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Nowhere Man

AMERICA'S PRISONER: The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega.\o7 By Manuel Noriega and Peter Eisner\f7 . \o7 Random House: 293 pp., $25\f7

May 04, 1997|ROSALYN DREXLER | Rosalyn Drexler is a novelist and playwright. Her play "Sweet Tooth (El Diente Azucar)," based on a fictional South American dictator, has just been produced in Mexico City. Her latest novel is "Art Does (Not!) Exist."

Mussolini didn't bother to write a memoir; he went right for the novel and did a pretty competent job of it with "The Cardinal's Mistress," a book my father bought because of its racy title. Hitler didn't bother with reminiscence either--instead he produced his obsessive, plot-driven "Mein Kampf."

Now it's Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega's turn to soften his malevolent image as a villain and Third World buffoon. It's been seven years since a staggering force of 20,000 American troops invaded Panama and brought down the dictator. Like a fox, Noriega took to the hills, even earning the support of the Vatican at one point, before being caught and extradited to the United States on charges of trafficking in Colombian cocaine. It was the end of Noriega's long and stormy relationship with the United States, during which Noriega functioned as an ally, an operative and a dupe for Washington.

In 1992, Noriega was convicted on eight counts of drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering and is now serving a 40-year sentence at a federal prison in Miami. A convicted drug trafficker--Luis Santacruz Echeverri--helped secure a conviction against Noriega by convincing Ricardo Bilonick, a former Panamanian diplomat, airline owner and convicted drug trafficker, to testify. In his testimony, Bilonick said that the general had allowed him to ship tons of cocaine to the United States from Panama in the 1980s.

The dictator now lives in a windowless three-room suite with a small private outdoor exercise area featuring an Exercycle on which he pedals daily. He watches TV and he spends time on the telephone with family and friends. One might say it was an excellent environment in which he might gather his thoughts and write his memoirs, albeit assisted by Peter Eisner, who recorded hours of interviews with Noriega in Noriega's suite. However, time and applying oneself do not make a good book: "America's Prisoner" reads like a list of well-documented complaints, sans reflection, sans intimacy, sans the personal.

Perhaps it suffers in translation--there is none of the natural exuberance of the Spanish language, none of the color or original turn of phrase. There is on occasion a bit of gossip. Noriega, for example, reminisces about the wife of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran, Farah Diba, who went water-skiing one afternoon. The shah at the time had been given refuge in Panama. "One day," Noriega writes, "there was a ruckus among the security guards--the scuba diving team, to be exact--because they spotted her water-skiing in the Pacific. The divers got as close as they could and enjoyed the view; she was a very attractive woman."

Leaving Diba and her beauty aside, this memoir, when it decides to address the many charges that Noriega ran his government like a bloodthirsty mobster, is evasive and assumes that readers can be easily fooled. For instance, Noriega has been accused of complicity in the death of Hugo Spadafora, a doctor and former vice minister of public health who had publicly accused him of being a tyrant and a drug trafficker. Spadafora had first made the accusation to officers of the Drug Enforcement Administration. In "America's Prisoner," Noriega gives this terse account of Spadafora: "On the morning of September 16th, 1985, the news from home was a shock: Hugo Spadafora had been found murdered over the weekend in Chiriqui. I was out of the country in Europe for several weeks, attending a military-naval-affairs conference, and traveling between England, Paris and Switzerland." Later, he excuses himself: "This series of events occurring in my absence gave rise to a web of lies." Yet according to the National Security Agency, Noriega may have been in Paris, but he kept in touch by phone. The NSA monitored a conversation between Major Luis Cordoba (Chiriqui was his province) and Noriega, part of which went as follows:

Cordoba: "We have the rabid dog."

Noriega: "And what does one do with a dog that has rabies?"

Noriega considers himself a man of honor and dignity, a man who can say no when he feels his dignity and honor are being compromised. When Oliver North wanted his help in Nicaragua, Noriega said no; he considered the Contra war a losing battle and he wanted no part of it. When the CIA wanted a 15-year extension in the operation of the School of the Americas, a training ground for death squads and repressive right-wing militaries, Noriega said no. He said no again to Nicholas Ardito Barletta's bid to remain president of Panama. This last refusal, however, proved to be his undoing; Barletta, who was a former student of George Shultz at the University of Chicago, was President George Bush's choice for president. For Noriega, it was three no's and you're out; Noriega didn't realize that he had cooked his own goose and had lost his place at the table.

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