US & Canada

General Noriega's pen pal: An American school girl

Panama's General Manuel Noriega with troops in 1985 Image copyright EPA
Image caption Panama's General Manuel Noriega with troops in 1985

Andrea was around 14 years old, flipping through her school friend's photo album when something strange caught her eye.

She was at a US boarding school in the early 1990s and, in the days before mobile phones, everyone kept their hard copy keepsakes with them. "There were all these pictures of her family in rural Michigan," she recalled. "Baby photos of her and her siblings…"

But then among all the standard-issue images, something a little different caught her eye. There was her friend, Sarah, sitting with someone else's family: the family of General Manuel Noriega, the former Panamanian leader who died on Tuesday.

Andrea recognised him instantly. In the 1980s, Noriega was public enemy number one in the US, as the country battled for continuing control of the Panama Canal. Coming across this photo back then was the equivalent of finding decades-old photos of a school pal cosying up with Osama Bin Laden.

"Pineapple face," said Andrea Morningstar (née Maio). That was the nickname detractors had given him, and which became known even to school children.

He had a nice hat

Andrea's friend was Sarah York, a girl whose childhood had taken an unusual turn around four years earlier, when she wrote a letter, on a whim, to a man she saw on the TV news.

While her parents were watching a special edition of the current affairs show 60 Minutes discussing Noriega's drug-trafficking links, 10-year-old Sarah happened to observe that he had a nice hat.

Her dad collected hats. Perhaps if she wrote to this man on the TV, he would send them a hat.

Ask him, said her dad.

So she did. She sent short letter on notepaper with a picture of a partridge on it.

To the family's surprise, a few weeks later, an envelope arrived in their mailbox, with a Panamanian flag stamped on the front. It was not hat-shaped, but it was from General Noriega. It was officially headed and signed. And, not only that, he also asked her to keep up the correspondence.

He wrote: "Dear Sarah, I feel honored by your letter. I appreciate your message of faith and friendship. I hope you continue sending your message and tell me about yourself and your city. With friendship and appreciation, General Manuel Antonio Noriega."

They did so for a number of months. He sent books about Central America; she told him about her school grades. He even sent the much-wanted hat. Then, in the weirdest twist of all, he sent an invitation for her and her family to visit Panama City, all expenses paid.

Who was Noriega?

  • Studies at a military academy in Peru. Begins a three-decade relationship with the CIA
  • Backs a coup that topples President Arnulfo Arias in 1968
  • Rises in influence after mysterious plane crash death of Gen Omar Torrijos, becoming de facto ruler in 1983
  • Ousted in 1989 after US invasion, and jailed in US
  • Back in a Panamanian prison in 2014, unsuccessfully sues company behind Call of Duty video game for using his image without permission

The visit went ahead in 1988, making the international press - from The New York Times to the Guardian - while attracting plenty of criticism. People accused the family of lacking patriotism, and supporting a brutal regime. Even Sarah's brother - an avid reader of the news - was angry, at least at first.

Meanwhile, Noriega was accused of exploiting a child and using her in political games.

After her 15 minutes of fame faded, Sarah chalked the visit up as a weird life experience and, showing signs of musical talent, pursued an education in the arts, where she met Andrea during a year at boarding school.

She was not keen to share the story when Andrea happened upon the photos. "I had to ask and she reluctantly told me," said Andrea. "I thought it was remarkable, and hilarious."

Image copyright Brie Ashley
Image caption Sarah York (L) and Andrea Claire Morningstar pictured together last year; they remain good friends

Ten years later, Andrea had finished film school and was keen to get involved with a radio show called This American Life, which is famed for its storytelling and is popular globally in podcast form.

"I had a friend from college who was a producer there, and he would send me their production themes lists," she said. When she saw an upcoming show called Love Your Enemies, she knew she had the perfect tale.

Sarah agreed to take part only if her friend was the interviewer. So the producers agreed to take a punt on Andrea, then a 20-something with no radio experience.

The My Pen Pal episode, which aired in 2003, made compelling listening. It tackled the good guy/bad guy narrative of the press and politics; it explored childhood innocence and curiosity; it looked at propaganda and multiple realities.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Radio host Ira Glass presented the My Pen Pal episode of This American Life

"I knew that I was going to get plenty of the bad guy story, so why not get the story from the bad guy, you know?" said Sarah, during the interview. "But I don't know that I ever said: 'I'm going to be the judge of this'. I think it was more just, let's see what happens. Or let's see what we can find out."

The radio show recalled the friendship bracelet she made for Noriega in camouflage colours. Her memories of touching down in the Panamanian capital: "Flashbulbs were going off everywhere, and everyone was, like, saying my name."

The show's host, Ira Glass, told the BBC he still remembers that show and it remains one of his favourite episodes. "When I heard that Manuel Noriega died, the first thing I thought of was this episode from 2003, that revealed a side of him that was personal and surprising. His motives in starting a correspondence with a 10-year-old American were obviously self-serving. But the way the whole thing plays out show a private side of the man that was fascinating for me and I'm guessing for anyone who saw him in the news back in the 1980s."

Now living in Minnesota, Sarah still performs as a musician and has two children, as well as a lifelong interest in Panama. But she would still rather not talk about her former pen pal publicly.

Image copyright Interlochen yearbook
Image caption A yearbook photo with Sarah (third left) and Andrea (far right)

"I think it is complicated," said Andrea, now an artist and filmmaker. "The perceived reality is so different from her experiences. It's taxing, to be defined by it, although she doesn't mind people knowing."

Andrea said her friend has always been a intriguing character, motivated by curiosity. At university she taught herself to swim after checking out some swimming books from the library. After graduating, she moved to northern Wisconsin and went off-grid for a few years, teaching herself about indigenous herbal remedies.

As for Noriega, he was overthrown in a 1989 US invasion, and later jailed in the US on drugs and money laundering charges.

He spent the rest of his life in custody, latterly in Panama for murder, corruption and embezzlement. He died earlier this week, two months after brain surgery.

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