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Ousted Panamanian Military Leader Manuel Noriega Dies At 83

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

General Manuel Noriega has died. The former dictator of Panama was 83 years old. He had been in poor health following surgery for a brain tumor earlier this year. Let's remember in 1989, U.S. troops invaded Panama after attacks on American citizens. President George H.W. Bush ordered what was then the largest U.S. military action since the Vietnam War.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE H W BUSH: General Noriega's reckless threats and attacks upon Americans in Panama created an imminent danger to the 35,000 American citizens in Panama. As President, I have no higher obligation than to safeguard the lives of American citizens. And that is why I directed our armed forces to protect the lives of American citizens in Panama and to bring General Noriega to justice in the United States.

GREENE: And Noriega was eventually captured, tried and imprisoned in the United States. NPR's Carrie Kahn joins us now from Mexico City. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi, good morning.

GREENE: So help us remember Noriega.

KAHN: He was one of the more interesting characters of Latin America. In many ways, he was the typical strong man. But in so many other ways, he was a unique character all of his own making. He wasn't an ideologue. He was more a cunning opportunist at every time - often playing both sides in the geopolitical arena of his time. But he was born poor in Panama.

He rose through the ranks of the military there. He was a confidant of the dictator at the time. And when he died in a suspicious plane crash, Noriega became the de facto leader of Panama. He wasn't the most charismatic or good-looking. Remember, he was nicknamed pineapple face...

GREENE: Yeah.

KAHN: ...For his acne-scarred face. But he was also known to be quite the womanizer, lover of whiskey. And both of those were financed by his infamous close ties to Colombian drug traffickers. At one point, U.S. prosecutors said his fortune was estimated to top $300 million.

GREENE: What led to this showdown with the United States? Remind us.

KAHN: There were multiple factors. You know, at one time, he was an ally. But he also enjoyed goading his benefactor to the north. He played an important role in the U.S.'s 1980s Cold War battles in Central America. You know, he allowed Panama to be a training ground for the U.S.-backed Contras and Salvadoran soldiers fighting insurgents in both Nicaragua and El Salvador.

But at the same time, he also sold them arms to the - he sold arms to the guerrilla fighters on the other side - of course, all for a very handsome sum. He also allowed Panama to be a key conduit for cocaine smuggling to the U.S. But then there became mounting opposition at home against him. He was ruthless with the opposition. And he was an enemy to democratic rule.

He annulled the country's 1989 elections, and he became increasingly hostile to the U.S. And then as we just heard, in December of that year in 1989, there was an attack on U.S. soldiers in Panama City. And many say that was the excuse that President George H.W. Bush was looking for. But the U.S. said that was enough, and it invaded Panama.

GREENE: Well, it invaded a small country but this was no small military operation.

KAHN: No, not at all. It was the largest - as you said, the largest U.S. military action since Vietnam - the Vietnam War. Twenty-seven thousand U.S. troops invaded Panama and the small national forces just crumbled. The casualty count was 23 Americans killed, but hundreds of Panamanians perished, including civilians. Noriega fled into the Vatican embassy. He stayed there for weeks.

And probably people remember the most famous tactic the U.S. used to drive him out was that blasting of American rock music...

GREENE: Yeah.

KAHN: ...Twenty-four hours a day. He finally gave up and was whisked to the U.S, tried and was sentenced to 40 years in prison for drug trafficking and money laundering.

GREENE: OK, in just a few seconds, his final years.

KAHN: He spent nearly 20 years in a U.S. prison, then was sent to France, then back to Panama where he was sentenced for murder of political opponents. In 2015, he gave a TV interview in Panama. And he finally did apologize somewhat for his brutal rule.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City speaking to us about the death of Manuel Noriega. Carrie, thanks.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.