In the Time of the Tyrants: Panama 1968-89 
by R.M. Koster and Guillermo Sanchez Borbon.
Secker, 430 pp., £17.99, October 1990, 0 436 20016 3
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A feature, not just of the age of the end of ideology, but of the age immediately preceding the age of the end of ideology, is that of the dictator who has no ideology at all. While Pinochet had a Manichean or Franco-ite anti-Communism to inform him, and Vorster and Verwoerd had the dream of white Christian destiny, and the Greek colonels the rather more insipid rhetoric of ‘Greece for Christian Greeks’, the decay of outright fascist systems was quite a rapid and complete one – much more rapid and complete than Nicos Poulantzas, for example, had envisaged in La Crise des Dictatures. On the other side of the Ribbentrop-Molotov hyphen, while it is true that men like Mikhail Suslov and Mao Tse-tung may have gone to their graves thinking of the Leninist state as history exemplified, it is not believable that Edvard Gierek or Milos Jakes or any of the other ‘Vodka-Cola’ general secretaries (Erich Honecker partially exempted) thought anything of the sort. When the Army deposed the Party in Poland in 1981, Susan Sontag was quite right to say that a new stage of decadence had been reached, though her ironic formulation of ‘fascism with a human face’ was misleading. By that stage, Ceausescu and Kim Il Sung had taken the personality cult beyond the baroque, insisting on the study only of their own thoughts and lives.

In the Third World, where ideology was and is shaded by the exigency of competition for advanced weapons and aid, a crop of dragon’s teeth was sown, and has sprouted into a toothsome harvest. I am writing this in the Saudi Arabian desert, just outside a gargantuan American airbase. The enemy across the border is the leader of a party, calling itself Ba’ath or ‘Rebirth’, which blazons the sloganised trinity of ‘Unity, Freedom and Socialism’. In The Republic of Fear, the pseudonymous Iraqi critic Samir al-Khalil makes an eloquent case for regarding this ‘Socialism’ as National, self-consciously based on dogmas of Führer-prinzip and total mobilisation. Iraq has long enjoyed a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union, intimate contacts with China and trading relations with several capitalist states, notably France, the United States and Germany. Its own best claim is to represent thwarted Arab nationalism, but lately Saddam Hussein, once a stout secularist, has taken to posing as the special defender of pristine Islam against the unbelievers. If war comes, it will be a contest of weapons systems rather than of ideas and principles, and in the short term some hybrid of capitalism and feudalism will probably be the winner.

R.M. Koster and Guillermo Sanchez Borbon, respectively an American novelist and a Panamanian columnist, have done well to reinstate the antique term ‘tyrant’ over the modern, purposeful word ‘dictator’. Tyrants, after all, are in power in order to be in power. Like other human beings, they may desire to invest their actions with something of the noble and the grandiose. They may wish for commemorative poems and statues – the Ozymandias complex. But they are hopelessly old-fashioned, and any reader of Robert Graves could mentally update the plot as they expire in a chaos of money laundries, drug deals and palace feuds.

Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega, the two tyrants of this title, belonged to a specific breed that might be termed the unpatriotic or pseudo-nationalist. Even before Nelson Rockefeller reported to Richard Nixon that in Latin America the military was ‘the essential force for constructive social change’, the United States had ruled the Monroe Doctrine states by means of the purchased soldier – ‘the officer with the trailing sword’, as Neruda once characterised him – mostly commanding enemies in countries that had no external armies except the United States itself. The exceptional convenience of this arrangement, with arms sales in one direction, political compliance in another and Washington as broker in both cases, was best exemplified in the rule of the Somoza family. But the headquarters of the whole continental operation, the Escuela de las Americas, which served as the Sandhurst of every Latin American oligarchy, was always in Panama. And Panama was itself an American creation or rather invention – an isthmian limb snapped off from the territory of Colombia by Theodore Roosevelt in order to enable the building of an American canal to rival Suez.

The military parasites had to affirm something, and they also had to prove, perhaps even to themselves, that they were not mere hirelings and puppets. The cheapest form of radicalism and dignidad on offer was a species of anti-Yanqui populism, the option chosen by balcony-merchants like Peron and opportunists like Torrijos and Noriega. The authors are very acute in diagnosing this Panamanian version of the socialism of fools:

Torrijos was going to play clever, bold Jack-in-the-beanstalk while Uncle Sam grimaced and growled, ‘Fee, fie, fo, fum!’ and get all kinds of political benefit from the masquerade – in Panama, in Europe, in the Third World and (pricelessly) among liberals in the United States.

  But who had helped him become Panama’s tyrant? ... Who’d helped his troops wipe out democratic insurgents? Who’d turned a blind eye when his troops ‘mistreated’ American citizens? And who was going to lavish AID funds on him and urge the banks to lend him more, even as he blustered against the Yanquis? El Coloso del Norte, that’s who, his gentle, mild, indulgent Tio Sam. And he never forgot which side of the bread had the butter. When the United States needed a favour, Torrijos came running. So let’s have those hats off for the fake revolution.

Since the secret, of feigned defiance and real abjection in the face of the master, was actually a guilty one, woe betide anyone who blurted it out. Koster’s and Sanchez may at times seem too graphic in their account of the filthy cruelty visited upon dissidents, but there is a purpose to their detailing of it. The tyrants could not bear the ridicule and humiliation that came with exposure, and felt it as a challenge to the core of their masculinity – a core which, especially in Noriega’s case, appears to have been rather shaky to begin with. A concentrated rain of pain on the testicles and prolonged rectal violation were the specific, repetitive means of tyrannical macho revenge. Dr Hugo Spadafora, the opposition leader, was martyred in this way during a saturnalia of sadism which precipitated both these authors and others into a final contest with Noriega.

Dr Spadafora knew three things worth knowing about Noriega. First was his complicity in the regional narcotics cartel. Second was his involvement in the smuggling of weapons. Third was the fact that, despite much demagogy about Yanqui imperialism, he was doing both these things to oblige the national security apparat in Washington. Since Noriega’s ‘arrest’ by US forces last January, it has been admitted with official embarrassment that he had at different times worked, for pay, for both the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Central Intelligence Agency. Koster and Sanchez expertly flesh out the nature of this commitment. Here is one of their best encapsulations:

    The very concept of a war on drugs became meaningless with Black Eagle and Supermarket, the CIA operations whereby weapons were secretly supplied to the contras in contravention of congressional strictures. In Black Eagle, Israeli stocks of captured PLO weapons were moved from Texas to Central America by means of Noriega’s network of hidden airstrips ... Observe the delicate touch Noriega added: ‘Instantly grasping that drug pilots would be sitting in the cockpits of empty planes for the return flights, Noriega alertly filled the void by arranging for them to carry narcotics.’ The CIA, of course, was buying the gas, as well as protecting the whole operation against the impious meddling of law-enforcement organisations, which put the US Government in the cocaine trade – that is, in the war against drugs but on the wrong side.

Ultimately, and like many pimps and hired guns before him, Noriega got greedy and went into business on his own. He thought he ‘had’ enough on Tio Sam for protection, and for a time he did (all of Koster and Sanchez’s allegations are confirmed by congressional and other testimony). But at length Washington decided to put down its over-mighty baron, who was getting ideas of his own about the Canal. Noriega, in extremity, reverted even more to the nationalist vernacular of Torrijos and even made some inept lunges at ‘solidarity’ with the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions against which he had worked. (They, in their turn and also in some extremity, made crass declarations of ‘solidarity’ with the foe of the gringos.) That did it. Just as the 1989 revolutions were removing post-ideological Communism from Europe, George Bush mounted Operation Just Cause. The authors neither endorse nor oppose the invasion, regarding it as the ineluctable outcome of the quarrel between senior and junior partners. In justifying Just Cause, Bush ‘mentioned Mañuel Noriega and democracy. He was against the first and for the second – George Bush of the Reagan-Bush Administration that moved heaven and earth to help its protégé and accomplice Mañuel Noriega steal the 1984 Election.’

Even as I write, Mañuel Noriega is in a Miami prison, festooned with Miami lawyers like any other capo. The US Government prosecutors have offered him the most amazing plea bargain in modern geopolitics, openly saying that he can use his own (temporarily impounded) foreign bank accounts to hire counsel if he will agree not to testify about his past service for the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Agency. A few stunned protests have been made about this, and about the recent disclosure that conversations between Noriega and his existing attorneys were illegally bugged. But more than one country’s machismo is challenged and degraded by the revelation of a furtive collusion, and Just Cause has ceased to be celebrated. The more recent discovery of mass graves in Panama City, crammed with the uncounted civilian dead of the operation, likewise attracted little attention. All energies were concentrated on the spot in the sand where I am sitting: the bridgehead against yet another former official friend and new official foe.

A coda. Is this Torrijos the same genial populist who was hymned and wreathed by Graham Greene and Gabriel Garcia Marquez? The plucky patriot who stood up for his people and his Canal? Yes, it is the torturer and traitor and bribe-taker himself. Nothing better illustrates the decay of ideology than the non-fiction composed for the General by these two fabulist heroes of the ‘progressive’ universe.

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