When U.S. Threatens Panama’s Sovereignty, Noriega Gains Upper Hand

<i> Jack Hood Vaughn, former dean of international studies at Florida International University, was a member of President Bush's observer delegation to Panama's election in May. </i>

Before 1979, Panama’s overwhelming preoccupation with the issue of sovereignty seemed fully justified, if forever overplayed. Then came the canal treaty and its liberating assurances. Nevertheless, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega has managed to keep the sovereignty question alive, using it adroitly as a smoke screen for his regime’s drug habit.

There is abundant evidence to suggest that Noriega fears that being a drug lord will be his undoing. Every major policy initiative since his 1988 indictment on drug charges in Florida can be explained in terms of his compulsion to divert attention from his drug reputation to some other peccadillo. This theory would account for his having staged the outrageous public beating and shooting of senior opposition politicians who had just defeated his puppet candidates in the May election.

It is not clear why recent U.S. Administrations have not understood (or cared) where Noriega’s jugular is, have not appreciated fully that as long as he can make sovereignty the major issue, the possibility of rallying other Latin American support around a U.S. initiative will be nil. This was demonstrated by the Organization of American States’ pathetically timid response to Noriega after the election.


Few foreign politicians have been as consistently successful as Noriega or his predecessor, Omar Torrijos, in playing off one U.S. constituency against another. Torrijos’ star role was to lobby into existence a new treaty granting Panama full sovereignty and control over the Canal Zone. This he accomplished with stunning finesse. Alternately pitting U.S. legislators against the Pentagon, the White House and each other, staging confrontations between the Army and the State Department, or between both of them and the CIA, Torrijos ended a decade of maneuver and massage seated at the treaty-signing table alongside Jimmy Carter. With sovereignty the only issue, he came out a patriot of Panama and a folk hero abroad.

Noriega is a different case. He wins converts the old-fashioned way: He buys them. Torrijos’ instincts were strong in timing and manipulation; Noriega’s are those of a tyrant and killer. As hardball as Torrijos but less the virtuoso, as debauched but considerably more greedy, Noriega’s behavior is as ruthless as that of any Mafia drug czar.

The ink was hardly dry on the new canal treaty when Noriega, already moving to usurp the local drug cabal, began to slink out from under Torrijos’ shadow. He began to question popular trust in the treaty, hinting broadly that the United States did not really intend to turn over the Canal Zone in the year 2000.

After Torrijos’ death under mysterious circumstances, Panama embarked on a controlled attempt at electing its presidents. Behind the scenes, Noriega was building his power base. He skillfully milked U.S. agencies in exchange for his assistance--ambivalent, at best--to the Nicaraguan Contras. He also traded on his “unique” intelligence information on Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega and Moammar Kadafi. He never lost an opportunity, however, to bring into question U.S. intentions to honor the treaty. His constant message to Panamanians and to the world was that his country’s sovereignty had never been in such jeopardy. Rather than lose control of the canal, he predicted, the United States would ultimately use force.

Concurrently through the 1980s, Noriega’s involvement in drugs increased and spread. The scores of foreign banks sprouting branches in Panama gave Noriega a slice of laundered drug money right off the top. Panama was becoming the banker and broker of choice of the Colombian cartels, the transhipper, wholesaler, spy, warehouser, guardian and springboard. As the U.S. Senate’s subcommittee on terrorism, narcotics and international operations reportedin mid-April: “Panama’s democracy has been stolen”as Noriega presides over the hemisphere’s first “narcokleptocracy.” Noriega’s crowning achievement was to become a world-class drug lord not only right under the nose of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency but with its protection as well. Several laudatory commendations presented to Noriega by the DEA praised him as the staunch Panamanian ally in the United States’ war on narcotics. The general’s assistance consisted mainly of sharing Panamanian military intelligence files on his least friendly competitors in the drug business.

Shrewdly using the DEA as a shield against other, increasingly uncomfortable U.S. agencies in a way that would have impressed his old mentor, Gen. Torrijos, Noriega was able to maintain the balancing act for years. Then came the chilling announcement of the Justice Department’s indictments of him on drug-trafficking offenses last year.


If there is one Latin American phenomenon that Noriega understands and exploits to the fullest, it is that U.S.-instigated collective political action or policy consensus is automatically paralyzed whenever the credible possibility of U.S. military intervention in a Latin country becomes established. Noriega was reported to have cracked a smile for the first time in months on learning of the U.S. reaction to his voiding the May 7 election and nearly killing two of the winners. As Washington rushed 1,900 backup combat troops to the Canal Zone, Noriega’s old trump card of threatened sovereignty escalated in value. How he plays it will depend on the U.S. government’s ability to catch on to his game.