Old soldiers do die, it turns out, but there’s something incongruous about watching ruthless, formerly swashbuckling military dictators end their lives quietly as frail old men in hospital beds.
It happened to Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean strongman, who returned home and died under house arrest in 2006, at 91. Fidel Castro slowly faded from view, becoming even less coherent, before dying at home in November, as his brother slowly rolled back their revolution. And now Manuel Noriega, the former Panamanian leader, has died at 83 following complications from surgery to remove a brain tumor. He had been imprisoned in his home country.
Like nearly every Latin American leader of the late 20th century, but more intensely than most of them, the three men had complicated histories with the United States, the dominant power in the hemisphere: Pinochet as American ally, Castro as nemesis, and Noriega, ultimately, as both. The tale of American involvement with Noriega, and what came afterward, suggests humbling lessons about U.S. ability to change the course of history in its southern neighbors.
For most of his career, Noriega was an exemplar of a certain kind of American intervention in Latin America: The lawless, vicious leader whom the U.S. cultivated and propped up despite clear and serious flaws. Noriega got involved with the U.S. at a young age, volunteering to inform on leftist students during the Eisenhower administration. He later attend the U.S Army School of the Americas, a training center in Panama that was run by the American military that produced an impressive dishonor roll of despots and murderers across Latin America, as part of a U.S. effort to train domestic resistance to leftist politics in the region. Noriega began receiving payments from the CIA in 1971.