Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela described former Dictator Manuel Noriega’s death following a complicated surgery at 83-years-old as the “end of a chapter in history”. Yet what the General’s life taught about power dynamics in an era of increasing globalization and relationships amid first and developing world countries is timeless…for better and for worst.
Ideology occasionally appeared to represent more a logo to what superpowers’ interests one served rather than an advocation to higher morals. Politics was business. And a “plata o plomo” modus operandi was simply a means to an end. Noriega mastered all of this…for a time.
Here are five of some of the most prominent psychological, sociological and overall strategic leadership points this late Panmanian strongman demonstrated were possible.
1. Play with All of the Kids on the Playground…But be Wary
Noriega was not known for the charisma nor frequently martyristic-following of his former boss and predecessor, General Omar Torrijos. However, he was known for establishing as many multi-national, cross-industry allies as he ultimately made enemies. And Noriega outlived Torrijos.
The Panamanian strongman was on the pay-roll of entities across the United States of America and the Americas. As exemplified during a 1988 interview with 60 Minutes, there was a point where Noriega was bringing in so much money from so many sources, that he was unable to remember his annual income amount. He cooperated and was trained by the US for decades. He also profited from illegal arms and narco trafficking with the Medellin Cartel…while collaborating with the DEA against other drug activities. Once pro-Noriega US supported the Somoza family of Nicaragua…and yet Noriega was involved in Paraguay-exiled ex-dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle’s assignation. Colombia’s FARC, Nicaragua’s Sandinistas, Guatemala’s ORPA, and Castro Cuba were just a handful of other contacts represented in the strongman’s intricate career.
Overall, Noriega understood the value of having many contacts in many places. In fact, he became so valuable to so many that he ended up an indispensable asset…at least for a while. Policies fueled by individual arrogance and administrative overtness birthed a fate that followed “the bigger one is, the harder one falls”. For not only did those who trained him – the US – eventually topple him, but even elsewhere, extradited former Medellin Cartel kingpin Carlos Ledher skimmed off years behind bars leaking insider information key to toppling his ex Panamanian associate.
2. Resourcefulness = Prowess
Retired US Lieutenant General and former chairman of the Inter-American Defense Board, Gordon Sumner, once described Noriega as “rolling the head of the FBI and the CIA all into one man.” The Central American dictator adhered loyally to philosopher Francis Bacon’s belief that “knowledge is power”. As a young Peruvian military academy cadet, Noriega was indirectly recruited by the US intelligence community to report on the habits of suspected left-wing sympathizers (aka those potentially anti-Western interests abroad) in the country. Later as chief of his own country’s infamous intelligence organization – the G2 – Noriega was one of the first Panamanians that – thanks to School of the Americas, Fort Bragg / Gullick, etc… training – implemented wire-tappings on friends and enemies alike. He frequently bribed officials also from all sides to exchange information – everything between Canal Treaty and US Embassy troubles, local agricultural workers unions feuds, political opposition and the timing of the Operation Just Cause that debunked him from power.
Perhaps Noriega’s prime specialty was milking the opportunities afforded by accumulating very sensitive, detailed information about contacts. Ex-Washington Post journalist and President of the foreign policy think tank The Atlantic Council, Frederick Kempe reports in his book “Divorcing the Dictator: America’s Bungled Affair with Noriega” that the General kept what former advisers now refer to as the “Noriega Papers”. It was a collection of defaming documents, communications, recordings and photos of individuals who had baring on his interests, numerous of which were used against them when deemed strategic.
Everyone in-the-know knew of Noriega’s talents. And despite whatever fear, concern, trust or distrust engendered by the General, even Torrijos treated him with the appreciation and wariness of a grenade – a weapon able to be used by or against you.
3. Introversion and Extroversion are not always Black and White…but Colorful
Noriega was a quiet child and an adult who thrived behind the scenes of power for years. And yet despite having less charisma and positive social repertoire as Torrijos, Noriega rose the ladder of power fast. What Noriega did prove to be successful throughout life was that a person did not have to be just an introvert or an extrovert – that applying either and both to situations could engender strategic versatility.
Kempe adds in his Noriega-themed book that as a student, the dictator used the knowledge attained from his book-worm tendencies and the inspiration of his flamboyantly-gay-in-a-machista-society, charismatic, favor-dolling and highly popular half brother Luis Carlos, to enter student activism and later deliver speeches that would change their country’s history. As a figurehead, Noriega formulated a macho-man profile by showing up at high-profile parties, sky diving and practicing judo, while out of the public eye quietly collecting info, maneuvering power dynamics…as well as indulging in softer tastes in life such as collecting art, cologne, as well as a colorful – allegedly bisexual – menagerie of love affairs.
Overall, balance in characters appeared to be key to the strongman’s power…as well as to an era of the permisability of Operation Condor-era Latin American dictatorships’ fall.
4. Do your Best in Whatever Position. Indispensability is Prime.
Noriega has been widely described as a soldier who fulfilled his assignments diligently and yet never self-derogatively. On the contrary. Even the prideful strongman understood that making your boss look good worked in his own favor down the road. When Torrijos was partying in Mexico and a coup detat boiled back home, Noriega was key to Torrijos’ return to the country. Noriega also helped coordinate the residence and security of the Shah of Iran’s 100 day exile on Isla Contadora, Panama – a major international relations feat of his boss’s administration. Torrijos had taken on Noriega under his wing early on for such characteristics, and it continued until Torrijos’ assignation at the hands of former North American allies of whom Torrijos’ use to their interests had expired.
In fact, multiple declassified SOUTHCOM reports observe that Noriega’s ability to make things happen was more than just valuable. Even when it was known that Noriega was working with multiple international entities at a time, he remained too powerful and connected to be disregarded.
Such was at least until super powers deemed him more as a rock-in-the-shoe and embarrassment than an asset to interests abroad worth keeping on the padded hush-hush payroll – alike and unlike Torrijos simultaneously.
5. Past Moral-of-the-Stories have Present Value
Therefore, does General Noriega’s death truly “close a chapter in history”?
While influences from that era remain, and official Panamanian democracy long restored, this event also reminds those who have survived the strongman of a powerful lesson.
Followers, communicators and enactors of world affairs find ourselves in, perhaps better said a new chapter in history. Certain human and power dynamic elements prevent us from having to “re-create the wheel”, thus offering us countless opportunities to learn from past leaders’ insights and improve our future conduct.
Late Noriega lives…for better and for worse.