Noriega's legacy still stirs anger in Panama

27th April 2010, Comments 0 comments

Manuel Noriega's legacy stirs anger among survivors of his 1983-1989 regime, but it is unclear if young Panamanians care about the ex-general, analysts and observers said Tuesday.

Noriega, 76, appeared before a French magistrate in Paris on Tuesday to face charges of laundering drug money after he was extradited one day earlier from the United States.

As dictator Noriega, a one-time CIA asset, was ruthless in crushing any opposition to his grip on power. He was overthrown and captured in a US invasion in 1989, then convicted on drug trafficking and spent years in US prisons.

"If he has to serve a sentence in France or any other country, so be it," said Jose Domingo Torres, elected to Panama's legislature in a 1989 vote that Noriega cancelled.

"And if he still has any life after France, he has to serve time in Panama," said Torres.

Noriega has three convictions for human rights violations in Panama, each carrying a 20-year prison sentence.

Panama said Monday it respected the "sovereign" US decision to extradite Noriega to France, but insisted he still be brought back to Panama to serve the outstanding prison sentences.

Carlos Linares, an engineer who joined anti-military marches in the 1980s, is also happy to see Noriega imprisoned abroad.

"I prefer that he stay far away ... so that he can personally suffer for the damage that he caused here," said Linares.

Washington's decision to extradite Noriega to France may be related to information the ex-strongman has of shady dealings with US presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, opined Miguel Doens, who belongs to a party that supported the Noriega regime in the 1980s.

"That must have carried weight in deciding to keep him out of the country," Doens said, adding that Noriega likely has information "that could have a harmful effect on US foreign policy."

Yet Panama's younger generation has little interest in Noriega, said sociologist Raul Leis. Thirty percent of Panama's population is under the age of 15, according to government figures.

"For the vast majority this is ancient history," Leis told AFP. "This happened 20 years ago. For the vast majority, especially the young, he is a ghost of the past, a general without an army," Leis said.

Noriega did not start a political movement, or leave any political philosophy, Leis said. "He was never a leader, but rather a dictator, and many people feel that he is paying his dues," Leis said.

If Noriega ever returned home Panamanians may even treat him leniently, said Julo Yao, who helped negotiate the 1977 Panama Canal handover treaty.

"I get the sense that people would like Noriega to pay for his crimes in Panama, but they will be compassionate with him," said Yao.

Indeed congressional speaker Jose Luis Varela said he respected France's decision. But "I do believe that Noriega has already served his time in jail," said Varela, ruling party leader and brother of Vice President and Foreign Minister Juan Carlos Varela.

"If you ask me he should spend his last days with his family in peace," the legislator said.

© 2010 AFP

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