Manuel Noriega, the former dictator of Panama, is in the news after deciding to sue the video-game publisher Activision for using his likeness in Call of Duty: Black Ops II without permission. The eighty-year-old Noriega, who is serving a twenty-year prison sentence in Panama for human rights abuses, is seeking payment of the ‘lost profits’ he feels owed.
While news outlets have argued that the lawsuit ‘beggars belief’, it also serves as a reminder of Noriega’s role in the Cold War and, in particular, his relationship with Oliver North, with whom he planned the overthrow of the Nicaraguan Sandinista government. North, who also makes a cameo in Black Ops II, advised the game’s creators and featured prominently in its advertising campaign. But, despite Activision’s protestations about historical accuracy, the game obscures the horrifying reality of Latin America’s Cold War.
In 1981, in the midst of the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan feared that the left-wing Sandinistas were being drawn into the Soviet ‘bloc’ and consequently authorised the CIA to support the opposition paramilitary force known as the Contras. Throughout the 1980s the US-sponsored Contras 1 indiscriminately kidnapped, murdered, tortured and raped thousands of Nicaraguan civilians in a terror campaign designed to reduce support for the Sandinista government. 2
By 1985, Congress had prohibited Reagan from supporting the Contras’ operations but, while working for the US National Security Council, Oliver North bypassed this ruling by secretly selling arms to Iran and using the profits to fund the Nicaraguan guerrillas. In addition, North hoped to use $1 million from the Iranian deal to finance Noriega’s own sabotage of the Sandinista government. Noriega had worked with the CIA since the late 1950s as he rose through the Panamanian military leadership to become de facto dictator by 1983. During the mid-1980s Washington officials were aware that Noriega was heavily involved in drug trafficking but his support for the Contras led the US government to take a ‘see no evil approach’ to his rule.
In 1986 North told his superiors that ‘over the years Manuel Noriega in Panama and I have developed a fairly good relationship’ and that the dictator was willing ‘to “take care of” the Sandinista leadership’ on Washington’s behalf. Subsequently, the two men met in London where they discussed plans to disrupt the Nicaraguan economy and establish training grounds for the Contras. However, these schemes never came to fruition as the illicit arms sales to Iran were uncovered by the press. While North was initially convicted for his part in the ‘Iran-Contra’ affair, his sentence was later overturned and, in addition to his work for Activision, he now makes a living as a TV host, author and motivational speaker.
When Black Ops II was released in 2012, Activision received heavy criticism from those who felt that North’s role in the Iran-Contra scandal made his promotion of the game ‘distasteful’. The publisher defended its decision to employ North by arguing that his input improved the accuracy of the game’s narrative as Black Op II’s creators professed their intention to tell an ‘epic’ and ‘mature’ story. Noriega’s role in US covert operations is referenced in the game as, over the course of its narrative, he first assists and then later betrays the CIA. The game also depicts the 1989 US invasion of Panama which led to the dictator’s overthrow and capture.
Yet, ultimately, Cold War conflicts serve as mere backdrops and plot devices for the game’s action set-pieces in Afghanistan, Angola and Panama. This bombast disguises the true role played by the likes of North and Noriega in perpetuating the terror inflicted on Latin American civilians for the sake of ‘containing’ communism.
The human rights abuses perpetrated by US-sponsored dictators and death squads have had a traumatic and lasting impact throughout Latin America. While recent publications, with such fitting titles as The Killing Zone and The Last Colonial Massacre, have detailed this violent history, it remains conspicuously absent from the popular media’s portrayal of the Cold War. 3
In 1986, the International Court of Justice ordered the US government to pay reparations to Nicaragua for its support of the Contras but Washington refused to abide by the ruling. It will be interesting to see if Noriega fares any better in his efforts to secure compensation from Activision.
Mark Seddon is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield working on British and US interventions in Latin America during the Cold War. You can find him on twitter @MarkSedd0n.
- US-sponsorship of the group formed part of Washington’s broader effort to restrict Soviet influence in Latin America during the 1980s as the Cold War led the US government to back anti-communist dictators and death squads throughout the region. See Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (New York, NY, 2007), pp. 87-120. ↩
- William M. LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1998), pp. 413-417; Grandin, Empire’s Workshop, pp. 115-117. ↩
- Stephen G. Rabe, The Killing Zone: The United States Wages Cold War in Latin America (Oxford, 2011); Greg Grandin, The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War (2nd ed., Chicago, Il, 2011). ↩