Noriega Rejected Deal for Exile, Ex-U.S. Aide Says

Panamanian Dictator Thought U.S. Was "Bluffing"

Listen: Listen to an extended version of Bob Edwards' interview with Bernard Aronson.

Manuel Noriega arrest photo

Former Panamanian Dictator Manuel Noriega is seen in a 1990 photo after his arrest. Drug Enforcement Administration Museum hide caption

itoggle caption Drug Enforcement Administration Museum
Bernard Aronson

Bernard Aronson was assistant secretary of state for Latin America in the first Bush administration. PBS.org hide caption

itoggle caption PBS.org

The U.S. government offered former Panamanian Gen. Manuel Noriega exile in Spain before his 1990 surrender to U.S. authorities and arrest on drug trafficking charges, a former high-ranking State Department official tells NPR. In an interview with NPR's Bob Edwards, former Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aronson reveals that Noriega rejected the offer.

"We offered to allow Noriega to go to a country, Spain, where there wasn't an extradition treaty with the United States and that was a solution that could have worked for both sides," says Aronson, who served as assistant secretary of state for Latin America in the first Bush administration. But he says Noriega — who had already been indicted in the United States on drug charges — "didn't take the deal."

"He didn't believe that we were ever going to come to get him," Aronson says. "I think that he felt that he had successfully stared down the United States and that we were bluffing and at the end of the day he would outlast us."

U.S. forces invaded Panama in 1989. After a brief standoff, Noriega surrendered and was taken to Miami, where he was convicted of drug trafficking charges in 1992 and is serving a 40-year sentence in federal prison.

Aronson says the current confrontation with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is "even more complicated" because he faces potential war crimes charges like those against Slobodan Milosevic. The former Yugoslav president is being tried by an international tribunal at The Hague.

Saddam "watches Slobodan Milosevic (and) if he thinks that's his future, he's not going to make a deal," Aronson says. "And I'm frankly not sure that the (current Bush) administration would make a deal" with the Iraqi leader.

In attempting to convince a dictator to step down, Aronson says the U.S. government must decide whether it wants to make a deal that it can "sell and live with," then find "the right intermediary to negotiate." Part of the challenge, he says, is to "convince the dictator that time is running out and that one way or another you're going to leave power. And so you'd better decide whether you want to negotiate your way out and perhaps take care of your future or face the 101st Airborne."

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