Noriega on Fidel Castro, Maurice Bishop, & the invasion of Grenada

My first contact with Fidel did what both sides had hoped: it cemented friendly relations between Cuba and Panama, gave Torrijos the immediate good-faith gesture he wanted and proved to the Americans that I was capable of getting the job done.

It heralded the start of serious relations between Panama and the Cubans, all propitiated by the United States. After this auspicious beginning, I was usually the liaison. My contact with Cuba also lessened Cuba’s isolation, whether with the Organization of American States or other countries, for which Panama could serve as a conduit or third party.

It was a high-level relationship. Fidel and I were not trading secrets. My conversations with him were always political in nature — political analysis, political theory — and at times I had urgent requests from the Americans.

The Americans knew that I often spoke to Fidel and that any subject at hand would be dealt with seriously and securely. For instance, when they wanted to send a secret envoy, as they once did in the person of former Deputy CIA Director Vernon Walters, I would tell Fidel out-right: “The Americans want such-and-such” or “The CIA says such-and-such.” There was no secret about where the request came from. And he would answer as he saw fit. During the Sandinista period, during the Central American wars, Fidel and I spoke often. He was always concerned that the United States would invade Panama; he was always thinking about the number of soldiers the Americans had in Panama, the kinds of weaponry. He called it a kind of guillotine, permanently perched over Panama, that Panama was the “headquarters of Yankee imperialism.” He was, of course, comparing our situation with that of Cuba. There were similarities.

But our first joint experience of an American invasion came with the U.S. attack on Grenada in October 1983. It was days after I formally had become commander of the Panamanian Defense Forces, succeeding General Ruben Dario Paredes.

The contact came hours after the U.S. began landing its marines on the beach in Grenada, where the Cubans had a military garrison and army engineers building an airstrip and reinforcing the island.

The United States had botched its invasion badly. It was laughable. They had no idea where they were; some marines had to use an Esso gas station map to find their way. Even though it was a small island, they got lost, and Washington was worried they would stumble upon an American medical-university compound and start killing students by mistake.

They wanted to scale things back, avoid bloodshed of American soldiers or pictures on television of students lying in pools of blood on the ground.

The first of a series of phone calls came from William Casey; a number of other people, including Vice President George Bush, were also on the line. Bush, as a presidential candidate years later, would at first try to say that he had never spoken to me, that he never participated in this series of contacts on Grenada. Eventually, faced with the facts, his limp memory would improve and suddenly he would remember.

The Americans asked me to open up a line of communication with Fidel. The message was this: “We have obvious superiority of forces over the Cuban contingent on the island; please stay neutral, don’t engage with the arriving U.S. troops. It is impossible to win. There could be an escalation; innocent civilians will be killed in the process.”

In retrospect, of course, this concern about innocent lives stands in stark contrast with the wanton killing of civilians during the invasion of Panama.

I got in touch with Fidel and we had perhaps five or six rounds of calls back and forth. First I talked with the Americans, then to Fidel, sometimes alone, sometimes with other officials on the line.

I made it clear to all of them that I was transmitting an official entreaty from the United States. Fidel knew this in any case, but I made it explicit, saying that the United States was reaching out to him through me, that it was not a trick or double-dealing in any sense. It was a petition by the Americans because they wanted to save the American students.

Fidel was indignant and outraged.

“Why the hell are they asking this stuff now, when my information tells me they’re already attacking the island?” he said. “How are they going to ask for us to consider alternatives when they’re already on the beach?”

We went back and forth on this. Fidel’s persistent answer was that it was too late to negotiate since the American troops were already on Grenada. He would make no commitment to the Americans. Nevertheless, when the time came, he took the hint. He didn’t have that many men on the island; certainly not enough to repel an invasion, but enough to cause trouble, just enough to fight back, provoke injuries and death among the civilian population. Although he did not tell the Americans what his decision was, his position became obvious. He chose not to fight. The Cubans on Grenada did not raise their weapons. I am proud to say that my intervention with Fidel, without a doubt, saved the lives of American students that day.

Grenada ended up being a precursor of the Panama invasion in miniature. The Americans could no longer tolerate Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. He had gone over the line: he was becoming friendly with Fidel Castro; he was expressing socialist ideas. He manifested a Third World vision and would not listen to “reason.”

So the Americans decided to eliminate Bishop. They called their invasion of Grenada a “multilateral force,” but this was a transparent subterfuge to justify their intervention. The blueprint for the invasion was much like that for the invasion of Panama: plan an overwhelming attack; conspire to kill a leader and blame it on his own countrymen; pretend that you are doing it to restore democracy. In Panama, the plan was to kill me and blame it on the Panamanians.

Bishop was killed and that was the way it was going to be in Panama; co-opted members of the defense forces would be goaded to kill me. Only, in Panama, things didn’t follow the entire script. I survived.

Noriega, Manuel, and Peter Eisner. America’s Prisoner: The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega. 1st ed., Random House, 1997.

General Manuel Noriega —