Former Panamanian president Manuel Noriega is nearly forgotten, languishing in a steamy jungle prison near the interoceanic canal while the country enjoys democracy and economic prosperity a quarter-century after the strongman was toppled by a US military invasion.
The US intervention known as Just Cause began 25 years ago, on Dec. 20, 1989, and ended with Noriega’s surrender to US drug agents on Jan. 3, 1990.
Much has changed in Panama since then, with six consecutive presidents democratically elected in the nation of 3.5 million people. Its economy has become one of the fastest growing in Latin America, rising at an average rate of about 8 percent annually amid a multimillion-dollar real estate and construction boom. The US peacefully transferred full control of the canal to Panama in 1999.
On Saturday, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela became the nation’s first leader to attend a ceremony to remember victims of the invasion. He announced the government would form a commission to consider demands put forth by their families, such as declaring the date a national day of mourning.
“My presence is an effort to unify the country, heal wounds, seek justice,” Varela told reporters after a memorial Mass. “Even though 25 years have passed, it is clear that mourning has not ended due to issues that remain unresolved.”
The invasion killed 314 Panamanian soldiers and 200 civilians, the government says, while the US military reported losing 23 soldiers. Local human rights organizations estimated that more than 1,000 Panamanians died.
Families of the victims have asked the government to support their call for a formal apology from Washington, to establish a truth commission to confirm the number of dead and to build a monument to honor the lives lost.
Noriega, now 80, is likely to spend the rest of his life behind bars. Originally arrested on charges of working with Colombian drug traffickers, he is serving a 20-year maximum term on combined sentences for murder, embezzlement and corruption, and still faces trial for the killing of an opponent and the disappearance of two others.
His attorneys and doctors have tried without success to persuade the courts to let him serve his time at home because of his advanced age and fragile health. Doctors hired by relatives say he has a benign brain tumor and heart trouble, and he has been hospitalized several times — for hypertension, flu and bronchitis — since being repatriated from France in December 2011.
Noriega is the only person over 80 serving time in a Panamanian prison, even though judges can allow an inmate aged 75 or older to serve time at home, said Ezra Angel, one of his attorneys.
Angel says Noriega spends his time reading the Bible, and is sometimes visited by local and foreign religious leaders.
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