Noriega returns to a Panama transformed

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Ex-dictator Manuel Noriega returns Sunday to Panama to find a nation reconciled and transformed by an economic boom that is a far cry from the country he left on the verge of bankruptcy 22 years ago.

After serving more than two decades in prisons in the United States and France, the 77-year-old, having been extradited, will face three separate sentences of 20 years in Panama for crimes committed under his dictatorship.

Since Noriega's departure, Panama "has made a 180-degree turn," said Felipe Chapman of the Indesa economic and financial institute.

"Panama is a perfect example of how you can prosper much better under a democracy than an authoritarian regime," Chapman added.

A new El Dorado for investment thanks to its free trade zone, busy airport hub and role as home to several UN agencies for Latin America, Panama has become the "Dubai of the Americas," according to President Ricardo Martinelli, himself a businessman.

The economy of tiny Panama, niched between Colombia and Costa Rica and largely dependent on services, tourism and commerce, is flourishing, with a growth rate nearing 10 percent and debt below 43 percent of GDP.

Major public works have also taken place -- such as widening the Panama Canal and building a subway system in the capital -- as the country goes all-out to be removed from a list of global tax havens.

A French appeals court ruled earlier this week that Noriega could be extradited to serve time for crimes committed under his iron-fisted rule in the 1980s.

In 1989, when Noriega was overthrown in an operation by his former American allies, the country's economy was shrinking 13 percent as it grappled with huge debt and a dramatic flight of capital and investment.

Unemployment exceeded 15 percent and many Panamanians resorted to bartering after banks closed.

Economic revival took off on the last day of 1999, when the United States handed back control of the Panama Canal after 85 years.

This key shipping route linking the Pacific and Atlantic oceans has since brought $6.6 billion to the country, including $1 billion in the last fiscal year alone.

Flag of convenience ships, which are registered in Panama rather than the country of the ship's owners, have also delivered significant revenues.

This period of prosperity has been accompanied by political change that has made Panama a "reconciled" nation today, according to political scientist Jaime Porcell.

There have also been peaceful changes of power between pro- and anti-military figures, reassuring investors that Panama is a stable bet.

But "it's not all roses," Porcell said, noting that while the economy may be sound, wealth distribution remains very uneven.

Nearly a third of Panamanians live below the poverty line, and the country is still battling challenges linked to inflation, corruption and insecurity.

Observers say this important transition period means Noriega's return will be bottom of the list of concerns for a youthful population -- the average age is 27 -- for whom Noriega has already been relegated to the dustbin of history.

More than anything else, the former dictator could become just another "tourist attraction," the former head of Noriega's national guard Ruben Dario Paredes said.

© 2011 AFP

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