It was thanks in part to rock and roll hits from bands such as The Doors and Guns N’ Roses that Manuel Noriega, the former military dictator of Panama, fell from grace. In December 1989, with Noriega holed up at the Vatican embassy in Panama, the U.S. military installed a line of stereo speakers around the building blaring songs such as “Dead Man’s Party” and “All I Want Is You,” a sort of psychological warfare meant to force the notorious strongman to give himself up. On January 3, 1990, Noriega surrendered, and the man commonly ridiculed as “old pineapple face” has been sitting in court rooms and jail cells ever since.
Yesterday, in his first interview since 1996, a softened Noriega appeared on local television to plead forgiveness from the Panamanian people for atrocities committed under his regime. Speaking from a jailhouse in Panama with Telemetro, the now 81-year-old ex-dictator’s hands trembled as he read a statement saying he wanted “to close the cycle of the military era as the last commander of that group asking for forgiveness.”
Noriega has spent the last 21 years in custody for a long list of crimes that include money laundering in France, murder, corruption, embezzlement and crimes against humanity in Panama, and drug smuggling and racketeering in the United States. In the interview, Noriega claimed to be “totally at peace” with himself, and said he decided to break his 19 year silence after a period of reflection with church members and family, denying any motivation of personal interests.
But many family members of the victims of Noriega’s regime were unsatisfied with his apology. Karina Ortega, whose father was a sergeant killed during a failed 1989 coup attempt, did not believe Noriega’s words to be sincere. KIlmara Mendizabal, whose brother was disappeared under military rule, thought the ex-dictator’s apology was significant but that he should “say where the remains are of every person disappeared under the dictatorship.” Noriega’s statement, addressed to those “offended, affected, injured or humiliated” by the actions of his superiors and subordinates, did not mention any specific abuses.
While his apology may be a step toward closure on Panama’s dark, painful past, the motivations of a man alleged to have faithfully worn red underwear to ward off the evil eye will likely remain a mystery. According to RM Koster, a biographer, “the problem with Noriega is you can never distinguish between what’s true or not.”