Panama is a paradox. It’s naturally beautiful, but scarred with ugly poverty. It’s the Garden of Eden for some and Hell on Earth for others. Its flowers and fauna are magnificent examples of God’s handiwork, and yet the shanties and crime of El Chorrillo and Boca la Caja are poignant reminders of what mankind often does with it.
I lived in Panama in the early ‘80s, before Operation Just Cause removed Panama’s dictator, General Manuel Noriega. Although Noriega had been a longtime CIA asset and Washington ally, his increasing involvement with the Medellin Cartel and his brutal political tactics, including beatings, imprisonment, and murder, were too much for President George H. W. Bush, who ordered the invasion, which began on December 20, 1989. Noriega was captured, tried for drug trafficking and related crimes, and imprisoned in Florida. After completing his sentence, he was extradited to France, where he was found guilty of additional crimes and sent to prison again. Later, the French extradited him to Panama, where he was convicted yet again—this time for human rights violations. Today, at age 81, Noriega sits in a Panamanian prison.
Fortunately, I had little contact with the darker side of Panama when I was there, although I did meet General Noriega at an official event. I found that the sobriquet the Panamanian people had given him—Old Pineapple Face—was clearly justified. There is no question that Noriega was horrible. But to fully understand how and why he became the man he was, one must consider the socio-economic system in which he grew up. More about that in the next post.