25 Years Later: Noriega’s Power Trip Resulted in his Downfall

December 20, 2014

In mid-December 1989, General Manuel Antonio Noriega, the jefe maximo, or supreme leader of Panama, as he called himself, brazenly declared that Panama was in a “state of war” with the United States. His Panama Defense Forces (PDF) took to heart his comments and treated U.S. military personnel and their families roughly over the course of the next week. The incidents spiraled until a USMC officer, Lieutenant Robert Paz, was murdered by PDF soldiers who shot at a civilian vehicle in which he was riding. Days later, the United States invaded Panama and restored the democratically elected President, Guillermo Endara, to his rightful position. Noriega was deposed and eventually surrendered to U.S. custody.

The general had it all: sovereign leadership of a country and its 15,000 member security and defense forces, villas throughout Panama as well as residences in Japan and France, control of the drug trade transiting Panama, and access to more wealth than he could ever spend. Moreover, Noriega had the U.S. government, particularly the U.S. President, on the end of a short string: every machination the ‘petty dictator’ engaged in was amplified by the U.S. media. The result in the United States was that then-President George H.W. Bush appeared weak, increasing what became known as “the wimp factor” in his presidency.

Clearly, Noriega did not see the effect his populism and brash rhetoric, which was very useful inside Panama for rallying supporters against a common enemy, was having externally. In essence, the power of his position went to his head: Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley psychologist, says that normally “we adapt our behaviors to the behaviors of other people,”…but “power takes a bite out of that ability…” Those outside of Noriega’s sphere of control were seen as enemies to be conquered, though for the general, he misinterpreted his declaration of war.

Noriega failed to see the consequences in his actions in others, particularly in then-President Bush. Why? Noriega’s grasp on power in political terms in Panama at the time was nearly absolute while his control of the PDF was supposed to be total, being the general of the armed forces. However, since the PDF was poorly led and even less well trained, after his anti-US rhetoric surged, his troops merely followed through with what they could only consider as guidance: the US was the enemy and the US forces in Panama at the time were the visible representation of the US. The PDF obeyed Noriega, to the General’s detriment. The US invasion restored democracy to Panama at the cost of 23 US military and over 300 PDF lives; at least “200 Panamanian civilian were killed during Operation JUST CAUSE” as well.

Ultimately, Noriega’s power-trip precipitated his downfall, which is not uncommon for dictators in the 20th century, such as Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and others. Noriega had supposedly said “the U.S. is like a monkey on a chain that can be jerked around.” The Panamanian general jerked that chain too hard once too often and then paid the price.


Peter Moons is a U.S. Army officer who served in Operation JUST CAUSE. The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflective of the official positions of the United States Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.