JOHN BIERMAN January 15 1990



JOHN BIERMAN January 15 1990

The light aircraft, flying near the Miami federal courthouse last Thursday as deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega faced his U.S. accusers, towed a banner bearing the derisive slogan “Bye, bye, Tony.” But the message may have been premature. Noriega’s legal battle to beat a 12-count indictment, which alleges that he turned his country into a way station for Colombia’s notorious Medellin drug cartel, was just beginning. Through his lawyers, the sombre Noriega, dressed as a four-star general, declared himself a political prisoner over whom the court had no jurisdiction. And if that line of defence should fail, Noriega’s lawyers threatened to subpoena sensitive U.S. intelligence documents relating to his 20-year service as a paid informant of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Clearly, the scar-faced Noriega, who had left his sanctuary in Panama City’s Vatican Embassy and surrendered to the Americans, retained considerable potential to annoy and embarrass the U.S. administration that unseated him in a pre-Christmas invasion.

Still, President George Bush, who ordered the invasion partly to capture Noriega, appeared to have no doubts about the outcome. Declared the President, after the Panamanian’s court appearance: “Our case is strong, our resolve is firm and our legal representations are sound.” And in an obvious reference to reports that the administration was prepared to plea-bargain with the ousted Panamanian dictator in return for information about international drug-trafticking activities, Bush added, “Our government is not seeking a deal with Noriega.”

As Bush spoke, Panama began to face up to a vast job of material and political reconstruction. The last 2 1/2 years of Noriega’s dictatorship, U.S. economic reprisals, and the damage and looting that occurred during the invasion itself had combined to cripple its once-thriving economy. As a result, while ordinary Panamanians celebrated Noriega’s departure, banging pots and pans and partying late into the night, the U.S.-sponsored government of President Guillermo Endara began drawing up a wish-list of aid projects to revitalize an economy that has shrunk by at least 25 per cent since 1987, leaving more than a quarter of the workforce unemployed. “The U.S. government must announce that it supports the recovery of Panama,” said former Panamanian president Nicolás Ardito Barletta, who is ardently pro-American. “That must be done dramatically by President Bush at the White House.”

Meanwhile, amid the chorus of bipartisan domestic praise of Bush for bringing Noriega to justice, one prominent figure continued to cast doubt on his assurances that the administration would not make deals with Noriega. Laurence Birns, director of the Council on hemispheric Affairs, a liberal, Washington-based think-tank, has questioned the legality of the Panama invasion and the validity of its objectives. And last week, after Noriega gave himself up, Birns insisted that it was the result of a secret accord. “There must be some understanding,” Birns told Maclean’s. “My guess is that there will be a very restricted prosecution—a proforma trial with a minimum sentence.” Added Birns: “Noriega has a lot on Bush and on the Reagan administration. His ace in the hole concerns the 1984 presidential election in Panama.”

According to Birns and many other observers, the true winner of that election was the then-82-year-old nationalist candidate, Amulfo Arias Madrid. But Birns alleges that, to accommodate the White House, Noriega “stole” 50,000 votes from Arias and gave them to the U.S.-favored candidate, Barletta, who was declared the victor. Said Birns: “Noriega could talk about all of this—the truth about Reagan/ Bush democracy in Central America. But my guess is that, as a result of some deal, he will not embarrass the administration.”

After Noriega and several aides slipped into the Vatican Embassy on Christmas Eve to avoid being captured in the massive U.S. manhunt, the initial attitude of Vatican officials was to fulfil their traditional duty of providing sanctuary and to help Noriega find refuge in a third country. But as American officials, supported by the Panamanian clergy, persistently argued that Noriega was a mere criminal on the run, the Vatican gradually modified its position.

While contacts continued between the White House and the Vatican and, at a local level, between the U.S. military authorities and Papal Nuncio Msgr. José Sebastian Laboa, Noriega spent much of his time confined to a Spartan bedroom in the nunciature compound. The room had only a few pieces of furniture, a crucifix and a broken TV set. It was not air-conditioned, and Noriega could not see through its opaque windows. Still, he could hear the round-the-clock rock music that U.S. soldiers blared at the embassy to unsettle him, as well as the fury of a mob of Panamanians who turned out to denounce him. Members of the embassy staff apparently persuaded Noriega to surrender his pistol, a knife and, later, a submachine-gun that one of his aides had hidden in the embassy. Archbishop Marcos McGrath, Panama’s senior church official, said that Noriega “kept pretty much to himself’ and was “downcast and a bit moody.”

To help convince the Vatican to end Noriega’s sanctuary, U.S. officials assured the Holy See that the charges against the ousted dictator did not carry the death penalty. That U.S. diplomatic effort received further support when McGrath and other Panamanian bishops contacted Pope John Paul II and repeated long-standing allegations that Noriega was a persistent violator of human rights.

Meanwhile, Laboa kept up pressure on Noriega to give himself up. Then, although Laboa denied the charge, a senior U.S. official said that the nuncio told Noriega his sanctuary would expire at noon on Thursday, Jan. 4. At that point, Noriega faced a simple choice: surrender either to the Americans or to the new Panamanian government. Apparently deciding that he would be safer with the Americans, he offered to give himself up on the conditions that he could wear his full uniform, that his surrender would be taken by a U.S. officer of equal rank and that there would be no media present. The Americans agreed.

That evening, after a freshly pressed uniform had been brought to him, Noriega telephoned his wife, Felicidad, to tell her his decision. She had taken refuge with their three daughters at the Cuban Embassy, where they were awaiting safe conduct out of Panama. Noriega also telephoned his mistress, Vickie Amada, whose location was not publicly known.

Then, at 8:48 p.m., accompanied by the papal nuncio and two priests, Noriega left the embassy and walked to a nearby soccer field. There, Gen. Marc Cisneros, the senior U.S. negotiator, was waiting to take him by helicopter to Howard Air Force Base near Panama City. At Howard, Cisneros handed him over to officials of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, who accompanied him aboard a C-130 military tranport. By 9:30, the plane was in the air, heading for Homestead Air Force Base near Miami.

Noriega had already left Panama before the official announcement of his surrender. Panamanians reacted with spontaneous street celebrations, which went on well beyond the official start of the 11 p.m. curfew. “The monster has left our territory,” said Endara, whom the Americans had installed shortly before the Dec. 20 invasion. “We feel unburdened from a criminal.” Ordinary Panamanians, who had voted overwhelmingly for Endara before Noriega annulled the results of last May’s election, embraced each other and drank toasts to freedom, while cars careered through the streets of Panama City, honking repeatedly. “I’m really happy,” said university student Leonardo Margañon. “It’s the end of an ugly chapter in Panamanian life.” Declared Edward Gonzales, owner of an import firm: “It’s the end of a fatal dynasty. A monster has been caught.”

American soldiers were drawn into the celebrations as women showered them with hugs and kisses and men slapped them on the back. “Viva Panama,” shouted one private who said that he was from Brooklyn, N.Y. “I feel so great that Panama is now free.” Said another: “I wish I could take a drink, but I’m on duty. This is a great moment for them, and great for us because it means we’ll be going home.” According to official U.S. accounts, drug enforcement officers formally arrested Noriega and read him his legal rights in Spanish during the flight from Panama to Miami. The officers forced him to change from his uniform into a flight suit and then handcuffed him and put ankle chains on him. One report said that Noriega burst into tears during the flight, saying that he had made a mistake in surrendering.

The precise circumstances of Noriega’s arrest may significantly influence his legal battle. During his court appearance—in uniform and without handcuffs or shackles—his lawyers made it clear that they will use every weapon in the legal arsenal to get him off. On their instructions, Noriega, now Federal Prisoner 41586, declined to reply to the 12-count indictment against him, which carries a maximum sentence of 145 years in jail. U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf, but defence lawyer Frank Rubino said that he plans to file motions to have the case dismissed.

Rubino claims that the charges are politically motivated, and he is challenging the methods used to remove Noriega from the Vatican Embassy. He claims that Noriega was improperly pressured by the presence of angry crowds and U.S. troops around the nunciature. And in court on Thursday, he said that the only reason Noriega left the Vatican Embassy was that the Panamanian government threatened to revoke the embassy’s diplomatic status, leaving it open to invasion by U.S. troops.

While Rubino began to prepare his case, which he said will take six months, Noriega remained in custody under maximum security in the “submarine room,’’ a cramped, windowless room beneath the federal courthouse. Rubino says that he will request a bond hearing within 30 days to free his client from custody while awaiting trial. Another major issue likely to be raised by Noriega’s lawyers is the difficulty of finding an unbiased jury. The charges against Noriega have received massive publicity in the United States, and Bush and other senior officials have made prejudicial comments against him. Recently, Bush called him a “thug” and accused him of “poisoning the children of America” with drugs.

As well, Noriega’s past connections with the CIA may make the government’s case difficult. Before Noriega surrendered last week, Dexter Lehtinen, the U.S. attorney in Miami who has overall charge of the case against Noriega, travelled to Langley, Va., and, together with justice department officials, reviewed relevant documents at CIA headquarters. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh sought to play down the importance of the review, claiming that nothing had so far emerged that might hinder the prosecution. Added Thornburgh: “Obviously, we can’t anticipate what Gen. Noriega may raise. But at the moment, nothing has come to our attention that would indicate that this trial can’t go forward.”

Still, for nearly two years, since Florida grand juries in Miami and Tampa first indicted him on drug-trafficking charges, Noriega has spread rumors that he holds destructive secrets about Bush, who was head of the CIA in 1976-1977 and Ronald Reagan’s vice-president from 1981 to 1989. Several political analysts say that Noriega could accuse the Reagan administration of having sanctioned drug trafficking to support the activities of the U.S.backed contra rebels in their fight against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.

Many analysts openly deride Noriega’s whispering campaign. “If Noriega has something on Bush,” said Nestor Sanchez, a former senior CIA officer in Latin America, “he would have used it before now. What can he say that’s going to be so dangerous?” The Senate foreign relations committee, which has spent more than a year investigating Noriega’s drug activities, has failed to turn up any evidence pointing to a Bush connection. “All we could find were rumors,” one senior investigator said last week. And Bush himself has dismissed Noriega’s claims as “total lies.” At the same time, however, intelligence sources in Washington said they are concerned that the Panamanian will attempt to reveal what he knows about CIA operations throughout Central America.

Panama itself began last week to adjust to the post-Noriega era. Clearly, a continued U.S. military presence would be needed to establish and consolidate democratic institutions and create a national defence force that enjoyed public trust, although withdrawals began last week. Meanwhile, many Panamanians said that the United States will also have to provide massive economic help to repair the material damage caused by the invasion, which may have been as high as $2 billion. Declared Vice-President Ricardo Arias Calderón: “The Americans have a moral obligation to pay for reconstruction because they once supported Noriega.” Now, the Americans, after getting the strongman, are faced with the more difficult task of convicting him.