Guillermo Endara: Politician who became president of Panama following the US operation to overthrow Manuel Noriega

Guillermo Endara was secretly installed as President of Panama precisely as US troops launched the December 1989 invasion to oust the military strongman General Manuel Antonio Noriega. Endara was, however, no mere puppet of the US or of the man who ordered the invasion, President George H.W. Bush. He had, by all accounts, won the general election of May that year by a landslide but had been robbed of victory after Noriega cancelled or destroyed the ballots.

Endara had opposed any American intervention to capture Noriega but, once the invasion had started, felt that "morally, patriotically, civically I had no other choice" than to accept the presidency courtesy of American military force. He had run at the head of the Democratic Alliance of Civic Opposition (ADOC), a coalition which was opposed to Noriega's increasingly erratic behaviour and which demanded a return to democracy.

After the invasion, throughout his five-year term, he made a point of standing up to Bush, and to his successor, Bill Clinton, including a 1990 "hunger strike" to force Bush to release promised US aid and make reparations for invasion damage that had left many Panamanians homeless. Few of his countrymen, nor apparently Bush, took the "hunger strike" too seriously, but Endara looked the better for shedding two of his 19 stones.

To President Bush in 1989, Noriega – or cara de piña ("pineapple face") as he was known to most Panamanians as long as his intelligence agents weren't listening – had gone one step too far in nullifying the May election results. He had already been indicted in the US for drug trafficking and was increasingly sabre-rattling, allowing Bush to codename the invasion "Operation Just Cause".

What tipped public opinion in the US in favour of intervention had been the bloody beatings handed out to Endara and his two vice-presidents by Noriega's thugs – the so-called Dignity Battalions – after the three men protested against Noriega annulling the election results. The world was shocked to see film footage and photographs of the men being battered by iron bars until their shirts ran red with blood.

Endara's wife, Marcela, died of a heart attack while he was recovering from head wounds in hospital. The following year, installed as president, he married a law student of Chinese origin half his age.

After 24,000 US troops parachuted into Panama or emerged from their existing bases there in the small hours of 20 December 1989, Noriega took refuge in the Papal Nuncio, the Vatican embassy in the capital, Panama City. From a fax machine in a military base within the US-controlled Panama Canal zone, Endara announced to the nation and the world that he had been sworn in as president by a Panamanian judge.

Noriega surrendered two weeks later, was extradited to the US, convicted of drug trafficking and jailed for 30 years in Miami. With the sentence reduced to 17 years for good behaviour, his term expired two years ago but he remains in jail while fighting against extradition to France to face a 10-year sentence for money laundering.

To help free his nation from Noriega's legacy of anti-US militarism, drug smuggling and corruption, Endara, two months into his term, dissolved the Panamanian army and replaced it with the Panamanian Public Forces (PPF), essentially a police force but with air, naval and border units. With considerable US financial aid, he also helped put his nation's economy back on track after the years of ineptitude, neglect or squandering by Noriega and his cronies.

A decade after the end of his term, Endara launched a political comeback but twice failed to get re-elected – in 2004, when he came second to Martin Torrijos, and earlier this year, when he won less than three per cent of the vote. He remained, however, widely respected by his countrymen for his role in restoring democracy and Panama's image in the world and was known affectionately throughout the country by his nickname Cuchungo, although the word can often be derogatory. At a state funeral during a day of national mourning declared by the government, the current president, Ricardo Martinelli, described him as "the father of our democracy".

Guillermo David Endara Galimany was born in the Panamanian capital on 12 May 1936, the only child of an affluent, upper-middle-class family in a nation of widespread poverty. His parents had close ties with the nationalist movement led by the strongly right-wing Arnulfo Arias, which opposed de facto US control of the Central American country. When President Arias was overthrown in a military coup in 1941, Endara's parents felt it was safer to follow their friend into exile.

Guillermo therefore spent his schooldays in Argentina and Los Angeles before returning to study law at the University of Panama in the late 1950s, followed by postgraduate studies at New York University. Returning to Panama, he helped found the law firm Solis, Endara, Delgado and Guevara, still one of the country's most successful, specialising in labour law.

After joining Arias's Panameñista (Panamanianist) Party, Endara was twice elected as a legislator in the country's National Assembly and spent 11 days as Minister of Planning and Economic Policy before Arias's government was brought down by yet another military coup, in 1968, this one led by General Omar Torrijos. Endara went underground, was captured, briefly jailed and then sent into exile in the United States. He was allowed to return home in 1977.

Noriega took over as military strongman after General Torrijos's death in a plane crash in 1981 and ruled with an iron fist until the shoots of opposition began to spread. It was after Arias's death in 1988, when his widow declined to run, that Endara was chosen to run for the presidency in opposition to Noriega's hand-picked candidate.

After losing to Ernesto Pérez Balladares in the 1994 presidential race, Endara told Pérez: "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."

Guillermo Endara, who died of heart failure in his Panama City home at the age of 73, is survived by his second wife, Ana Mae Díaz Chen and a daughter, María Marcela, from his first marriage.

Phil Davison

Guillermo Endara, lawyer and politician: born Panama City 12 May 1936; married 1961 Marcela Cambra (died 1989, one daughter), 1990 Ana Mae Diaz Chen; died Panama City 28 September 2009.

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