Q&A with General Noriega for School of Advanced Military Studies, 2007
Interview Q & A : General Manuel Antonio Noriega
by Fernando Guadalupe Jr.
November 23, 2007
The interview was conducted by means of a questionnaire mailed to the interviewee. The author (interviewer) was located at Fort Leavenworth, KS., and the interviewee, General Noriega, was located at the Federal Corrections Institute (FCI) in Miami, FL.
Q1: From your perspective, what are the historical events that most define Panama’s national identity? Why?
Noriega: Discovery of the South Pacific by Nunez de Balboa; the planning and invasion of Peru from the Panamanian island of Taboga by the Spanish (Pizzaro/Almagro/Luque); the unity of Gran Colombia by Simon Bolivar; Panama’s separation from Colombia in 1903; the Thousand Days War in Colombia between the Liberals and the Conservatives; construction of the Interoceanic Railway; French failure to construct the Panama Canal and its completion by the US; the four separate US invasions of Panama.
Q2: How significant was the Torrijos-Carter Canal Treaty of 1977 for the Panamanian people? What did this event mean to you personally?
Noriega: The treaty fulfilled the hope of liberation, economically, political, social, and dignity for the people of Panama. I personally served prior to, during, and after the negotiations in the trenches to achieve the agreement. I was assigned to fulfill the most important part of the treaty: provide security for the canal itself.
Q3: Who are the people that played the most critical roles in Panama’s recent history? Are you one of them? If yes, why and how?
Noriega: 1962 General Jose Antonio Remon: assassinated in an international conspiracy where a North American was the primary suspect; 1941–1968 Dr. Arnulfo Arias: a nationalist president overthrown by the military on three separate occasions; Until 1968 General Bolivar Vallarino: commander of the National Guard; General Omar Torrijos: military chief and leader of the Panamanian people, fought for the liberty and sovereignty of Panama which helped gain the Canal
Yes, I played a critical role in Panama’s history. I transformed the armed forces in order to carry the defense requirements of the Canal as directed by the 1977 treaties. The new armed forces would be capable of fighting against terrorism and narco-terrorism activities in Panama.
Q4: Until 1968, Panama was ruled exclusively by a small elite class. How did you feel about this small elite class ruling Panama for so long? In light of this, how significant was General Omar Torrijos’ ascension to power for Panama?
Noriega: The elite oligarchy that ruled Panama until 1968 marginalized the Panamanian people in everything to include political, social, economic, and educational.. Torrijos’ rise brought an end to the marginalization. Torrijos rule was a new opening for opportunity for the common citizen to acquire political power as well as the hope of a better life.
Q5: General Noriega, can you explain your rise to power in Panama? What were the personal traits, the training, and support that allowed you to reach such prominence?
Noriega: I, General Noriega am a professional soldier: attended the Glorious Military School of Peru where I earned a degree in military engineering. I also completed the infantry basic course, Jungle School, Counter-insurgency training, Airborne training, and Halo qualified where I have over 500 jumps. I graduated number one in my class at the School of the Americas.
When I was designated Brigadier General by President Ricardo de la Espriella in 1983 and recommended by Chief Commander General Paredes whom I officially relieved at Fuerte Amador. I achieved this post since I was the most senior, most time in service, ranking member of the military.
I reached prominence by my deep understanding and experience of leaders countries and having lived through important international situations such as the hostage rescue of two US ships along with their crews in Cuba, and the rescue of thousands of hostages in Chile.
Q6: As the leader of Panama, what were your plans for the future of Panama? Where did you want to take the country?
Noriega: The main plan I had for Panama was to achieve the guidelines set out in the 1977 Torrijos- Carter Treaties not yet achieved. I also wanted to expand the Canal with the economic assistance of Japan which would allow me to take Panama, a third-world country, and guide it in the direction of a first-world country through economic expansion which it still had not experienced.
I also wanted to re-organize the military and launch them into an evolutionary change that transformed the National Guard into a Defense Force respected around the world that could not only defend itself internally but also defend itself against external threats.
Q7: What is the proper relationship that Panama and the United States should have?
Noriega: The United States will always have an imperial attitude and relationship with Panama. The US will ensure that Panama will always depend upon the elite oligarchy that is in power now and for the future. In 1800, Simon Bolivar said that “the US does not want friends, only interests.”
Q8: What strategy did you use to deal with the United States?
Noriega: I dealt honestly with the United States. I always told them the truth as well as visualizing the future problems that could arise and sharing that information with the US.
Q9: Can you explain how the U.S. — Panama relationship deteriorated from sharing a common purpose to the point that the U.S. felt compelled to invade Panama?
Noriega: The deterioration began when the civil leadership of the US overstepped their influence over military and intelligence matters with Panama in favor of the economic elite who already holding the economic power also wanted the political power taken away back in 1968.
In addition, it also had to do with the Iran-Contra affair… the directions those individuals such as Bush, Elliot, Abrams, North, and Poindexter took the matter and insisted on supporting the contras against the Sandinistas. The apprehension of Panama to support this agenda put Panama at odds with the U.S. administration.
Q10: What do you belief precipitated the attempted coup against you in March 1988 and October 1989?
Noriega: Three reasons: 1) The presence of the US military in Panamanian territory served as a destabilizing force for the Panamanian Defense Force, 2) The economic sanctions imposed by the US, and 3) secret payments to Panamanians willing to overthrow my government.
Q11: In order to prevent military action against you and Panama, the U.S. and neighboring country leaders made offers so you could give up power and leave Panama? Why did you turn them down? Were there conditions under which you would have accepted an offer to give up power and leave Panama?
Noriega : There are still men, such as myself, that still posses HONOR and DIGNITY especially when you have the truth! This is how I was able to tell the United States “NO” on three separate occasions in spite of the money and security they offered me. The historical moment I was a part of did not have conditions for surrender.
Q12: Why were you compelled to nullify the elections of May 7, 1989 where Guillermo Endara competed against Carlos Duque?
Noriega : My intelligence elements indicated that the US was subverting the election process by interfering in it and therefore violating portions of the agreed upon 1977 treaties which prohibited such action in Panama. Ambassador Arthur Davis himself admitted to the US misconduct during the elections.
Q13: On December 15, 1989, the Panamanian National Assembly declared you ‘Maximum Leader’, the same title that General Omar Torrijos held from 1972 to 1978. What was the significance of this title to you, the Panamanian people, and the world?
Noriega : The importance was historical, in its moment, place, and circumstances which can only be accurately assessed within the proper context, time, and space.
Q14: In December of 1989, the National Assembly passed a declaration stating that Panama was “in a state of war so long as the U.S. continues its policy of aggression.” What was the intent of this declaration?
Noriega: A “State of War” declaration is a situation one experiences during an emergency before a local or international threat. It is a term clearly understood in a military, political, or social setting.
The war was not declared by Panama but instead by the US, the imperial power, against a weak third-world nation. What does one do before war is declared against you? By all intents and purposes, the U.S. was conducting war activities against Panama in many fronts: material, economic, political, and moral. It was pure economic strangulation against the Panamanian people.
Q15: Were you caught by surprise as the U.S. conducted its invasion or were you expecting it? If not surprised, how did you prepare yourself and the Panamanian Defense Forces against the invasion? What was your Command and Control plan during the U.S. Invasion?
Noriega: The US always had the potential to invade any country. This was proven by their invasions of Mexico, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Panama itself six times before Grenada was invaded. Based on this, what could be so surprising by their decision to invade Panama once again?
Q16: What role did control of the Panama Canal play in the decision by the United States to invade Panama?
A16: The most prominent of a role. The US wanted to maintain control of the canal for military and economic reasons.
Q17: How did you come to the decision that it was in your and Panama’s best interest to finally turn yourself over to the Americans?
A17: Answer provided in memoirs.
Q18: President George H. Bush told the American public that the U.S. invaded Panama “to safeguard the lives of Americans, to defend democracy in Panama, to combat drug trafficking, and to protect the integrity of the Panama Canal Treaties.” What is your position on this statement?
A18: I never agreed with this declaration by President Bush nor did I agree with President Reagan’s assessment of my leadership. Bush was just following Reagan’s policies against me and Panama.
Q19: According to your understanding of international law, was the invasion of Panama by the United States legal or illegal?
Noriega : Of course that it was an illegal act against every principle of international law! However, this is normal operations for the United States’ international policy.
Q20: The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, effectively ending the Cold War and providing the United States with a strong sense of vindication for its policy of defending democracy. With this in mind, did the end of the Cold War serve as a catalyst for the U.S. to finally decide to invade Panama?
Q21: What do you belief is the lasting historical significance of the American invasion of Panama?
Q22: What is your legacy? Is it different from what you intended?
Q23: General Noriega, is there anything else reference the events surrounding the American invasion of Panama that you belief is critical for the world to know and understand?
The invasion of Panama in December of 1989 was nothing more than a military exercise where Panama would serve as the experimental ground for a new type of warfare supported by new weapons, a new command and control (C2) structure, and new armament. All of the technology and procedures used during the invasion of Panama were subsequently used in future wars such as Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom. High-intensity flamethrowers as well as “flectcher” incendiary bombs created a carnage beyond recognition and the poor barrio of Chorrillo met a fiery disaster due to the collateral damage caused by excessive and unnecessary firepower killing women and children indiscriminately; the damage was so intense that the bombardment of the barrio registered a seven on the Richter scale at the University of Panama.
The disaster of the invasion was made worst by the apprehension of medics and doctors as well by unnecessary attacks on hospitals and other health centers. In order to hide the disaster, the US military impeded access of the Red Cross as well as the press. According to Noriega, this allowed the US military to destroy evidence of crimes committed during the invasion in the affected zones.
The Americans, with their twelve thousand soldiers stationed in Panama, did not need another twenty thousand men if their goal was really to capture me. If that were the case, they could send one hundred men or Delta Force to capture me or kill me. The reason the Americans went ahead with the invasion was Orwellian. The Americans have a law that prohibits the assassination of foreign leaders. Evidently, of course, they have a no law against invading a sovereign country and killing hundreds of men, women, and babies. No, the invasion was not intended to capture me. They wanted me dead in any case like they had Premier Maurice Bishop of Grenada dead.
The invasion was intended to destroy the Panamanian Defense Forces and to guarantee that the Panama Canal would be in the friendly, Anglo-loving hands of a Panamanian puppet government by the time it was to be turned over by the United States on December 31, 1999.
The invasion of Panama held the same level of infamy as the droppings of the atomic bombs and the invasion of Grenada.The invasion of Panama was a crime against the world where the sovereign right of one country was violated due only to the fact that it was weaker and unable to defend itself. The invasion was nothing more than the US exercising the worst form of colonialism and trying to reclaim what they believe was theirs…the Panama Canal.
The invasion and its effect and consequence of death have no real legacy or messages for any class of students; it could only serve to create or feed an appetite for sadism and cruelty that serves no purpose. What legacy and significance did the droppings of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima or Nagasaki have? What message did it provide for the world? What message can the dead of the invasion of Grenada and the assassination of it leader have for the world?
In the end, the Reagan and Bush administrations could no bear giving away the Panama Canal, especially to a leader who was defiant and opposed the shadow of colonialism.
These leaders saw me as an obstacle because I was working on something that could unite Panama and free it from American economic dependence.