Ex-Panamanian president who replaced Noriega dies

PANAMA CITY – Former President Guillermo Endara, who led Panama to democracy after the U.S. invasion that toppled dictator Gen. Manuel Noriega, died Monday. He was 73.

Endara, who governed from 1989 to 1994, died at his home in Panama City. His cardiologist, Dr. Sergio Solis, said the cause might have been a heart attack. Endara, who suffered from diabetes and kidney ailments, had been hospitalized recently for dialysis treatment.

President Ricardo Martinelli expressed condolences and hailed Endara for "delivering us from dictatorship and giving us back democracy."

"He was a great politician, statesman, and I feel personally, and in the name of the government, very saddened by this tragic death," Martinelli said.

Backed by a coalition of civilian parties, Endara overwhelmingly won the presidential election in May 1989, but Noriega refused to recognize the results and unleashed a wave of repression against his opponents.

Seven months later, President George H.W. Bush ordered in U.S. troops and toppled the Noriega regime as it became increasingly linked to Colombian cocaine cartels. Endara took over the presidency in the middle of the fighting.

Noriega was tried and convicted of drug racketeering in a Miami federal court. His sentence, reduced for good behavior, ended Sept. 9, 2007, but he remains in custody as he fights extradition to France, where he faces money-laundering charges.

Robust and good-natured, Endara tried to put aside past grievances and focus on restoring democracy to Panama. He promoted freedom of speech and created a new civilian-led police force to replace Noriega's Defense Forces, which were devastated in the invasion.

Endara also faced the challenge of lifting Panama from ruin after years of economic turmoil, U.S. sanctions and devastating rioting during the invasion. Under his presidency, the economy grew at an average annual rate of 8 percent.

But Endara also faced intense street protests and sporadic uprisings from Panamanians incensed over the U.S. invasion.

In the 1994 presidential elections, his Arnulfista Party lost to the Democratic Revolutionary Party, the former political arm of the military.

As he handed over the presidency to Ernesto Perez Balladares, Endara expressed confidence his achievements would be recognized in the long-run.

"When the passage of time erases the passion of the moment, when it eliminates mistrust and doubt between brothers, when it clarifies the uncertainty and confusion of our nascent liberty, only then will the efforts of those who took over in 1989 be appreciated," Endara said his speech.

Endara later broke with the Arnulfista Party and made two unsuccessful bids for the presidency, the latest in May when he received just 2 percent of the vote.

He is survived by his wife and a daughter.