I met Rod Diaz at a lunch with former Guatemalan President Jorge Serrano at the elegant Edificio Capital Plaza in Panama City. I was fascinated by Rod’s intimate stories of former Panamanian head of state Omar Torrijos. We agreed to meet again, and did, several days later in his office.
Rodrigo Díaz Paredes is Panamanian political history incarnate. He begins by revealing the stunning history of his family. Chiseled, handsome features, athletic and toned, with masterful use of language to emphasize, persuade and seduce, he looks like a Latin Rod Serling. He is dressed in a dark suit, with an open neck, pressed white dress shirt. He sits at the front of our finely polished conference table.
“My family has been involved in Panama life since our foundations as a republic. On my father’s side, General Domingo Diaz was second in command of Battalon Colombia, the battalion that was here. He led the liberal party so he was key in the process of independence from Colombia. On my mother’s side was Panama’s first head of government. When Panama became independent, there was a junta and my two great-grandfathers were part of that junta. Both great-grandfathers became president. One of my grandfathers was governor of the second largest province of the country and my other grandfather was in the Assembly and his brother was vice president.”
You have a lot of work to do to live up to that.
“My father was General Torrijo’s best friend and right hand man. He headed the negotiation process for the Panama Canal treaties. There was a book that came out about the negotiating process. The U.S. head negotiator said of my father in referencing their first meeting, “He was brusque, he was rough and had no diplomatic abilities.”
Was he like that way at home?
Rod smiles. “He was a military man. He went to U.S. military school when he was seven years old. He graduated from Georgetown. He and my grandfather established in 1962-63 the first satellite telecommunications company in Latin America. On October 1, 1968, a new government came into power; they were brought down on October 11. In that process, they tried to retire General Torrijos and they tried to take away my father’s very prosperous business. That same day Torrijos met with the commander-in-chief, the head of the Panamanian military structure. said the government had changed. Torrijos was forty and my father was thirty years old, and they led a coup.”
Tell me, how does a coup happen?
“In Panama, the climate was perfect for it. That president, it was his third time he was thrown out of office. He had proven to be very irresponsible. He had very radical positions.”
Radical in terms of left wing. Or as in extreme policies?
“He was extreme right in the sense that he was a racist, an open racist. He believed that blacks had to be neutered and said it openly. Torrijos was a military man that came from a family in the interior of the country, from high school professors, a teaching family, and he strongly believed that Panama needed the opportunity to create social equality. For that to happen, it had to be done from the highest part of the government. The beauty of it is that, his life was all about that. He also believed there was a lot of corruption in the government that had to be attacked head on. He also believed the Canal had to be returned.
“Panama since our independence from Colombia had lived under the U.S. military presence. Imagine having Soviet tanks going down Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s what we had. Usually coups are not done by Generals. Torrijos was a Lieutenant Colonel and was the executive officer at the central HQ of the army. He got the support of the junior officers, mostly majors, and captains and lieutenants.”
You were young at the time. How did Panamanians react?
“Of course at the beginning, there was concern. He got the support of his forces by presenting his ideas. Because he worked hand in hand with them for many, many years. He was educated in one of the most prestigious academies, and trained in the U.S. and Europe. He came from an intellectual family, he educated himself on the ideas that he had, and he got the support of the officers saying, you know what, Panama deserves a lot better. We deserve equality. We deserve integrity. We deserve sovereignty. With that idea, they went forward to the process.
“There was a major event that sparked that. Panama and the U.S. government had agreed that the Panamanian flag was going to be raised within the Canal Zone in specific areas, and the U.S. was not complying with that. In 1964, January 9th, a bunch of students climbed the fence, went in, there was a major event, and 21 students lost their lives. Torrijos, one of his responsibilities was to calm the people. He said, it’s so contradictory, if I am going to be fighting with them against this oppression, how can I stop them?
“That sparked a major nationalistic movement. He was a leader, he was very charismatic. He said, you know what, guys, this government is going to take the country even farther right, where we will deviate even more from our objectives as a nation.”
Was there a sense around that time that it’s time for an end to this tradition of right wing military governments, with officers often paid by the U.S. government. it’s time for this to end? 1968 was a time of student riots in France, anti-war protests in the U.S. Was there some rising tide in the region, that we want to do things differently?
“Oh, without a doubt, you had movements all over the region but Panama was the first one to make that step forward. Torrijos created a mechanism for educating and creating a middle class. At the time there were extreme left-wing guerrillas in Colombia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, but Torrijos was neither right nor left, so you had none of that. His saying was, ‘Never the right, never the left, only Panama.’”
What was the relationship between Torrijos and Noriega?
“At that time, Noriega was a captain and worked for Torrijos. Very smart, studied in Peru, then was head of intelligence, went to the U.S. School of the Americas with elite intelligent officers from all over the world, the Mossad.”
Did his colleagues know he was a CIA informant?
“No, they did not know. I imagine the U.S. identified his weaknesses, his desire for resources, for the fine things in life. In his first year, he proved to be a very good asset and kept order in the ranks. That allowed Torrijos to spend a lot of time out of Panama getting international support (for the Canal treaty).”
So no one suspected Noriega was a CIA asset?
“Toward the end Torrijos had questions but was not sure. There was a coup against Torrijos. Noriega was essential in allowing him a safe return. Torrijos was in Mexico when they advanced on him. They tried bringing him back through Costa Rica where they were going to kill him. So he went in via El Salvador where he had many ties with his former academy friends, now in high places in the military. The airport didn’t have lights. So, my uncle and other family members pointed their cars toward the runway and turned on the headlights.”
“Great movie scene. At what point did he go from being an asset to being a problem?”
“Noriega played a major role for the U.S. because he kept a relationship with the guerrillas in Columbia and left-wing movements in Central and South America. He was in charge of providing funding for the contras in Nicaragua from drug trafficking in Columbia.”
“You know that Ronald Reagan did creative things with the Iran contra deal. Was Noriega freelancing with the U.S. looking the other way, or were they supporting it?”
“The information that we have here was that it was well aware that one of his responsibilities was to manage the drug trafficking so that xyz movement is allowed, but not the rest, so they are contained. He also got resources to fund some of his operations. At one point, he got the hang of it. The problem was he enjoyed it, he thought, if I am doing 100, why not do 150, then 200? And then it kept growing and growing.
“He kept informing for the CIA in the scope of his responsibilities and then he went out for himself. He funded the guerrillas, left-wing movements, the Sandinistas, because he was also an arms dealer. He was working with everybody. At the end of the day, he sold to the devil and anyone who was there for him to do business with.”
I laughed, “He was a great capitalist.”
“There is a book by a writer called John Perkins.”
“Economic Hit Man.”
“Yes, when Torrijos died, my father was supposed to be on that plane. My younger brother had meningitis. Lost his hearing. Torrijos said, go ahead, be with your family. I’ll meet you at the beach house.”
That was purely a mechanical failure, not sabotage?
“Noriega was not next in line. There was Torrijos, then Flores then Paredes. Then Noriega. That specific plane had just come back from maintenance. There was speculation about several things. One. There was a case of sodas that came in at the last minute that was not checked by security – that invited a lot of question marks about Noriega. Two, within the control systems, there was a release of a gas that makes people fall asleep, there was speculation that that happened. One of Noriega’s security heads told me once that there was guy in a bar, he was drunk and he said that he had orders from Noriega’s people to get to the site first. He got there first, and he killed everyone. And that guy was murdered a week later. (The guy I talked to) was one of the heads of security for Noriega and very well informed.”
Tell me about the moment that the U.S. said, this guy is out of control.
“Going back, there has to be motive, what are the interests. When Torrijos was doing his process to get support for the Canal treaties, of course he went to the world. When he did that, he became not only a Panamanian leader, but a Latin American leader, admired by the world. Because he lived what he preached. There was a U.S. photographer that had been taking pictures of Reagan and he came to Panama. And I’ll tell you a story, it’s a great story. Tom Zimboroff, he was from California, he came to Panama and was here for a couple of weeks without having a chance to meet with General Torrijos. So he found out that there was a press conference at his beach house. He could not get an interview because Torrijos did not like to give interviews. Everybody left and all of a sudden the helicopter started spinning, and he said, well, this is my chance. He got into the back of the helicopter, strapped himself in. A few minutes later my father went into the helicopter and General Torrijos came in, and security and they left. I’ll show you a picture how they always sat one in front of the other. And they were talking. All of a sudden, Torrijos looks at Tom and says, ‘Who the hell is that guy??’ And my father says, I don’t know. And so they asked him, who are you. And Tom explained. And Torrijos said, you know what, you know I have to say, you have a lot of guts. I have two options here.”
One is to kill you.
One is to kill you and throw you out of the helicopter for violating security. You want to talk to me? I admire people with bravery and guts. So, if you want to document this, let’s go, let’s do it. So he spent most of 76 and 77 traveling the world with him. Took 18,000 pictures. We have the pictures. My father kept the original minutes of all those meetings. So we have pictures and minutes and will put together a book.
“Tom spoke to me one day and said when Reagan was running for the presidency, a lot of his speeches were against the treaties. So General Torrijos sent a message to Reagan through Tom and said you don’t know me, let’s get together and suggested they meet. And Reagan sent back a message that I never am going to meet with that tin horn general.
“In ‘Confessions of an Economic Hit Man’, Perkins mentions that in 1981, Jaime Roldos, the president of Ecuador died in a very mysterious plane crash. And in the book he suggests that the only two heads of state that he met that never kneeled down to the U.S. global empire were Torrijos and Roldos. And for that they paid with their lives.
“I had a chance to speak with a relative of Roldos here, a very smart man, and he was 100% convinced that it happened that way and had a lot of evidence and information as to why that was true.
“Motive once again. One of the things the U.S. was trying to achieve was to leave military installations here in Panama. And under Torrijos that would never happen. When 2000 came and the Canal was reverted, there had been negotiations at the U.S.’s initiative to put multi-lateral drug centers under the control of the U.S. military. I imagine that when we say where is the motive, preserving the asset, preserving the strategic position for the U.S. Southern Command, Noriega was feeding the U.S. information about Torrijos’ intentions, about the situation going out of control for the U.S., how Torrijos was getting way too much international support.”
The non-aligned movement.
“Torrijos had a plan, an open plan, that he asked the Assembly that he be granted head of state powers between 1972 and 1978 with one mission, to return the Canal. When that was concluded, the process began for return to civilian administration. So, between 1972 and 1978, there were elections, not selected by everyone, by a selected group, 505 members of the community, intellectuals, people who really knew their job, and the next step was to have general elections. That meant military people who were in power would be reduced. A lot of people pushed Torrijos to run for the presidency and Torrijos said no, I have to set the example. I have to go back to the barracks so that the army can follow me. If not, how am I going to tell anyone else to go back to the barracks. That meant for Noriega, and all his group, there was not going to be a succession plan. They would go back to being everyday military men.”
How did Noriega rise to power?
In 81, Paredes was a lieutenant colonel. He never, out of respect for Torrijos, wanted to become a general. He was more an executive. He was very easily taken out. Paredes had a strong control of the government, Noriega was his right hand man. Noriega, very smart guy that he is, he convinced Paredes to retire, and to run in open elections in 1984 with the support of the party and the support of the military. In that way he would gain legitimacy, control everything and continue the process that Torrijos had envisioned.”
“Sounds good. When he announced his retirement, there is a famous speech that said, ‘Good job, my general.'” Rod wipes his hands. “From that day on, Noriega proclaimed himself general, gained control of the armed forces, we did have elections, the winner was not Paredes, but instead a former world bank VP for Latin America, a University of Chicago-educated, very smart guy, who served for a couple of years until he said I can’t do this any more. He stepped down.
“In 1987, you had a major event. A left wing doctor Hugo Spadafora who fighting in Nicaragua came to Panama to announce that Noriega was doing all this drug trafficking with the contras, and Noriega’s guys intercepted him and he was murdered and decapitated.
“In 1987, Noriega’s right hand man turned on him and made public Noriega’s participation in drugs. That became a major crisis. The crisis was building up to the point that the U.S. decides, this guy is out of control. Every day there is more intrigue. Taking him out with a Navy SEALS team would have been very simple. But with an invasion, taking out the entire structure was sending a message. And that happened 10 years before the final Canal handoff. I imagine they said, if this guy is doing that now, when he gets control of the Canal, there is going to be chaos. If it is going to be left in Panamanian hands, it is going to be under conditions that are acceptable. And at the same time with a civilian administration that we can try to negotiate the terms for the drug interdiction center. He knew a lot of things about George Bush. It was just ’88, and Bush just became President. Noriega held A LOT of information. ”
Meaning, George Bush wanted to…
“…silence him. A lot of information.”
So, George Bush is head of the CIA, Reagan’s Vice President, and then President, ten years before the handover of the Canal, plus out of control narco trafficking, plus the Canal situation, handed over against Reagan’s objections, with this guy in power, the Canal is in jeopardy.
“The canal was in jeopardy.”
“There were two coups in 1989. The second came out poorly for eighteen officers.”
“That’s why I mentioned that taking out the whole structure was part of the idea When there was a coup against Noriega, the officers had support of the U.S. Southern Command. Everything was coordinated in case Noriega’s supporters regained control. When they called for support, they were told you are on our own.”
“As I said when you look at motive, if you only dismantle the head of the armed forces, the same structure goes forward and you are not going to get your objective of negotiating conditions where you can leave your base here in Panama.”
So then the key was dismantling the Panamanian Defense Forces and instituting an elected government. That was the strategy?
“Yes. So that they could have a formal counterpart to negotiate with.”
That was a brutal betrayal, to encourage these guys and then leave them hanging, only to get slaughtered.
Do you think the U.S. told Noriega this was happening?
“I don’t think so.”
So, in conclusion, as a Panamanian, you see that Noriega was taken out, certain things happened that may have had positive outcomes, what is your point of view about ‘Operation Just Cause?’
“I think it was an operation that, propaganda-wise, was great propaganda, that there were very little casualties, very little damage, we liberated a country from this horrible dictator. The reality is that we had a great head of state that had done magnificent things and he was the one that was murdered. We were then left with the inheritance of this monster. Look what he did with the support of the U.S.. Once the U.S. objectives were accomplished, he was no longer needed, so then there was an invasion that killed thousands of innocent people.
“I was in the U.S. with my dad, we were skiing. We had to come into Costa Rica. When we first came into the city, about 10 days after the invasion, the military HQ areas were leveled. The U.S. tried a lot of equipment for the first time in Panama, and they missed targets, and a lot of innocent people died. Since, Panama has been able to rebuild itself by working very hard and setting objectives and thank God, Noriega is out. But the price and the way…Panama was on its tracks without him. Noriega was forced here by the U.S. I was educated in the U.S., it’s not a matter of education or affinity, it’s how I see things.
You’ve been generous with your time. What advice would you have for U.S. policy in the future as it relates to interventions, as was done in Panama?
“I think every day it is more clear, the U.S. has consistently done the same thing. Noriega was a former ally who became a monster and there a lot of casualties in the middle. You have Saddam Hussein, ally, then a lot of casualties in the middle. Osama bin Laden, an ally, then you have the same. The story repeats itself and I think it’s time the U.S. learns from its mistakes.”
And what is the lesson?
“You have to evaluate what your policy is and how you are going to infiltrate and participate in foreign affairs. If you are going to be a political partner or you are going to be an economic partner, or are you going to try to control what is happening in other countries.”
But, if I may, is there a certain moral principle or foreign policy principal…”
“I think the moral principal is, you create these monsters that then turn on you, and that at the end of the day creates hatred. Thank God, we here in Latin America, we are very passive people, we are mainly of Christian background, forgiving. But elsewhere in the world, they are more radical. And that is what we are seeing.”
We shake hands, promise to follow up with photos and more information, and Rod adds one last thing.
“You know, the Canal treaties were ratified in the Senate by only one vote. Teddy Kennedy. Torrijos promised that the Canal would be returned to Panama. So, he and my father arranged, and no one else knew, not even the soldiers involved, that if the Canal treat was not ratified, orders were given to blow it up so no one else could have it. Not permanently. Just for two years.”
After a brief pause, I said, “That’s pretty strong.”
Rod holds his hands wide apart and smiles. “Torrijos had huge balls.”