OUSTED DICTATOR GEN. MANUEL NORIEGA DESPERATELY SOUGHT ASYLUM INSIDE THE VATICAN EMBASSY
THE LAST STAND
OUSTED DICTATOR GEN. MANUEL NORIEGA DESPERATELY SOUGHT ASYLUM INSIDE THE VATICAN EMBASSY
Nestled amid palm trees and protected by a 10-foot-high brick wall, the two-storey Vatican Embassy in Panama City is normally an island of tranquillity in a bustling, traffic-congested city. The situation at the embassy last week, however, was anything but normal. With the full support of his superiors in Rome, Papal Nuncio José Sebastián Laboa was playing host to one of Latin America’s most brutal and despised fugitives, deposed Panamanian dictator Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega. And while Noriega lounged inside the mission—reportedly carrying arms—U.S. troops staked out the surrounding streets and rooftops, laying coils of barbed wire in an effort to foil Noriega’s escape should he attempt to leave the compound. Three days into the siege, the soldiers stepped up the pressure by blasting Noriega’s refuge with around-the-clock amplified rock music and news reports describing him as “a common criminal of the worst kind.” Then, the crisis heightened when both Moscow and Nicaragua intervened officially in the dispute.
The standoff was only the latest demonstra-
tion of Noriega’s ability to outfox and outmanoeuvre his adversaries. For almost two years, the Panamanian strongman had ignored two U.S. indictments accusing him of complicity in the international drug trade. In October, he crushed a bloody takeover attempt by more than 100 junior officers—in large part, some rebel sympathizers complained, due to the failure of the United States to provide sufficient military support to the attempted coup.
Then, on Dec. 20, President George Bush launched what he called “Operation Just Cause”—a full-scale invasion designed to remove Noriega from power and take him to the United States to stand trial. Instead, the 55year-old dictator dropped out of sight until Christmas Eve, when he appeared at the Vatican Embassy and was granted temporary refuge.
In Washington, a White House official said that the United States was pushing “very hard indeed” to convince the Vatican to hand over Noriega. He added that, as long as the deposed dictator remained a fugitive, he would pose a threat to Panama’s newly installed civilian government, led by former opposition leader Guillermo Endara. “We want Noriega here because he would cause trouble wherever he goes,” White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters travelling with Bush on a hunting and fishing vacation in Texas. “We want him in a nice jail where we can keep an eye on him.” Endara himself sent a letter to Pope John Paul II asking the Roman Catholic Church to release Noriega in order to “save
innocent Panamanian lives.” Turning Noriega over to the Americans, the letter added, “would guarantee his security and, presumably, bring him to justice for the common and despicable crimes of which he is accused in that country.”
None of those appeals seemed to have much effect. At one point, Archbishop Marcos McGrath of Panama suggested that a deal might be worked out that would take into account concerns about Noriega’s potential threat to his political opponents. Said McGrath: “As Panamanians, we fear that, if he were somehow free abroad, he would begin to stir up troubles again within Panama.” But the Vatican’s chief spokesman harshly condemned the U.S. tactics and insisted that the church would not deliver Noriega into U.S. hands. “An occupying power cannot interfere with the work of a diplomatic mission,” Joaquin Navarro-Valls said, “or demand that a person who is seeking
asylum there be handed over to it.” He added that the papal nuncio in Panama City was trying to convince the former leader to leave the mission voluntarily, “but he cannot force Gen. Noriega to leave.”
On Friday, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution deploring the U.S. military intervention in Panama as a flagrant violation of international law. By a vote of 75 to 20, with 40 abstentions, it endorsed a document similar to the one vetoed by the United States, Britain and France in the more politically powerful Security Council a week earlier. Nicaragua, Cuba, Tanzania, Ghana, Vietnam and Peru joined the Soviet Union in denouncing the U.S. invasion. Even Costa Rica, usually an ally of Washington’s, criticized the intervention as a
throwback to the days of gunboat diplomacy. In Moscow the next day, the Soviet foreign ministry called in U.S. Ambassador Jack Matlock and demanded the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Panama.
Meanwhile, U.S. troops sparked another diplomatic dispute on Friday night when they raided the residence of the Nicaraguan ambassador to Panama, Antenor Ferrey. Acting on a tip from a Panamanian citizen that the house contained a large arms cache, U.S. Southern Command spokesman Col. Ronald Sconyers said that troops searched the residence and found an arsenal of grenades, antitank weapons, Uzi submachine-guns, assault rifles and small arms. The troops quickly returned the weapons and apologized to Ferrey. That was followed the next day by an uncharacteristic expression of regret from Bush who called the raid a “screw-up” that should not have happened. Nevertheless, in reprisal for the raid,
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega ordered 20 U.S. diplomats expelled from Managua. Ortega also announced that the foreign ministry would reduce to 100 from the current 320 the number of Nicaraguan nationals allowed to work in the U.S. Embassy in Managua.
Although the Vatican’s refusal to hand over Noriega clearly left the White House frustrated, most analysts said that the church had little choice but to grant the deposed Panamanian’s request for refuge. To do otherwise might open the Vatican to charges of political favoritism, because Endara himself had asked for and received sanctuary at the papal nuncio’s residence in early October, when Noriega threatened him with violence. At the same time, any decision to deliver Noriega into U.S. custody
would be sure to arouse widespread resentment elsewhere in Latin America. With rare exceptions, government and church officials throughout the region have criticized the U.S. invasion of Panama as an unwarranted interference in that country’s domestic affairs.
By contrast, most Panamanians appeared grateful to Washington for toppling Noriega and replacing him with a civilian government. And they expressed optimism that, with U.S. assistance, the country’s battered economy would begin to recover from years of rampant corruption and mismanagement. “Thank you, God, for George Bush,” said Alejandro Alfonso Bullen, 28, whose home in the run-down El Chorrillo district of Panama City, two blocks from Noriega’s heavily fortified concrete headquarters, was burned to the ground during heavy fighting in the first hours of the U.S. raid on the capital. Three days later, Bullen and dozens of his neighbors were still picking through the charred remains of the rickety wooden apartment buddings that had been their homes. “I lost everything, but still I do not care,” he added. “I never had a job in my life, but Bush will give us houses, food and jobs,
I am sure.”
In all, aid workers estimated that the invasion had cost the lives of about 1,000 civilians, as well as about 300 of Noriega’s troops and 23 U.S. soldiers.
Most of the casualties were among Panama’s poorest, who had the misfortune to be caught in the cross fire
between U.S. and pro-Noriega forces. -
“It was the poor who suffered most from that bastard, and we paid most of the cost of getting rid of him, too,” complained Hereminia Quinones, 48, who said that her 25-year-old nephew had been unintentionally shot and killed by U.S. troops guarding the Cuban Embassy. In Quinones’s case, her loss had been compounded by bureaucratic confusion: she had been told that her nephew would be buried in his own plot, but when she arrived at the Garden of Peace cemetery on the outskirts of the city, she discovered that the body had instead been deposited in a mass grave along with an estimated 275 others. “How could they just dump him in there like this?” she cried, standing on the grave site. “I want them to dig him up and give me his body.”
Although few Panamanians appeared to regret Noriega’s ouster, there was little public display of resentment against the troops that had helped to keep him in power, the 16,000-member Panama Defence Forces. Several thousand men and women of the now-disbanded forces visited a government office building in the capital last week to turn in their old identity cards and receive replacements proclaiming them to be members of the newly created Public Forces of Panama, which includes police and security. And that exchange of ID cards was almost the only thing that made any difference between the old and new armed forces. “We have the same units, same ranks, same men.
Only the name has changed,” said Capt. Luis Donadío, former commander of the Defence Forces’ 2nd Company. During the invasion, he and his men had battled U.S. troops for control of Tocumen Airport, on the eastern outskirts of the capital. A few days later, they were waiting for new equipment before being sent on joint patrols with U.S. soldiers.
Meanwhile, U.S. troops were under or-
ders to co-operate with the Public Forces to restore calm and maintain order after several days of widespread looting. But many expressed mixed emotions about working alongside their former adversaries. “I lost two friends,” said Pte. Michael Campbell of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Divison.
“I look at these [Panamanian] soldiers and wonder if this is the guy who was shooting at us. It is hard to accept.” At the same time, there were signs that some of the Panamanian troops who had defended Noriega were unhappy about the new arrangements. “We miss our old colonels already,” said one new Public Forces soldier. Another man, a sergeant in the military intelligence unit of Noriega’s army, said that he was worried that the new government would soon begin weeding out officers who were known to be loyal to the deposed dictator. “The old colonels would protect us, but these new sons-of-bitches will throw us to the dogs,” he said.
In Washington, U.S. officials launched a worldwide financial clampdown against the deposed dictator. The U.S. justice department
said that it had asked Switzerland, Britain, France and Luxembourg to freeze bank accounts controlled by Noriega and his family, which the Bush administration alleges contain a total of more than $12 million. According to American officials, Noriega received the money in return for helping to ship drugs to the United States from Colombia. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Canadian government said that Ottawa had agreed to help the United States to discover whether Noriega had deposited any money in Canadian banks.
For Panama’s new government, however, Washington’s continuing military involvement in that country is at best a double-edged sword. Privately, an aide to the new president told Maclean ’s that it was doubtful whether Endara and his followers would be able to remain in power for long once the U.S. invasion force leaves. But as long as U.S. troops remain in the country, Endara will be open to charges that his government is little more than a puppet of the Bush administration.
A former labor lawyer, Ená dara is supported mainly by jc. middle-class merchants and y professionals in the capital. * But he is less popular among poor Panamanians, many of — whom admired Noriega because of his willingness to confront Washington over such issues as the future of the Panama Canal. Endara’s claim to the presidency rests on the fact that he is widely considered by impartial international observers to have won last May’s presidential election against Carlos Duque, a longtime Noriega ally. Noriega later declared that result invalid, a step that provoked widespread criticism throughout Latin America and around the world. But analysts say the fact that it took a massive U.S. invasion to install Endara in the presidency—following a $ 12-million campaign donation by Washington—has tainted the new leader in the eyes of tj many of his fellow Panamanian ans. If, by some miracle, he manages to revive the country’s shattered economy, he may succeed in earning the people’s trust and support. For now, however, the future of Endara’s government is as unclear as the fate of the man he succeeded.
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