Manuel Noriega’s Legacy to the Integrated Spectacle

Last Monday, General Manuel Noriega, the infamous Panamanian strongman, died anti-climatically in a hospital in Panama City. Noriega will most likely be remembered as one of the Latin American bêtes noires of the late Cold War who ran afoul of the foreign policy imperatives of the United States resulting in armed intervention. As a prized CIA asset for many years when the priority of US foreign policy was containing communism, he was allowed to rule the country at his own whim with little condemnation of his drug smuggling activities. As US foreign policy interests shifted to drug interdiction, however, he found himself under pressure to reform his government and end his narcotics trafficking. Refusing to do either, he was ousted by an US military intervention in the waning December days of 1989.

There is another legacy of Noriega, albeit a far more obscure one. Noriega was identified as a prime example of the nature of the integrated spectacle in his penultimate work Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle. In “Chapter” XIX, Debord gives a brief account of Noriega’s interesting role as both hero and villain of American interests in the region. Then, after recounting this history, he writes:

Far from being a peculiarly Panamanian strangeness, this General Noriega, who sells and simulates everything, in a world which everywhere does the same thing, was altogether a perfect representative of the integrated spectacular, and of the successes that it allows the most varied managers of its internal and international politics: a sort of man of a sort of state, a sort of general, a capitalist. He is the very model of the prince of our times and, of those destined to come to power and remain there, the most able to resemble him closely. It is not Panama which produces such marvels, it is our era.[1]

There is more than a hint of admiration in the words of Debord. Noriega, Debord argues, recognized the country he ruled was “dug out” by the United States in order to build a canal and didn’t really enjoy any kind of genuine sovereignty.[2] This allowed him to generate his own personal fiefdom so long as he allowed the US to use the country as a tool for its official and clandestine objectives in the region. When the winds of US foreign policy changed, he knew he had much leverage over the demands by the administration of George H.W. Bush, who was accused of being a “wimp” in the media over his inability to control the rogue dictator.[3] When Bush realized he was losing the media war in the standoff between the United States and Panama over the allegedly rigged elections of 1989, Bush ordered invasion of Panama to topple Noriega—in essence tapping into the concentrated portion of the integrated spectacle when the diffuse one failed to yield the desired results.

Today, the notion that Manuel Noriega represents the epitome of the integrated spectacle is charmingly quaint. In the era of the Trumpire, Noriega is small potatoes. Yet there is more than a little resonance between the antics of Noriega and the much grander bloviating of Donald Trump. Like Noriega, who was able to contribute to the narrative of George H.W. Bush as a “wimp,” Trump took no uncertain pleasure in ridiculing Bush’s son Jeb as “low energy” and a “lightweight” before coining insults for all his other opponents in the presidential race. Also like Noriega, Trump is awash is shady business dealings and may or may not be involved in secret arrangements with great powers and both men seem to be somewhat self-conscious about their appearance (Noriega for his skin complexion and Trump for his body fat). Sure, there are significant differences between the two men who came to power in different eras, but when Debord describes Noriega as someone who sells and simulates everything, one would have to look hard to find a more elegant way of describing Trump as well.

One huge difference exists, however–Noriega lacked full control of the integrated spectacle. He did successfully co-opt its media side for a few months but ultimately, the United States could deploy its overwhelming military force which would have the double impact of allowing the US to control the physical space of Panama while simultaneously creating a compelling media counter-narrative that would portray the dictator as a heartless drug lord, dispel the image of George Bush as a wimp, and provide enticing and entertaining news reports and subsequent fictionalized accounts of the invasion that would allow the event to go down in history as another example of US benevolence. Noriega would ultimately be captured and sent to prison and, a much worse fate, obscurity. Trump does not suffer from this liability. He is in ostensible control of the entirety of the Trumpire’s integrated spectacle, and there are no American military forces to topple this regime (at least not in any way that is constitutional). Whether the current scandals of the Trumpire bring down Donald Trump remains to be seen, but with the death of Noriega, Debord’s description of him as “the very prince of our times” perhaps should now be directed toward Trump.[4]

     [1] Guy Debord, Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle (New York: Vero, 1998), 58.

     [2] Ibid., 57.


     [4] Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, 58.


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