U.S. Policy / Panama

Dinges, John. Our Man in Panama: How General Noriega Used the United States and Made Millions in Drugs and Arms. New York: Random House, 1990. 403 pages.

Noriega's life is threaded through this account of corrupt Panamanian politics and U.S.-Panama relations since the 1960s, with emphasis on the period of Noriega's strongman leadership that concluded with George Bush's invasion of December, 1989.

Noriega's career of drug trafficking and money laundering alternated with periods of close cooperation with the DEA to arrest competitors. He was preceded by Gen. Omar Torrijos, a populist whose rule was ended in a suspicious 1981 plane crash that some believe was CIA-arranged. Noriega enjoyed a long stint on the CIA payroll in return for many services, such as helping the covert wars against Salvadoran rebels and his offer of assistance to Oliver North. In 1984 the U.S. suppressed evidence of Noriega's electoral fraud.

John Dinges is an editor at National Public Radio. His book went to press three months after the invasion, so it isn't much help in figuring out what led to this important event, and whether it was really intended to help the Panamanians. Hopefully others will pick up where he left off.

Noriega, Manuel and Eisner, Peter. America's Prisoner: The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega. New York: Random House, 1997. 293 pages.

George Bush's invasion of Panama in December, 1989 happened so fast that the media couldn't get the story, and was reduced to parroting the administration's line about Manuel Noriega's drug dealing and "Operation Just Cause." This book is the story you didn't get -- from Noriega himself, who is now the only prisoner of war in the U.S., as designated by the Geneva Conventions. Noriega's version of events is then investigated and largely confirmed by Peter Eisner, formerly a Latin America correspondent for Newsday, who was in Panama during the invasion.

First off, hard evidence of Noriega's drug connections was lacking, contrary to what Americans were told. General Fred Woerner, chief of the Southern Command, and Admiral William Crowe, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, both opposed the invasion and were both dismissed. In order to convict Noriega in court, 26 felons testified at his trial in exchange for leniency. (This trial caught prosecutors by surprise because Noriega wasn't expected to survive the invasion; he now had to be convicted at any cost.) Finally, Eisner sums up three reasons for the invasion: 1) the wimp factor -- Bush had to counteract a growing perception of presidential weakness; 2) Panama's failure to help the U.S. with Iran-Contra; and 3) vague worries from the right that the loss of U.S. control over the canal would be a setback.

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