Editorials: Noriega and us; and Investigating phonies

Manuel Antonio Noriega, two years ago. Photo by SERTV.
Manuel Antonio Noriega, two years ago. Photo by SERTV.

Noriega: the important question
is more about us than about him

Former dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega, once the strutting strongman but now a frail old man who has lived behind bars for more than a quarter century, has a brain tumor. It’s apparently not an immediate threat to his life as such, except that it’s causing him to have convulsions that might conceivably kill him. It reportedly can be removed by surgeons, but with the risks enhanced and the results in additional doubt because the patient is elderly and has had a stroke.

Noriega’s family and lawyers have requested that the courts change his conditions of confinement from prison to house arrest. President Varela can and probably will wash his hands of the matter, but he also has the power to issue a partial commutation of a sort similar to what is being asked from the courts.

Immediately there is a hue and cry against any clemency, any mercy, any consideration for Noriega. Some of the voices are downright sadistic, but there are some valid arguments for keeping the ex-dictator locked up. For one thing, he has never been tried for many of the worst of his crimes. For another, we have never received his full statement about the crimes for which he has been convicted, let alone those for which he is accused. There are suspicions that some of his ill-gotten fortune is still squirreled away somewhere. There is no cruelty barbarous enough to match the suffering that Noriega caused to others, nothing that we can do to bring back those who died at his hands.

But the more important questions are about us as human beings, about Panama as a civilization, about the dream of a sovereign Panamanian state with the rule of law.

At the time that Noriega held power, the maximum legal sentence for any crime was 20 years in prison, with no stacking of sentences to be served consecutively for separate crimes. Since the invasion — which was accompanied by disgraceful looting that Panamanians don’t like to remember, explain or address in any way other than by some blaming the Americans — crime has been a persistent and frightening problem. As a response to that banal politicians have borrowed the failed US answer of more people in prison for longer sentences under more brutal conditions. That answer, enacted here in longer maximum prison terms, has not worked in the United States and it hasn’t worked here. Crime goes up and down, largely according to the demographics of how many teenage boys and young men are living in poverty and despair. (The latter — despair for any honorable future place in society — is far more dangerous than poverty itself.) Increasing the severity of punishment just hardens individuals and drains public budgets.

Panama has long been a country without the death penalty. Public revulsion at the execution of the Liberal guerrilla general Victoriano Lorenzo was one of the reasons why Liberals accepted Panama’s separation from Colombia. The revulsion of the Panama Defense Forces of Noriega’s executions of some of its members was one of the reasons why that demoralized army put up little resistance during the invasion. We are a country with freedom of religion, with Evangelical, Muslim and Jehovah’s Witness denominations that are growing along with the number of people who express atheist or agnostic beliefs, but Panama has a large Catholic majority and our attitudes about capital punishment and cruelty in the name of the law are largely shaped by the Catholic faith.

So who are WE? Are we a nation that makes long-imprisoned inmates serve their sentences to the last day, even when they are dying or old and frail? Or are we a nation that follows the Christian and Muslim belief that the greatness of Jesus Christ was in large part due to his teaching that the rule of law should be tempered by a spirit of mercy?

Don’t let Noriega out into society at large. Don’t accept any revision of history’s verdict that excuses what he did. But when, after his brain surgery, he is well enough to be released from the prison ward at Santo Tomas Hospital, send him home to serve the rest of his sentence under house arrest. That would be the decent thing to do, and the Panamanian thing to do.

Investigating phony people who come here

Everybody has conceits about himself or herself, which is one reason why autobiographies and “authorized” biographies are mostly awful.

There are so very many people who come to Panama with made-up stories about themselves who, if the whole truth is known, are still not newsworthy. It’s even that way with criminals. Somebody who is living here under a false identity who does that because some jurisdiction has a warrant out about selling marijuana? Not newsworthy. Somebody who is living here under a false identity who does that because there is a warrant listing a dozen murders allegedly committed by the person? Newsworthy. Was the guy who says he was a colonel to people in the Coronado social circle actually a sergeant? Unless the government of Panama is considering him as a police consultant, not newsworthy. The person who falsely claims membership in a licensed profession in another place? Generally not newsworthy, until the moment comes when she or he uses that bogus credential to attract investors, get a job or obtain a position of influence in the community.

When somebody flaunts a résumé in this land where many public officials proffer false credentials, there are things at which to look:

  • Is this person’s set of claims all couched in terms of “I was” rather than “I did?”
  • Does this person claim leadership roles in many groups, but none of them lasting very long?
  • Does this person say that she or he “attended” a university, or is an alumnus of a fraternity or sorority there, rather than specifying a year of graduation, the sort of degree received and in what major or majors?
  • Does this person claim association with a corporation, and if you look up the corporation you find it is the “mirror” of one or more other, older and perhaps more renowned corporations with the same or a very similar name?
  • Does this person claim association with a corporation that’s real enough, but has been immersed in scandal?
  • Does the person make claims that can’t be verified and seem improbable?

If those sorts of red flags are raised, it’s time to dig more deeply. That is, if you are a journalist looking into a newsworthy situation, if you are someone being accused of something, if this person is after your job or some post you hold in the community or if you are an officer of an organization in which this person is attempting to gain a position of influence.

What you find will then probably call for judgment and restraint. Do you want to out a narc, or someone in a witness protection program, and put that person’s life in danger? Do you want to make somebody’s life miserable about some inconsequential incongruity? Are you a vicious blackmailing punk? Is there a reason why the community or one of its organizations ought to be warned? Does your personal stake in a matter cloud your judgment?

The Dick the Bruiser Philosophy — “Integrity? What’s THAT?” — is a good joke, except too many people in positions of power or influence great and small actually operate on that principle. It may be the norm in a totally commercial world in which everything is cutthroat competition, but it’s no way to live in a population of human beings.

The Panama News is published by neither a saint nor a messiah, but this guy who is 63 years old and who has been practicing journalism off and on since age 17 and  covering Panama full-time since 1994. Plenty of errors have been made along the way, but there are no judgments or convictions for libel or slander even though such sorts of accusations have been hurled his way over the years.

Bear in mind…

The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton


The quality of mercy is not strain’d
It droppeth as the gentle rain from Heaven
William Shakespeare


When the man who feeds the world by toiling in the fields is himself deprived of the basic rights of feeding, sheltering and caring for his own family, the whole community of man is sick.
Cesar Chavez


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