On December 11, Manuel Noriega—the 77-year old ex-general, ex-Panamanian dictator, and ex-CIA employee—returned home to face additional charges, after having already served more than 17 years in a U.S. prison for drug trafficking, and two years in a French prison for money laundering. Noriega was captured by the U.S. army in 1989, in what was, at the time, the biggest military operation since Vietnam.
Invading a foreign country to kidnap one of its citizens, even one as notorious as Noriega, is a clear violation of international law. Just imagine America’s response if we had declared Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic a friend (instead of a war criminal), and given him asylum in the U.S., only to have a group of Bosnian commandos shoot their way into his compound, snatch him up and, in the name of justice, take him back to Bosnia to face charges. It would have been an outrage.
Following George H. W. Bush’s Dec. 20, 1989, invasion of Panama, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted 75-20 (with 40 abstentions) to condemn the act as a flagrant violation of international law. Predictably, the U.S. more or less sloughed off the condemnation. When the shoe is on the other foot, America has an unfortunate history of swapping principle for expediency. Indeed, the only two countries in the world who expect to get away with this double-standard seems to be the U.S. and Israel.
But back to Noriega. Over the years, starting when I was doing research on the Medallin cartel, I’d developed an interest in Noriega (who was paid by Pablo Escobar to safeguard Colombian cocaine shipments through Panama, and paid by the CIA to help destabilize Latin American regimes). I hoped to do a magazine article on him. In fact, I’d flirted with the idea of doing a semi-comic piece on Manuel Noriega, Moammar Gadaffi, and Jack Abramoff—entitled “Manny, Moe, and Jack.”
In early 2007, amid reports that Noriega was in danger of being extradited to France, I tried to get an interview with him. All I really had to go on was Noriega’s current residence (the Florida Correctional Institution, in Miami) and the e-mail address of his Miami attorney, Frank Rubino.
I e-mailed Rubino at his office, and, luckily, he answered back almost immediately. I asked him two questions: (1) Would Noriega agree to be interviewed (either by letter or face to face)? and (2) Does he speak or read English?
Rubino told me that while he couldn’t definitely say whether or not Noriega would agree to an interview, he seriously doubted it. Apparently, Noriega had already received hundreds of requests for interviews and, as far as Rubino knew, had refused all of them. As to the second question, Noriega didn’t read English, so we’d have to correspond in Spanish. Rubino was kind enough to include Noriega’s mailing address.
Brushing up on my Spanish, and having a friend proof-read the final draft, I sent Noriega a brief letter, leading with the salutation, “Estimado General.” Basically, in about 70 words, I presented my credentials and outlined my modest project. Alas, that’s where the story ends. He never wrote back. Despite his attempts to avoid extradition, Noriega was eventually turned over to French authorities.
It’s stunning how inconsistently and unfairly justice is meted out. Having already served nearly 20 years in the U.S. and France, Noriega will likely spend the rest of his life in a Panama prison. No one is suggesting he’s innocent, or that he’s a splendid fellow, but until the U.S. demonized him as an “enemy of the state,” he worked for our government. Dan White murders Harvey Milk and George Moscone, and serves less than two years, and Rod Blagojevich, who kills no one, is sentenced to 14 years.
And if we stick only with dictators, a reputed tyrant like “Baby Doc” Duvalier gets to return to Haiti without spending a single day in jail (at least so far). It makes you wonder if Noriega is being moved from prison to prison in order to keep him from revealing what he knew about CIA activities in Latin America. If that’s the case, then Baby Doc deserves credit. He was smart enough to steer clear of American spooks.