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The U.S. Ambassador to Panama Reflects on the Fall of Manuel Noriega

For most of the 1980s, Panama was controlled by one man — General Manuel Noriega, who had been trained by the U.S. military at Fort Bragg and the School of the Americas and who since the late 1950s had been on the CIA’s payroll.  Known for his involvement in drug trafficking and money laundering, Noriega was a violent and corrupt leader, nicknamed “Old Pineapple Face” by Panamanians. But towards the end of the 1980s, cracks began to appear on the façade. Key opposition leader Hugo Spadafora had repeatedly accused Noriega of having connections to drug trafficking; in September 1985, he was seized from a bus, decapitated by a death squad and wrapped in a U.S. Postal Service mail bag. President Nicolas Barletta, who was visiting New York City, promised a full investigation, but upon his return, he was forced to resign from the presidency, which was then handed to Eric Arturo Delvalle.

In 1987, Colonel Roberto Diaz Herrera, a man who was once part of Noriega’s inner circle, publicly denounced Noriega, which led to public protests and the exile of Gabriel Lewis Galindo, Panama’s Ambassador to the U.S., who had also begun to criticize Noriega. The United States Senate then released a resolution condemning Noriega and Delvalle for their actions, giving rise to an attack on the embassy by Noriega’s goons and further  deterioration in U.S.-Panamanian relations. By 1988, the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations concluded that “The saga of Panama’s General Manuel Antonio Noriega represents one of the most serious foreign policy failures for the United States….It is clear that each U.S. government agency which had a relationship with Noriega turned a blind eye to his corruption and drug dealing.” In 1988, Noriega was indicted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency; President Delvalle was removed from office after an attempt to oust Noriega. Diplomatic relations continued to decline until December 1989, when Noriega was finally removed from the government during the U.S. invasion.

Arthur H. Davis Jr., Ambassador to Panama from 1986 to 1990, speaks on his initial introduction to U.S. interests in Panama; his interactions with Noriega; the death of Hugo Spadafora; the public denunciation of Noriega by Herrera; and how the U.S. embassy was eventually completely shut out of any contact with the government for almost two years, until the December 1989 invasion. Davis was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in 1991. You can also read about the negotiations behind the Panama Canal treaty and the last days of Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza.


“He threw these big parties and had all these beautiful girls there” 

DAVIS: My instructions were very tough, because I was briefed one way by the CIA and the military, and by the State Department in another…

So my instructions from the State Department were that nobody in Panama, including the Commander-in-Chief, a four-star general of the Southern Command, or the Administrator the Panama Canal, a three-star general, or anyone on my staff, the Agency or anybody else, were to ever meet personally with Noriega without my specific okay. And they would know I could never make a blanket [decision] and say in this case yes, in this no. Every case had to be handled by me, and nobody was to meet with him without my permission.

See, we had the Panama Review Committee there, set up by President Johnson, dealing with the Canal and Panama matters, composed of the American Ambassador, the Administrator of the Canal, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Southern Command, chaired by the American Ambassador. And that’s the way it went all the time I was there; it was a very important tool.

Now the military asked me not to form any opinions until I got down there:  ‘And Noriega had always worked with them. And there were a lot of rumors going around, but they had never seen any proof of drug dealing. And please don’t go down there with a negative approach.’

The intelligence people, both in the military and the Agency, told me they had worked with Noriega for years and that Noriega had always been truthful with them. Some of the old-timers (to the embarrassment of some of their military superiors) told me about the lovely parties they had with Noriega, that, when they went down, he threw these big parties and had all these beautiful girls there. And he never had broken his trust with any of them in intelligence.

And the military said that Noriega had been much more verbal in fraternization and cooperated much better than [Commander of the Panamanian and National Guard and the de facto dictator of Panama from 1968 to 1981] Omar Torrijos had. That he was for cooperation between the military.

“Everybody there in Panama — everybody in the State Department, everybody in the military — were convinced Noriega and his people were letting these drugs go through” 

Q: What was your impression about Noriega and his activities? 

DAVIS: There was no doubt that Noriega was making a lot of money on a lot of things. And all I know is that, all the time I was there, Noriega and his drug person, a gentleman named Kiel, cooperated 100% with our people. Anytime we had a ship that we wanted to be interdicted on the high seas and we asked permission, they gave permission. In fact, it was practically a blanket one; we did it out of courtesy. Anytime there was some prominent drug man coming up and we knew about it, Noriega would help us with it.

And when we found out about things, the PDF [Panama Defense Forces] would go over there and round them up and turn them over to us. In fact, they were almost too cooperative in some cases, because they’d bring them out to the airport and want them to be put on a plane and flown to the United States. And, you know, a couple of cases we almost lost because they felt we’d kidnapped these people.

Noriega always stressed to me at every meeting, “I want to let you know that my people were never involved in drugs.” We didn’t know, but everybody there in Panama — everybody in the State Department, everybody in the military — were convinced Noriega and his people were letting these drugs go through. Every now and then, things would pop up. And Noriega was laundering money, we knew that. But the proof was never really made public…. 

I didn’t really see Noriega, for good reasons, for the first few months I was there. But there was no doubt you’re not going to get much done or make much progress in Panama unless you did start to meet with Noriega.

Now the first meeting I had with Noriega was a breakfast meeting, of myself and my MILGROUP commander and the defense attaché — two men who really knew the Panama Defense Forces, and one, Chico Stone, who was the MILGROUP commander, who really knew Noriega. He’d been there seven years; his wife was Panamanian. Al Cornell, the defense attaché, his wife was Panamanian.

We finally decided that if we were going to make any progress, I should get to Noriega. So Noriega showed up with two of his colonels. And, of course, the papers had all been saying how I’d been sent down to take out Noriega, so I thought that I’d have to develop some kind of rapport with him. And we did, we had one hell of a breakfast.

“Mr. Ambassador, I don’t want a democracy like Guatemala or El Salvador or these other military countries” 

At first, I stood up and said, “General Noriega, I want to let you know one thing. I was appointed by President Reagan to be his ambassador here in Panama. That means that I represent the United States in Panama, and any government agencies. I have not been sent down as a judge. I never had any instructions that I am to remove you from office or judge you — all these different things you read about in your own newspapers which you accuse me of doing. I’ve not sat in judgment of you. I’ve not made any accusations against you to anybody.

“What I want to do is work out with you — how we’re going to get Panama back to what Omar Torrijos promised us he would do, and that is democracy. I want to work with you to make the 1989 election a truly democratic election. No matter who wins will be accepted by everybody.”

He said, “Those are my sentiments, too. I want to see democracy in Panama. But, Mr. Ambassador, I don’t want a democracy like Guatemala or El Salvador or these other military countries that have faked that they have democracies and, anytime they want to, the military can step in and take it over. You want to work out something like Venezuela or Colombia, where they have a division between the political forces and their military, or the military does what they want and they handle their things?”

And I said, “What I want is a democracy where the people rule and the people make the decisions. That’s what is best for everybody.”

And he said, “Well, we will work towards that.”

We went back and forth. He asked me about why I’d made the statements I did. I told him what I had made. I said, “Look, when it came out in the headlines that I had made remarks about the drug trafficking by the Defense Forces, all I did was in answer to questions, saying that I had heard rumors about that, too, but I had seen no proof. And if you look at my thing, you’ll find out I said I had seen no proof, but when I get down there, no matter who’s involved in drugs, I certainly will do my best to stop them from doing it. I think you people will agree with that.”

And he said, “Yes, we don’t like any drugs here. We cooperate with your people on drugs.” They kept getting letters from Lawn, the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, extolling their virtues for their cooperation on drugs.

So, afterwards, I said to him I wanted to see him alone. I said, “General, it’s going to be very difficult, after what you did to the freely elected government, throwing out [President Nicolas] Barletta, who you know was a very strong friend of the United States and had a lot of friends there, and the way you did it.

Also, no matter what you say about the [at left, Hugo] Spadafora thing, until some judgment is made or somebody can make an investigation and try to bring those concerned… You cannot deny the fact that the last people that saw him were members of your own Panama Defense Forces. I would think you’d want to have that cleared up. Do you mean to say you condone members of your –- If it did happen, that you’re protecting them?”

He said, “No, that’s never been proven, and those are just false accusations. He was killed by Costa Ricans.”

I said, “Well, nobody believes that, including me. Why don’t you want to have an investigation? The Catholic Church has been very definite about this. But that’s your decision. It would help a lot in our relations if you investigated, found out who did it, punished them, and got the thing cleared up.

The other thing is, I want to let you know we’re ready to help financially on bringing people in. You say you want to change the election laws? We’ll bring both parties in, they’ll help you change the election laws. Because, naturally, new laws, if there are some things wrong in that, maybe one could see that. Also, if you want to set up modern equipment, there are agencies in the United States ready to help you set up a better way to vote and everything else. That’s what I would like to talk to you about.”

Closing La Prensa

So then he got up, and he was funny as hell. See, I’d just heard, two days before that he was mad at La Prensa and he was going to close it…

[It was] Bobby Eisenmann’s newspaper, the major newspaper of the opposition, really of everybody. I mean, they’re strictly independent….

So Noriega said, “Tell me, you were down there with that [Paraguayan] dictator Stroessner. How did you get along with him?”

I said, “Well, we got along fine. We had a lot of differences. The thing is that I tried to let him know ways he could get along with the United States. I told him that the worst mistake any head of state or any dictator can do is to close the newspaper. And he closed the newspaper. So he won’t get a nickel from Congress.” 

And Noriega smiled, he looked at me and grinned. He didn’t say a word, but he knew what I was getting at.

He’s a very astute individual. In fact, I tell the people in the State Department, with all these people coming back saying, “Well, he’s not very intelligent. He’s learned a lot, but he’s not that intelligent.” I say, “Listen, you better go around telling people he’s a very intelligent guy. Because the way he manipulated us around, maybe he better be intelligent, otherwise it makes us look pretty stupid…” 

Q: Well, did you feel that you were dealing with a divided policy, at least as far as instructions?

DAVIS: No, no. I tell you what. The thing is, they were divided, and there were a lot of arguments going on between the military and the Agency and the State Department. But once the policy was set, they went a 100%. Except that [SOUTHCOM Commander Fred] Werner always wanted to make an accommodation with Noriega. He would never accept the fact that we were never going to make a deal with Noriega….

Jack Galvin’s change of command to Fred Werner [as Commander-in-Chief of Southern Command] took place on June 6, 1987, the same afternoon [Colonel Roberto] Díaz Herrera made his statement about the corruption in the PDF, how the Cuban visas had been sold, how the election had been stolen in ’84, and accusing Noriega and his cohorts of doing this. And then he went into hiding, in solitary, in his house, and they surrounded it. And that started all the political dissension.

I had just sent a letter to Jack Galvin that said, “You know, I will have to admit that things went to hell once you left.” And I always said to Fred Werner, “Geez, you know, Galvin had this thing under control. You come in and, my God, it just goes all to hell.”… 

Condemnation by the U.S. Senate

Q: Well, in 1987, when Díaz Herrera made this statement, what was the background?

DAVIS: See, there was a deal made. When Omar Parides was supposed to run for president in 1984, he never was backed as a candidate, and Noriega was supposed to go in as Commander-in-Chief and stay until July of ’87, and Díaz Herrera was supposed to take over in ’87. It was strictly devious, but whether or not they realized it, the guy [Diaz Herrera] was not capable of anything. He was a crackpot, I tell you, you couldn’t really talk to him logically. But, anyway, they kicked him out in June. So he immediately, after a couple of weeks, went in and disposed of everything.

Q: So how did this impact on your work? 

DAVIS:  In fact, one thing that happened, the National Democratic [Institute] had sent people out to the Philippines to observe the election, and they took two or three from each country. And they sent down three names to us. One of them was Aurelio Barria, who was President of the Panamanian Chamber of Commerce. And another one we picked was a Noriega appointee but also a very fine man, Chen, on the election board. And another one we took was one of the priests from the church.

Well, naturally, a lot of meetings took place between [Deputy Chief of Mission, later Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central America] John Maisto and Aurelio Barria before they went. They went over there and observed the election and came back and started to form this similar group to the group they had in Panama, the citizens group to observe the election….But, anyway, that was the group that, when the charge came out, became the Civic Crusade under Aurelio Barria.

So, did it impact my embassy! Because, first of all, when they made this statement, it was the same statement I had made in my October speech. What they wanted was a return to democracy, they wanted the troops to return to the barracks, and they wanted full respect for human rights. And those were the three points I had been pushing…

Q: So we planted a very strong seed. Was this done really with malice aforethought?

DAVIS: No, we did it hoping that we would have a citizens group to be observers to assure that the ’89 elections would be democratic. And that’s when he [Barria] started to form this group on his own. But then, of course, when it came out and he took the same group to do it, Maisto was the brunt of all their accusations as being the brains behind the opposition.

Now what happened to him, they [the government] declared a state of siege, once the [opposition] took to the streets, I’d say the 7th or 8th of June of ’87. And on the 13th of June, Gabriel Lewis, who had been the Ambassador to the United States in the Carter days of the treaty — I tell you what, finally Noriega kicked him out of the country.

And [Senator Chris] Dodd was down three days later and told the president – he and I met several times with Noriega, and he was a very big help to me because he speaks great Spanish. The three of us would meet sometimes until 2:30 in the morning, arguing about democracy.

But Senator Dodd told the president, “You know, that was a stupid thing to do. Gabriel Lewis knows more senators in the United States Senate than I do!”

So [Lewis] was kicked out on the 13th. On the 26th of June, the Senate came out with a resolution, and about two or three paragraphs were written by Gabriel Lewis…, condemning Noriega and Delvalle for what they had done, that they should bring these people to justice, and those who have been charged should resign or step aside until the charges can be verified.

Of course, all this time these demonstrations were going on, we had our observers out, and I was called to several meetings down at the palace, with the Archbishop of the Catholic Church, to try to get them to let them demonstrate, don’t retaliate too much and everything. They said no, they had told them not to do it, and they were going to do it, so they would make retaliation against them. And we were very much involved all through that period.

But, even then, Delvalle would ask me to meet with his people. I would meet with them, and then I would meet with the opposition, to try to get the thing onto a level keel so there could be some kind of a negotiation. We wouldn’t mediate the negotiation, but we tried to meet with them. I met with the opposition; I met with the Church, I met with the political party; I met with anybody that the Noriega-Delvalle people wanted me to meet with.

“We sent them a bill for $106,000 and some odd, and they paid it”

On the 26th, they made that resolution. On the 29th, they lifted the state of siege. And on the 30th, they held a meeting outside the Foreign Ministry. There must have been about ten thousand people there, and about five thousand marched on the embassy. I’d say only a few hundred really stayed around, but they stoned the embassy and made speeches.

These were Noriega goons; they were paramilitary people that Noriega had hired. We know who they were. And they just stoned us for an hour, then they went down and stoned the consulate, and then they went over and stoned the information service. Broke all the windows in the information service, destroyed the waiting room and all the windows in the consulate.

We had grill work over all our windows, but they destroyed about 15 or 16 automobiles. We sent them a bill for $106,000 and some odd, and they paid it.

The first thing I did was tell them that I called off all aid — every bit of military aid, every bit of intelligence aid, any kind of aid — not one cent until they paid the bill. Secretary [George] Shultz was traveling in the Far East and got word to me. He called up and couldn’t get me, so he got me through [Assistant Secretary of State] Elliott Abrams, saying, “You tell President Delvalle the only other place this has ever happened is in Tehran. If that’s the kind of relationship they want, that’s what they’re going to get.”

I had already told the Secretary I had cut off all aid. Well, later on, he continued it. I told them that when they paid the bill we would start up, but from that time on, we never gave them one cent of aid, until after the invasion….

The DEA Indictment and the Beginning of the End

Q: How were relations with Noriega from then on?

DAVIS: I still met with Noriega. I went and argued about harassment and some of the things he did with the people; I asked him to have more concern. I met at the President’s palace with Archbishop McGrath and a representative of the legislature and Noriega’s people, urged them to let them go out on demonstration:  “they’re not going to cause you problems, they’re going to march peacefully.” He didn’t do it. They beat the hell out of them. But we were still meeting, and we continued to do that. August was the last big thing, and after October, they quieted down.

But then, of course, the [DEA was] working on Noriega’s indictment. And so, in February [1988]…the indictment came out…in Tampa and Miami.

Now President Delvalle had made a statement to the Los Angeles Times, in the fall of ’87, that if Noriega or anybody on his staff ever got indicted for drugs anyplace in the world, he would remove them from office. So we immediately reminded him of that, and he made the decision to do it, but it took him a long time to do it.

Finally, on the 25th, he removed Noriega from office. And, of course, Noriega turned around and held an Assembly meeting, and they threw out Delvalle, and they threw out [Vice President Roderick] Esquivel for good luck (he hadn’t been involved) and put in their own man, Solis Palma.

And so from that time on, I had no contacts with Noriega whatsoever. The American Embassy in Panama went from February of ’88 until after the invasion on December 20 with absolutely no official contact, or any other contact, with the government of Noriega.

Our licenses ran out, our visas ran out. In March of ’89 we had to rent cars and put all our private vehicles in storage because we couldn’t request diplomatic license plates. I think that’s a record.

I don’t think any other embassy has ever gone that long without having any dealings with the government.