Panama bracing for ex-dictator Manuel Noriega's return
With Gen. Manuel Noriega's extradition from France set for Oct. 1, Panama could be forced to finally face its unpleasant past – and reflect on just how confident it feels about the future.
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Though Pinzon, now a community organizer, was only 13 at the time of the US invasion, she has vivid memories of political violence, restrictions to civil liberties, economic hardship, and the thuggish repression by Noriega's paramilitary "dignity battalions." She also remembers her mother keeping rags doused with vinegar to cover their mouths when clouds of tear gas fired at marching protesters wafted toward her house.Skip to next paragraph
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Others, however, think it's good to remember the past. Tomás Herrera, a Panama City lawyer and dedicated Noriega opponent, can't understand why the current government wants to bring him back. Still, he says, it will provide an opportunity for reflection.
"Panamanians should not forget those years.... This dark chapter in our history needs to be known and remembered by all future generations so it's never repeated," he says.
But already the younger generation seems to know Noriega only from the reminiscing of elder family members.
"I know he did a lot of bad things, but I just know him from history; I don't know much about him personally," says Jesus Toruño, a high school student who was born after the US invasion.
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'Donald Trump is the future'
Still others are indifferent. Even in Noriega's former military and political stronghold, the poor neighborhoods of El Chorrillo and Santana – wooden shantytowns that burned to the ground during the US invasion – sympathies are not what they were.
"The country has evolved and people could care less if he comes back or not," says Felix McElfresh, an El Chorrillo resident.
Some of Noriega's former political allies say the same. "This is a totally different country than the one that Noriega left," says José I. Blandon, who served as Noriega's top political adviser in the 1980s before testifying against him in front of a US Senate subcommittee in 2001.
"In his trip from the airport to jail, Noriega is going to look out the window and realize he doesn't recognize Panama anymore," he adds.
Mr. Blandon says that a July visit by New York real estate tycoon Donald Trump to Panama was a bigger headline for the country than Noriega's possible return. Mr. Trump was there to inaugurate his $430 million Trump Ocean Club in Panama City.
Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli hopes that Trump represents the future for Panama. "The Trump name will help Panama become a world icon," he said.
But Noriega, if the extradition proceeds as scheduled, will only be a curiosity, says Blandon. "Trump is the future, and Noriega is the past," Blandon says. "And there is a lot more love here for Trump."