I was in Panama on Jan. 3, 1990 when Manuel Noriega, the dictator we'd gone to depose, surrendered to U.S. authorities and was promptly flown to Miami for trial.
Since that trip, I've been back to Panama nearly 30 times, most recently a few days ago. Manuel Noriega has spent the intervening years in a federal prison in Miami, convicted of drug-related charges and money laundering.
After 21 years in U.S. custody, he was transferred to France, where he was sentenced to seven years in prison for similar charges. But this coming week, Manuel Noriega may finally return to the country of his birth. A French judge granted a request by the country of Panama that he be returned.
But his trouble with the courts is not over. Once he returns to Panama, Noriega will face decades-old murder charges for the deaths of several of his political rivals.
The country Noriega left has changed dramatically since 1990. Gone are the U.S. bases that dotted the canal zone. The Panama canal is expanding under Panamanian control, and the country has the highest standard of living in Central America. What were once bases that belonged to the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) are now high-rise condominiums and five-star resorts.
One spot, however, has been untouched since Noriega left. His home in a wealthy suburb of Panama city has remained eerily empty, and has fallen into disrepair. Once the deposed dictator returns, he may want to refurbish the old place, because by Panamanian law, if Noriega is convicted of the crimes he faces there, he can serve his sentence at home because of his advanced age.
Most people I've spoken to in Panama see Noriega as a relic of a distasteful period of their history. It will be interesting to see the reception he gets when he arrives back on his home turf.