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Former Panama Dictator Manuel Noriega Dies at Age 83

  • VOA News

FILE - Former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, pictured in this January 4, 1990 file photo

Former Panama dictator Manuel Noriega, whose time in power was marked by corruption and violence, has died at the age of 83.

Panama's President Juan Carlos Varela said on twitter that Noriega's death "closes a chapter in our history" and that his family deserves a burial in peace.

Noriega had been in the hospital recovering from several surgeries related to removing a brain tumor earlier this year.

Before being released on house arrest to prepare for the procedures, Noriega had been imprisoned for corruption and killing opponents during his 1983-89 regime.

Noriega was ousted from power by a U.S. invasion in 1989 and was imprisoned in the United States on drug offenses. He then was jailed in France for money laundering and was returned to Panama in 2011 for further imprisonment.

Despite amassing great wealth, Noriega had worked hard to cultivate an image of a man of the people. He lived in a modest, two-story home in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Panama City that stood in stark contrast with the opulent mansions customary among Latin American dictators.

”He would only say `hello' very respectfully,” said German Sanchez, who lived next door for 16 years. “You may think what you like of Noriega, but we can't say he was anything but respectful toward his neighbors.”

”The humble, the poor, the blacks, they are the utmost authority,” Noriega said in one speech.

While some resentment lingers over the U.S. invasion, Noriega has so few supporters in modern-day Panama that attempts to auction off his old home attracted no bidders and the government decided to demolish the decaying building. Late in life, the ex-dictator essentially had zero influence over his country from behind bars.

”He is not a figure with political possibilities,” University of Panama sociologist Raul Leis said in 2008. “Even though there's a small sector that yearns for the Noriega era, it is not a representative figure in the country.”

Noriega broke a long silence in June 2015 when he made a statement from prison on Panamanian television in which he asked forgiveness of those harmed by his regime.

”I feel like as Christians we all have to forgive,” he said, reading from a handwritten statement. “The Panamanian people have already overcome this period of dictatorship.”

But for the most part Noriega stayed mum about elite military and civilian associates who thrived on the corruption that he helped instill - and which still plagues the Central American nation of some 3.9 million people, a favored transshipment point for drugs and a haven for money laundering.

Meanwhile, families of more than 100 who were killed or disappeared during his rule are still seeking justice.

Some material for this report came from the Associated Press.

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