PANAMA CITY, Panama — More than two decades after the U.S. forced him from power, Manuel Noriega returned to Panama on Sunday as a prisoner and, to many of those he once ruled with impunity, an irrelevant man.
Some Panamanians feel hatred for the former strongman and rejected American ally; a few others nostalgia. But as he returned to his native country for the first time since his ouster, it seemed like few people had any strong feelings at all.
There were no legions of admirers, or protesters, at Panama City’s Tocumen airport when the Spanish Iberia airlines’ flight touched down, delivering him from Paris’ La Sante prison after a stopover in Madrid. The crowds in the capital Sunday were of holiday shoppers.
Noriega, who has served drug sentences in the United States and a money-laundering term in France, was whisked by helicopter to the El Renacer prison to serve out three 20-year sentences for the slayings of political opponents in the 1980s. An elevated platform was set up at the prison so journalists can watch him enter; they will give Panamanians what will likely be their only glimpse of the man who once ran the country like his private fiefdom.
Downtown, some people could be heard banging pots and honking car horns, a symbolic gesture of repudiation that activists had suggested to show their rejection of Noriega.
The 77-year-old former general is returning to a country much different from the one he left after surrendering to U.S. forces Jan. 3, 1990. The government, once a revolving cast of military strongmen, is now governed by its fourth democratically elected president.
El Chorrillo, Noriega’s boyhood neighborhood and a downtown slum that was heavily bombed during the 1989 invasion, now stands in the shadow of luxury high-rise condominiums that have sprung up along the Panama Canal since the United States handed over control of the waterway in 2000.
The rotting wooden tenements of the community have been replaced by cement housing blocks. Noriega’s former headquarters have been torn down and converted into a park with basketball courts.
While some Panamanians are eager to see punishment for the man who stole elections and dispatched squads of thugs to beat opponents bloody in the streets, others believe his return means little.
“I don’t think Noriega has anything hugely important to say,” said retired Gen. Ruben Dario Paredes, who headed Panama’s army before Noriega took over in the early 1980s. “The things he knows about have lost relevance, because the world has changed and the country has, as well.”
“In politics, he won’t have any great impact, because the people of Panama have other concerns,” said Marco Gandasegui, a sociology professor at Panama’s Center for Latin American Studies.
Things were different in the 1970s and 1980s, when Noriega, whose pockmarked face earned him the nickname “Pineapple Face,” became a valuable ally to the CIA. At that time, Noriega helped the U.S. combat leftist movements in Latin America by providing information and logistical help, and also acted as a back channel for U.S. communications with unfriendly governments such as Cuba’s.
But as the Cold War waned, Noriega became a more powerful and unforgiving dictator at home. Tensions developed between the strongman and U.S. officials, who also had been aware for some time that he was also working with the Colombia-based Medellin drug cartel.