Thirty years ago this Friday – Dec. 20, 1989 – the U.S. invaded Panama. The main objective was to capture the Panamanian dictator, General Manuel Noriega, who was wanted in the U.S. for drug trafficking. The invasion also restored democracy in Panama.
What's less known is that the effort in Washington to oust Noriega started in Miami, at what was then Dadeland Bank. The bank was owned by Panamanian exiles — and the man who connected them to Congress in the 1980s was a board member: Miami attorney Sylvan “Sonny” Holtzman.
Holtzman spoke with WLRN’s Tim Padgett about the relationships he helped forge that led to the invasion —and to Noriega's arrest, conviction and 21 years in prison in Miami.
Excerpts from their conversation:
WLRN: Dadeland Bank had its headquarters at the Dadeland Mall. Among its Panamanian exile owners, the person you seemed to be most directly associated with was the bank chairman, the late Carlos Rodríguez, who would later become Panama's ambassador to the U.S. What did he ask you to do for them?
HOLTZMAN: Carlos had a conversation with me where it was their desire to go back to Panama – that they were here, indeed, in exile.
And when they said, 'We want to go back to Panama,' that would necessitate ousting Noriega.
Exactly. And he asked me, what can we do? Where do we begin? Because he knew I had a relationship with our then-United States Sen. Chiles …
The late Sen. Lawton Chiles, who would later become governor of Florida.
That's correct. We were longtime friends when he ran for the Senate. I handled his campaign in Dade County, and then when he ran for governor.
What was it about Rodríguez in particular that made him so effective in persuading Sen. Chiles and others in Congress to take up the Panamanian exile’ cause?
Carlos was a Harvard grad, spent many years in the United States. He was a successful businessman in Panama City. And he had a bearing about him that was quite impressive. And Sen. Chiles, when the Hispanic influence came into Miami, he was kind of intrigued by that and anything he could do to help, he was willing to do. And that was evidenced by his help of the Cuban-American National Foundation.
And so you also introduced Rodríguez to an important Cuban exile leader here, Jorge Mas Canosa. What did he tell them to do?
Well, they conversed together on a Saturday morning in English, I think, as a courtesy to me. And he talked about the importance of hiring a lobbyist in Washington that knows his way around the Senate; how to support candidates who were in favor [of ousting Noriega]. He was giving him a 101 on lobbying for the Panamanian exile community. They started getting [congressional] resolutions passed and getting senators in favor of Panama liberation happening.
Congress approved some $10 million for Noriega's opponents. And then came the stunning invasion under President George H.W. Bush. Were you surprised that what you helped set in motion led to something that dramatic?
Well, I don't know if you’d call it surprised. I was kind of proud and I kind of sat back and relished the idea it was really happening.
But many people still condemn the invasion for killing hundreds of Panamanian civilians. They also call it hypocritical because Noriega had once been a key U.S. ally. And Dadeland Bank itself came under some federal scrutiny for alleged drug money laundering. What's your response 30 years later to those criticisms?
It seems that every Panamanian exile that I know has considered this the liberation of Panama. The bank itself – I recall some inquiries. What South Florida Bank didn't have depositors from Central or South America? And they were looked at. But the bank itself, there was never any action taken. There were never any consent orders or anything like that.
You went on to become the founding chairman of the Miami Dade Expressway Authority. And in 2000, you received Panama's Order of Balboa – the country's highest honor for civilian foreigners – for having helped restore democracy there. What does that honor mean to you?
Kind of gratifying for just a small town guy who came to Miami.
That’s right – you came to Miami from western Pennsylvania in 1952 as a law student. Did you ever think you'd be part of the Latin American exile intrigue Miami has become known for?
No, not really. Not in the beginning. Not when I became a member of the board of Dadeland Bank. No, I don't think anyone that came to Miami in 1952 would have believed that.
The Panama invasion marked one of the few times Latin American exiles here in South Florida were able to see the actual overthrow of a dictatorship back home. Where did the Panamanians succeed where the Cubans and Venezuelans, for example, thus far haven't?
Keeping your foot on the accelerator is a big factor. But so is Lady Luck. I think a lot of the [exile] groups who are here now understand both those things.
Sonny Holtzman is still, at age 89, an attorney in Miami. Among the other exile owners of Dadeland Bank, the late Guillermo “Billy” Ford became vice president of Panama, and Roberto Eisenmann became that country's most important newspaper publisher. Manuel Noriega was extradited back to Panama in 2011 and died there in 2017.