Our man in Panama

Below is the original version of my op-ed in today’s Taipei Times. I had a feeling they’d chop the paragraph about the corruption during the Chen years, and what do you know? They also made a complete pig’s ear of the headline.


As General Manuel Noriega’s fortunes fluctuated with the whims of the U.S. government, it is apt that news reports of his death on Tuesday May 30 focused on the late dictator’s blow-hot-and-cold relationship with Washington.

What is not so well known, even here in Taiwan, is the role Taipei played in this relationship. Chinese-language media in Taiwan alluded to the training and assistance Noriega received in Taipei, but these were generally fleeting references. A fuller picture provides a fascinating insight into the then Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government’s nefarious activities in Central America during the 1980s. It also demonstrates the lengths to which Taipei was prepared to go to curry favor with the U.S. and boost its international clout. 

Noriega was a keen student of subjects ranging from the exotic to the mundane. Archive administration and jungle warfare were among the courses he took at training facilities around the world, most notably the notorious School of the Americas – now the The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. He also took classes in media manipulation at Fort Bragg where he rubbed shoulders with Taiwanese, Iranians and fellow Latin Americans. 

Military academic Thomas A. Marks – who has glossed over some of the most egregious KMT abuses – contends that Noriega was not among the many Panamanian officers and civilian leaders who graduated from the notorious political warfare program at Fu Hsing Kang College (復興崗). However, old “pineapple face” certainly received some kind of instruction during his early visits to Taiwan.

Elsewhere, Frederick Kempe, president and CEO of the Atlantic Council think tank, has described Noriega’s enrolment in courses offered by Taiwan and Israel, who – along with South Africa – formed a pariah triumvirate. These nations could be depended on by Washington for proxy operations that circumvented congressional oversight.

Kempe notes that Noriega – who had once entertained aspirations of being a psychiatrist – was particularly interested in psychological warfare, a known component of the Fu Hsing Kang syllabus. In Taiwan, Kempe claims, Noriega participated in “police investigative courses,” a description that sounds strikingly close to what was on offer at Fu Hsing Kang, Marks’ insistence to the contrary notwithstanding. The late Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, an authority on American relations with Taiwan and China, further confirms that Noriega underwent “military and intelligence training” in Taipei early in his career.

Whatever it was he was learning, Noriega cultivated a steadfast friendship with Admiral Sung Chang-chih (宋長志) who, in his positions as chief of general staff and, subsequently defence minister, was to prove an invaluable ally just when Noriega needed one. With the American shoulder starting to freeze, Sung was appointed ambassador to Panama in 1987, a role in which saw him involved in what Tucker refers to as “clandestine enterprises” aimed at undermining Beijing.

Once again, Marks emerges as the Kuomintang’s ablest apologist, insisting that Sung was dispatched to reason with his old drinking buddy, rather than abet him in any skullduggery. Marks’ proof for this claim comes straight from the the horse’s mouth. “I told him he was in a very dangerous situation … that he could not alienate the U.S.,” Sung told Marks. “If General Noriega had accepted my ideas, things could have worked out better.”

Far from condoning Noriega’s behavior, says Marks, the KMT government was trying to rein him in. The orders came from then president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) with Sung casting himself as a reluctant errand boy. “I didn’t want to,” says Sung. “But our diplomatic situation was so sensitive that I had to go.” Worse still, lamented Sung, “I didn’t make a penny!”

This holier-than-thou version of events is unconvincing.

Taipei’s ignominious bit-part in the Iran-Contra scandal is now well-documented. Yet before an alternative method of funneling funds to the Contras in Nicaragua was agreed, Noriega was put forward as a potential intermediary in late 1984. This plan eventually collapsed, but it was far from the end of Taipei’s illicit dealings with Noriega.

With Washington angling behind the scenes for Noriega’s resignation in 1988, Taiwan was again approached to supply the bribe money required to ensure he took the fall. While this ruse also fell through, Washington’s official break with Noriega left a gap for Taipei to ratchet up weapons sales to Panama. A US$1 billion “development” fund saw its way to state coffers the following year, with Noriega’s adviser Mario Rognoni recalling, “The Taiwanese were the ringleaders of those helping us. The others followed.”

To be sure, the KMT’s under-the-table dealings with Noriega are far from the only shameful blot in the Taiwan-Panama copybook. In 2011, cables released by Wikileaks detailed bribes paid to Panamanian President Mireya Mocosco between 2004 and 2005 by the Democratic Progressive Party administration of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). The abandoned Museo del Tucan in Panama City, which was cynically touted as a children’s museum, is the most obvious emblem of this particular period of venality.

Yet, for all the transgressions of the Chen era, there can be little argument that Taiwan’s support for Noriega represented a nadir in Taiwan-Panama relations. The death of this brutal dictator should serve as a stark reminder of the depths to which Taiwan was once prepared to descend in its bid for international recognition.





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