PANAMA CITY, Panama -- When Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega gets back to this lush tropical city after a 17-year absence, the former Panamanian strongman will scarcely recognize his old haunts. I barely did.
The news that Mr. Noriega plans to come back to Panama in September after spending nearly two decades in a U.S. prison since being deposed in a 1989 invasion, is the talk of the town. His return has momentarily eclipsed the other omnipresent subject of conversation here -- the real-estate boom fueled in part by American retirees, which has turned this once laid-back city, known as a refuge for spies, arms dealers and out-of-work dictators, into an enormous building site with a Manhattan-like skyline in the making.
Good times are expected to keep rolling: The country's famous canal is about to get a multibillion-dollar makeover, and a chunk of its down-and-out colonial city center is getting a facelift.
Landing here recently for the first time in many years, I recalled Mr. Noriega's last day in Panama, which I covered for The Wall Street Journal. That day, I spent hours waiting for Mr. Noriega to come out of the Vatican embassy, where he had taken refuge from U.S. troops. Days earlier, soldiers had blared ear-splitting rock from sunup to sunset to drive Mr. Noriega out of his refuge, but to no avail. I still remember some of the rather pointed musical jabs -- Jimi Hendrix's electrifying version of "The Star Spangled Banner" and Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock."
Inside, the late Msgr. Jose Sebastian Laboa, who once held the job of devil's advocate in the Vatican -- arguing the canonical case against candidates for sainthood -- used his lawyerly skills to convince Mr. Noriega to surrender. Mr. Noriega, with his acne-scarred face, made a perfect villain, the type of tyrant the U.S. at first loves to use, and then loves to hate. After three days of loud music and 11 days of artful persuasion, Mr. Noriega walked out into the waiting arms of U.S. anti-drug agents and on to an eventual U.S. trial and conviction on drug-trafficking charges (if he does return to Panama, authorities have said they will put him on trial for murder).
In his Miami prison suite, Mr. Noriega became a born-again Christian. In his absence, Panama City has also experienced a rebirth of sorts. The place teems with hip new restaurants and salsa joints. New beach and eco-friendly jungle hotels are nearby and ground has been broken on a long-planned biodiversity museum by renowned architect Frank Gehry.
The rebirth is partly the result of another U.S. invasion -- this time by the advance guard of baby-boomer retirees who have landed on Panama City's shores. Not only are the Americans here. So are the Canadians and Europeans. Venezuelans, one step ahead of the installation of fiery President Hugo Chávez's version of "21st-century socialism," are arriving in growing numbers.
Another factor in the remaking of the city was last year's vote via national referendum to go forward with a $5.2 billion government-funded project to widen the Panama Canal a few miles from the city center. A third set of locks, which will allow larger vessels to go through the waterway, is expected to be completed by 2015. Panamanians are betting the canal's expansion will boost other related businesses such as insurance and financial services, and help maintain growth rates of about 7%.
The canal has been central to Panama's history -- and its sometimes turbulent relations with the U.S. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt more or less carved out an independent Panama from Colombia in return for control of a 10-mile swath of Panamanian territory cutting through the middle of the country where the canal was built. U.S. control of the "Zone" fed Panamanian nationalism, leading to bloody riots in 1964. After thorny negotiations, the U.S. finally turned over total control of the canal to Panama in 2000.
Change is even making a dent in Panama City's slummy colonial city center, once the domain of prostitutes, pimps and pickpockets. Years ago, even looking at the fetid, jam-packed, crumbling buildings of the old city made one feel in danger of contracting the yellow fever that mowed down thousands of canal workers in the 1880s. There's still work to be done, but private and public money is being used to clean up some streets and a couple of squares are now home to trendy eateries.
Many Panamanians appear happy with the way their city and country are going. Carlos Weil, a former Swiss currency trader turned Panamanian art dealer who has six passports, says the country is attracting people from all over the world. Half his clients are now foreign, boosting his prices and expanding his market. Foreigners have brought with them lots of new restaurants -- and even the city's first serious bookstores.
From colonial times, when the city was a key transit point for the transport of gold and silver from the mines of Peru to imperial Spain, commerce has always been Panama's driving force. The loot then woke the greed of famed pirate Sir Henry Morgan, who sacked the city in 1671. The ghostly ruins of that first Panama City can still be seen a couple of miles from downtown.
One of the world's largest offshore banking centers, Panama still attracts its share of pirates and flim-flam men. My all-time favorite for sheer verve and virtuosity was Lloyd S. Rubin, a Jackie Gleason look-alike widely admired here as the king of the upfront-fee scam. For years, Mr. Rubin lured hundreds of would-be entrepreneurs to Panama where he relieved them of millions of dollars by charging exorbitant fees in exchange for promises to provide investment funds that never materialized.
In 1991, I wrote about Mr. Rubin in The Wall Street Journal. The following year, a notice appeared in local newspapers announcing Mr. Rubin's untimely death in Thailand. Three years later, Mr. Rubin rose from the dead. He surfaced in Ecuador, with an alias, Carlos Campbell De Cordoba, a name I felt almost turned him into a long-lost cousin. He was returned to the U.S. where he pled guilty in Georgia to fraud charges to do with his Panama scheme, and spent some time in prison. (Mr. Rubin now runs an art gallery here.)
Panama has historically been a refuge for deposed autocrats and disgraced politicians. After Iran's Shah of Shahs lost his Peacock Throne, he lived for a few months on nearby Contadora island. Haiti's strongman, Gen. Raoul Cedras, a diving enthusiast, found refuge here after the U.S. knocked him out of the box in 1994. And in 1997, Ecuador's President Abdala "El Loco" Bucaram ended up here after the congress dismissed him from office for living up to his nickname. Mr. Bucaram, who insisted I was an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency in my one interview with him, is said to be a habitué of the city's casinos, but I've never spotted him among the one-armed bandits.
I'm happy to say that my favorite bar, El Pavo Real, or the Peacock -- billed as Panama's only British pub -- is still around. The Pavo Real was Panama's version of Rick's Café from "Casablanca," a place where gun runners, drug pilots and one of my best sources -- a Cambridge-educated insect exterminator who was also an acute social critic -- got together for drinks. The late prima ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn, who was married to a Panamanian politician, would drop in for lunch. So did more recently John le Carré -- in town to write "The Tailor of Panama," his remake of Graham Greene's "Our Man in Havana."
Old Panama City had a cozy, almost familial air to it. Anybody who was anybody was related by blood or marriage. That was brought home forcefully to me on my first visit to the country. I was covering the 1987 riots that eventually led to Mr. Noriega's downfall, when unbeknownst to me, my future father-in-law, the deputy administrator of the Panama Canal and a man proud of his Sicilian bloodline, asked Panamanian and U.S. military police to give me some rough treatment.
For reasons too complicated to go into here, he thought -- mistakenly -- that I hadn't done the honorable thing by his daughter, a diplomat in Miami whom I had recently met. To set things right, he wanted the police forces to find me in the chaos of tear gas and flying rocks and give me a light work-over to teach me a lesson in proper etiquette. Luckily, the forces were busy with more important things. I married his daughter shortly afterwards, and now get along famously with her father.
That small-town feeling -- where such favors are asked and granted -- is fading fast.