You hear a lot about the banality of evil, and even the glamour. But when was the last time anyone so embodied the sheer joy of evil as Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega? Except when he’d pause to strike a hard-guy pose for the cameras, Noriega seemed to spend much of his time in 1989 gleefully pounding on lecterns, pumping his arms in triumph and generally savoring the fruits of a bad day’s work well done.
Given his love of tormenting the United States, he had plenty of reasons to gloat. After a federal grand jury indicted Noriega on drug trafficking charges in February 1988, U.S. officials confidently predicted that he would soon be swept from power. When that failed to happen, American authorities imposed economic sanctions on Panama designed to cripple the country and trigger a popular uprising. No luck there. With Washington’s blessings, Panamanian opposition parties hoped to sue the national elections last May to unseat Noriega’s cronies in the government. Instead, the 51-year-old strongman unleashed his goon squads, whose brutal televised attacks on opposition candidates, together with blatant ballot fraud, ensured Noriega’s victory. Then in October, rebel military officers attempted a coup, something American leaders, notably President Bush, had encouraged all along. But at the moment of truth, Washington failed to commit decisive military support for the rebellion, and the mutineers themselves wavered. Noriega, whose acne-pitted complexion has earned him the withering nickname Pineapple Face, triumphed, disdainfully scorning the efforts of the “gringo piranhas” who “want to do away with me.”
Handing the Bush Administration a humiliating foreign-policy setback must surely have pleased the general. Still, there are signs of his growing apprehension. American officials contend that discontent is on the increase in Panama and that Noriega moves constantly, never staying in the same place two nights in a row. They say that he is so fearful of being poisoned that he allows only his mother and mistress to prepare his meals. By turns, he reportedly flies into fits of rage and then sinks into drunken depression. “Noriega doesn’t know who to trust,” says one foreign-policy analyst in Washington. “Next time there’s a coup, he’s a dead man.” Indeed, any future plotters will probably strike hard and fast at Noriega; after the failed October coup, he ordered the execution of scores of dissidents suspected of taking part in the rebellion.
In November, word leaked out that the Bush Administration had approved $3 million for the Central Intelligence Agency to recruit Panamanian military men and exiles to take another shot at toppling Noriega. Washington has also signaled that it will soon impose a new set of economic sanctions on the country. On the evidence so far, though, it will require more than half measures and bureaucratic bluster to be rid of this cunning tyrant. Put it this way: In the international rogues’ gallery, Manuel Noriega is not just another pretty face.