of intelligence he was smuggling guns to help Salvadoran rebels fight against the government of El Salvador. Even though America was backing the government in El Salvador, Noriega “ had no hesitancy in selling arms to the rebels'; (Johnson pg.246).
The situation in Central America in reference to the Cold War was that the Sandanistan Government who was backed by Castro and ultimately the Soviet Union, controlled Nicaragua and helped supply arms and money to El Salvador rebels to overthrow their Government. America could not stand for this to happen, and the theory was that “One by one the Central American states would fall until the entire area was under the control of Marxist-Leninist regimes backed by the Soviet Union and its Caribbean Proxy, Cuba.'; (Johnson pg.253)
America could not stand for this domino affect to happen and hence Noriega was once again called upon to help. Noriega at this time had seized total control of Panama due to the mysterious death of then President Omar Torrijos which in fact could have been linked to many political problems he was facing throughout Central America. Due to Noriega’s prior involvement with gun smuggling he was very experienced and open to participating in President Reagan’s efforts in neutralizing and immobilizing the Sandanista government.
Noriega, who earlier sold arms to Salvadoran rebels, now smuggled arms to Nicaraguan rebels in an effort to overthrow the Sandanista government who backed the El Salvador rebels. America was now involved secretly in the facilitating of a war against all communist movements in Central America. America was now forming a “New Vietnam';. In a view best described by Richard Barnett in which he separates American political interests from nationalist movements, Barnett feels it is impossible to have a strategy where you are “treating local revolutions as part of a worldwide conspiracy';. If so he feels America by doing so is a “menace to itself and to others';(Grossman, Introductory Quote)
America, particularly Reagan in the 1980’s had become consumed with the strategy of influencing revolution for political interest because with the domino effect debate as his justification. The deeper America became in this secret war the more money they spent. Noriega was one of the beneficiaries of America’s fight in the Cold War. By helping train Nicaraguan rebels on Panamanian soil, as well as facilitate arms and money Noriega was as best described by CIA Director William Casey as “our bastard'; (Johnson pg.273).
Noriega although helping the U.S., still maintained a close relationship with Castro and ultimately the Soviet Union. Noriega would consistently feed Castro with information about American technology and military affairs. Noriega of course by supplying information was able to keep good connections on both side of the Cold War. Noriega was a double and triple-cross individual whose ability to do so created lucrative dividends on the payrolls of not just the CIA but also Castro.
William Casey’s negative description of Noriega as being a bastard is due to his involvement with Drug trafficking money laundering and the Colombian cartel run by the Medellin family. In which the U.S. had knowledge of but ignored because of his involvement with the contras. This involvement would be just another side of the fence Noriega played in order to manipulate different government, individual people, and illegal parties for his own personal rise to power.
In the late seventies the rise of Drugs and the flow of it into the U.S. began to create noise within the American borders. When Ronald Reagan was elected, the phrase “War on Drugs'; became well known and Nancy Reagan the First Lady ran the highly publicized “Just Say No To Drugs'; campaign. During the late seventies and early eighties Columbia’s major drug cartel the Medellin family had prospered by smuggling drugs and laundering its profits in America. Once again Noriega was the prime asset and beneficiary of this operation.
Since Noriega had total control over all the major institutions in Panama he was able to finance and facilitate the flow of illegal money into and out of Panama. Due to the elimination of income taxes, and strict bank secrecy Panama had become both a tax and bank haven. Noriega was involved on all levels of intelligence, counter-counter intelligence, drug trafficking, money laundering, and arms smuggling with countries involved such as America, Cuba, The Soviet Union, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, and Israel. Noriega also allowed the construction of a Medellin Cartel run, cocaine-processing plant. Panama had become a “vast illegal drug center'; (Johnson 265).
By using airstrips in Panama, Columbia, and America, drugs were smuggled at an alarming rate. Noriega used the same flight routes which he used for CIA operations to stop detection. Airstrips were not checked in America because Noriega cleverly used the same ones protected for usage of smuggling weapons to Nicaraguan rebels. At this point Noriega seemed untouchable, but this immunity would not last for long
The influx of drugs and guns into the U.S., the murder of Hugo Spadafora (a romantic revolutionary who spoke out against Noriega) along with the 1984 elections began to create an ultimatum for the U.S. to make. Either America would continue to support Noriega because he was an important asset or shift their policy and Neutralize his power. But after public accusations made by the opposition in Panama led by Colonel Roberto Diaz Herrera telling of crimes Noriega had committed including the death of Omar Torrijos, America was forced to make considerable movement towards the direction of immobilizing Noriega.
Finally, because of the threat that Noriega “knew too much'; about secret operations and he was willing to publicize them Bush had to call for action. After many years of failed negotiations calling for Noriega to step down, the American government as best stated by George Bush on December 17, 1989 “Enough is Enough'; (Kempe pg.8).
The actual invasion is the most unimportant part of the Noriega story in political terms, even though it involved the sending of 25,000 American troops, great destruction on the soil of Panama and the wounding and killing of many innocent lives.
In the book “Our Man in Panama'; the Author John Dinges only mentions the actual invasion in the last paragraph of his book. Dinges stated “the U.S. invasion was condemned around the world, but almost no one came to the defense of Manuel Noriega, who had treated his leadership of a country as a game, finally overplaying';(pg. 318). Dinges description of Noriega’s actions as game was one that was played along with the United States.
Noriega played many if not every side of the fence in his rise to power. He was paranoid, and often created enemies in order to give a false sensation that those feelings of paranoia were true. Manuel Noriega betrayed many in the end, his own heroes, his loyal followers, the people of his country, and most importantly the U.S.
In an interview with Frederick Kempe, the Author of “Divorcing the Dictator'; on the Television show Booknotes on March 11, 1990, Brian Lamb the interviewer asks the author why he stated “America, not Noriega is its worst enemy';. Kempe replied by discussing the fact that America had created Noriega in fear of communist expansion. Unfortunately, according to Kempe, America “never knew long term what we [America] wanted from Noriega. Whereas Noriega knew he wanted to be a dictator, and in power.
Noriega knew his strengths and his weaknesses, and ultimately knew how to play “the game';, very well at that. The fact that America allowed itself to be easily manipulated because of their political anxieties allowed Noriega to gain the upper hand. Was America scared to lose “the game';? Were they scared Noriega would blow the whistle on Americas secret involvement in Central America? Many of these questions carry no present importance, but one fact is known and that is Noriega’s cleverness to take advantage of a good situation.
It is almost ironic that when captured by the U.S. that Noriega had sought refuge in the Papal palace. Holding a Bible, it was as if to say he knew the game he was playing and its moral significance. Noriega said on May 26, 1989 “I will only tell you that the higher cosmic consciousness which is God is with me. I have prayed every- day…. It is my moral obligation.'; (Kempe Pg.1) This statement leads you to believe his understanding of wrongdoing while at the same time questioning The United States same understanding.
Yes, Noriega played “the game';. But who invited him? Who gave his moves and paid his a contract? Was this America’s moral obligation when looking at the bigger picture of Democracy against Communism? Or was it America who finally overplayed itself, and used Noriega as the goat.
The historical significance of the Noriega Story can be looked through the context of American foreign diplomacy. America never had a clear outline or strategy of what it wanted accomplished. America merely reacted to any developments that occurred and moved on an ad hoc basis. Noriega was able to position himself so that he fell within all the international boundaries to become a necessity as a doorway to Central American politics, profit production and propaganda. His ability to do so as well as his the mixture of corruption placed him forever into the history of his country and the world.