Former Panamanian dictator appears before French judge

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Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega appeared before a French judge today after being extradited from the United States on money laundering charges. Noriega had been in a US jail since 1989 when American troops ousted him from power. Marco Werman gets details from Christopher Dickey, Paris Bureau Chief for Newsweek.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega appeared before a judge in France today. He is facing money laundering charges there. Noriega was extradited from the United States two decades after U.S. troops ousted him from power in Panama. He spent those 20 years in a U.S. jail on a drug trafficking conviction. Christopher Dickey is the Paris bureau chief for Newsweek. He spent years in Panama as the Central America bureau chief for the Washington Post. Dickey says Noriega was an American cold war ally until he overstepped his bounds.

CHRISTOPHER DICKEY: Precisely his problem was he was playing too many angles and he thought he had become everybody's indispensable man because remember, his rise to power came in the middle of the great revolutionary movement through the Central American isthmus, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and at a time when the Americans were trying to push back with counter-revolutions and by supporting various ruthless military dictatorships. And in the middle of all that, he was the guy who could talk to everybody, so he was useful to just about everybody. Eventually he thought that made him untouchable. But he stayed on the CIA payroll until about 1988 according to various reports. And what finally did him in was that the war on drugs that was being waged by the first Bush administration simply focused on him as a bigger problem than he was a solution. They started pressuring him until he over-reacted and they finally forced him out with a little war.

WERMAN: What was Manuel Noriega providing the Americans for that money?

DICKEY: Intelligence and connections. You know if you're running covert wars, as the United States was, and if you're helping people you don't want to be seen to be helping, then having a friend like Noriega in a crossroads like Panama can be very useful. Toward the end of his regime, I think he believed that he could blackmail the United States. But that was one advantage of waging a little war. The Americans sent in troops. They killed quite a few Panamanians in the process. They eventually forced him out of the Vatican Embassy where he sought refuge and then they threw him in jail. Although he was able to talk some, he was never able to blackmail the United States once he was in American custody.

WERMAN: Noriega really strikes me as a multifaceted complex character. For several years in the 1980's Chris Dickey, you were in quite close contact with him. You went to his home, even to birthday parties, I understand, for his children. What do you think we would find most surprising about Manuel Noriega?

DICKEY: I think his insecurity. His enemies called him the pineapple because he had terrible acne as a young man and his face was very badly scarred. He wasn't very big, he wasn't an imposing figure physically, but he wanted to dominate everybody around him. So, for instance, there was this very strange incident the first time I met him, well strange environment. When I went to his headquarters when he was still the Intelligence Chief and his headquarters was in the basement of the Panamanian National Guard Headquarters. And you would go in through the parking garage and then nobody would know if you had gone in or whether you had come out, which made it a little creepy. And in the anteroom of his office, where his art, I say this with quotes around it, collections, he loved paintings on black velvet of little children with big eyes and tears coming down, which is very creepy if you know how many people he tortured. And he also loved to collect toads, toy and sculpted toads that people would give him. Sapo, or toad, is slang in Panamanian for police informer. There were pictures of Moshe Dayan on his wall. He had been close to the Israeli general, or claimed to be. Later a guy named Mike Harare, a famous mossad agent. There was an AK-47 in gold on his wall. He wouldn't tell me where he got that. But the strangest thing, I guess, the thing that stayed with me the longest was his secretary who was rumored to be very close to him was a woman who was dusting around me wearing sandals. I didn't pay much attention to her until I looked at her toenails and her fingernails which were painted in red spider webs, which was obviously something that pleased him.

WERMAN: That whole scene, everything you just described, makes this incident in 1982 when Noriega deposed Panama's civilian President for having a sore throat seem pretty mild.

DICKEY: Well yeah. By 1982 I was close enough to Noriega so I could get him on the phone. It was clear that there had been a build up to depose the civilian President who had been in office for several years, originally appointed by Momar Torijos, the strong man who preceded Noriega. And all of a sudden there was an announcement that Aristides Royo, this President, had resigned because he had a sore throat. And I called up Noriega, and I said look, I mean I know that's what the press release says, but that is totally uncredible. I'm going to say that this was a coup and that you overthrew him. And Noriega said no, no you can't say that. And I said well come on, it's obvious. He paused for a minute and he says, okay, let's say that this is a constitution coup a la Panamania. I said yeah, okay, good. That's what I'll do. I'll attribute it to a senior official. He said yeah, that's good a senior official.

WERMAN: Well Panama in the 1980's and even today is a strategic place for trade in all sorts of things, not least of all guns and drugs. Who or what has filled the vacuum for Washington once Noriega was apprehended?

DICKEY: Well once Noriega was out there has been a fairly regular electoral process and basically the world and the United States and Washington turned its back on Panama just the way it turned its back on the rest of Central America after the end of the Cold War. What's going on in Panama now is it's a very lucrative place to do business for a lot of people. It still is a place with a lot of banking interests. I wouldn't start making accusations about money laundering, but I'm sure it's a good place to put money and to hide money. And it continues to be a great crossroads.

WERMAN: Christopher Dickey the Paris bureau chief for Newsweek, great to have you on the show again, thank you.

DICKEY: Thank you.