February 19, 2010 — Panama's ambassador to the United States, Jaime Aleman, was serving as minister of government and justice under former President Eric Arturo Delvalle in 1988 when his boss attempted to dismiss Manuel Noriega as the country's military chief.
"One night my poor wife had to go into exile with our 2-year-old son and 6-month old daughter," Aleman recalled Wednesday at the University of the Virginia. He spoke as part of U.Va.'s Ambassador's Speaker's Forum.
"My brother Jose Miguel, who subsequently became foreign minister, was the only other person that night at the president's house who was willing to sign the decree," Aleman said. "But it was the beginning of the end."
Speaking to an audience of students, faculty, staff and community members, Aleman characterized the 1988 decree as "almost like a death sentence. Nobody knew what the consequences would be."
Following the decree, Noriega moved quickly to oust Delvalle, becoming Panama's de facto leader. The United States swiftly condemned the ouster, and a year later invaded the country to arrest Noriega and bring him to trial on drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering charges. He was convicted and remains in U.S. custody
A steady consolidation of democracy followed the U.S. 1989 invasion of Panama, which Aleman said was welcomed by Panamanians who had long tired of the military strongman.
"We received them with flowers. It was a new beginning for Panama," he recalled. "We started to treasure and value democracy much more than we did before, where we tended to take it for granted."
Aleman told the American citizens in the audience, "You are fortunate that you can take democracy for granted, that you have such strong institutions and this is something that you really don't need to worry about."
The Office of the Vice Provost for International Programs sponsors the speaker's forum, which has thus far welcomed Pakistani, Indian and Danish ambassadors to Grounds. Former Israeli Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer is coming to U.Va. March 24.