If you spend any considerable time in Panama, after a while you realize that nothing here is real and most of what you see is pretending to be something else. With the shopping malls Panama pretends to be just like the US. Same goes for skyscrapers and horrendous commercial TV. Your Bananama Republic had to visit the base of the Aeronaval service recently, and at first sight this might look like a sort of a military base until here as well you realize that they're pretending, they are playing that they are a real army but there is no substance to it, not materially - with only a couple of helicopters that work, a bunch of fishing launches and one propeller plane - and not mentally. They are just over-compensating, marching and saluting and all that, for a profound lack of authenticity.
It is very easy for unscrupulous leaders to exploit this existential inferiority complex, and a lot of them have done so. Omar Torrijos was so succesful at it that today lots of people still believe in something called "Torrijismo", a personality cult based on artificial feelings of nationalism and patriotism. Noriega - a specialist in mass psychology and manipulation - was probably even better at it although he missed Torrijos' folksy manners.
A small demonstration of how the former narco-tyrant hasn't lost his touch in that respect was given yesterday when Noriega, after 22 years of hanging out in foreign prisons, returned to Panama.
Initially, all seemed to go well. The media had turned up in full force and were broadcasting live images from the airport and the Renacer prison, where preparations were going on to receive the deposed dictator. However, from the moment the Ibera flight touched down at Tocumen things were going terribly wrong. Why? Because, again, the authorities were pretending.
They were pretending that Panama is a mature nation that could professionally and responsibly deal with its past. They were pretending they could implement efficient security measures. They were pretending that they respect the rights of prisoners and suspects, even if they're high profile figures like Noriega.
The scheme invented by minister Raul Mulino to transfer Noriega from the airport to the Renacer prison in Gamboa turned increasingly bizarre with a helicopter and then various cars, from which a hooded Noriega was then put in a wheelchair and taken inside. Confusion skyrocketed when then another convoy turned up with another hooded and unrecognizable figure. Now what? Who was the real Noriega and how would we know he was really here? The media demanded proof. On Twitter people speculated Noriega would really be at the SENAFRONT base. CNN refused to confirm Noriega had arrived. The government entered in panic mode and started improvising. They had emphasized that Noriega would be treated like any other prisoner, but this was obviously a phalacy. The routine in Panama is that suspects are shown, if not paraded, in front of the media, and with Noriega every effort was made to protect him from the press (as someone in the comments remarked, this was more the arrival of a high profile political refugee in need of protection, like the Shah of Iran, than the extradition of a murderous criminal). The president intervened through Twitter to order that pictures of the MAN be released. Then nobody had a camera and the police photographer was nowhere to be found, so the authorities released a picture taken with a cellphone, but only after the baffled world press has listened to ministers, the attorney general and others all blaming and contradicting each other during improvised press conferences and TV appearances.
Now into an irreversible cascade of screw-ups, it was then announced that Noriega would be shown to the media. After he was briefly seen in a wheelchair in the distance, a desperate prison director came out and told the media that he would not be shown after all, because the dictator had expressed his wish not to become part of a "media circus" - probably the first time such a wish has been respected in Panama's history.
"He left while in command and now he comes back and is still commanding", noted Edilma Gallego, the sister of Hector Gallego, one of the most famous victims of the military dictatorship, on TVN. Others, like former Attorney General Ana Matilde Gomez, who was also legal counsel for the truth commission, made similar observations.
Noriega obviously was aware that the Martinelli government would make every effort to pretend and show the watching world that they were professional and civilized about his return to Panama. He knew that they'd go to every length to accomodate him in protecting his privacy. And he probably also knew that this would then become a controversy diverting attention from the real issues at hand; before the Iberia jet landed, the debate was about the pending trials, how the public ministry and the judiciary would handle the cases, what the convictions in other cases were about. Within an hour, all the talk was about the procedures, the Tom and Jerry style security operation, if he was to be shown or not, the chaos at the Renacer prison and the botched efforts by the authorities to contain the media disaster.
We may expect to see repetitions of this process when Noriega faces trials. No doubt the authorities will want to establish an appearance of a professional justice system capable of dealing with such cases, but, again, there is no substance to that as everybody knows that Panama's judiciary is hopelessly unprofessional and corrupt and it is just a matter of time before something happens that destroys the pretentions of the contrary. Noriega will without a doubt continue to exploit this to his advantage.