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Danger Zone?

In response to:

The Country with Five Frontiers from the February 17, 1977 issue

To the Editors:

I enjoyed Mr. Graham Greene’s article on Panamá (NYR, February 17) and I agree with his contention that the Canal Zone is a symbol of colonialism which embodies historic injustices that must be redressed. But I take exception to his glorification of Omar Torrijos, self-anointed General, and to the author’s distortion of Panamanian history. I use the term distortion in relation to my personal observations, for I resided in the Canal Zone from 1967-1970. Although my residence was in the “zone” I worked with both the Guardia Nacional and the Ministry of Agriculture of Panamá as a veterinary advisor. I traveled extensively, and this is what I observed vis-à-vis the General’s ascent to power.

In 1968 Major Torrijos, unheralded regional commander in the Guardia Nacional (a combination of police and military forces), wrestled control of Panamá from his superiors who had usurped their political powers by abrogating the results of a democratic election supervised by a constitutionally established electorial tribunal. This election returned Sr. Arneufo Arias to the presidency for a third term which lasted just eleven days. During one or both of Sr. Arias’ previous administrations, which by Panamanian standards were characterized by unprecedented social reform, similar military intervention occurred. I doubt Sr. Arias is a saint but he certainly was a popular candidate, especially in the rural regions, and to dismiss him as an archaic oligarch is inaccurate and unjust.

For months following the takeover Torrijos’ troops, bedecked in full battle array and sporting automatic weapons, were always highly visible. The press was censored to assure “responsible” journalism. A number of local leaders, including a priest, who voiced opposition to his rule disappeared, others were jailed, midnight messages were delivered with authority. Terror slowly suffocated dissent. It was a painful process to witness, for the vitality and hope which had bloomed following the election died hard. Consequently, Mr. Greene’s assertion that Sr. Torrijos is not a “typical dictator” is difficult to accept, for his consolidation of power was “typically totalitarian.”

For Americans with Panamanian friends the takeover was a period of anguish and shame, as it was our military assistance program which trained and equipped a military force in Panamá with capabilities far in excess of legitimate requirements. When this force was used for illegitimate purposes our government declared the matter an internal affair in which, as a matter of principle, we could not intervene.

As a final comment I would suggest that the frantic sense of urgency regarding the canal, which Mr. Greene observed, is primarily a reflection of the views of Sr. Torrijos and his staff of “wild pigs.” Undoubtedly, this issue is of concern to the general population but I do not believe it has come to take precedence over the more immediate concerns of housing, food, health, employment, or transportation.

Eight years have elapsed since Sr. Torrijos, as an afterthought, launched his “revolution” replete with promises of improved governmental efficiency and sweeping programs of social reform. According to my sources his achievements have not been impressive, and the travesties of his administration, i.e., new housing which rents for more than the average monthly wage in the neighborhood, must be a severe embarassment, and a blow to his public credibility. With mounting urgency a victory of major proportions is required and the canal issue, with its intuitive militaristic and nationalistic appeal, evidently has been designated “no lose.”

Given this background, the potential for violent confrontation cannot be over-estimated and the chances for a negotiated settlement are not bright. But if confrontation does eventuate it will not be a contest between the Champion of “grass-roots democracy” versus the Colossus of the North as Mr. Greene intimates. It will be a confrontation between the nationalistic youth of an impoverished nation, goaded by a frustrated tyrant, and the military forces of the nation which provided the tools of tyranny, and stood mute while they were used to dismantle a viable democracy.

Bruce H. Thomson, VMD, MPVM

College of Veterinary Medicine

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Urbana, Illinois

Graham Greene replies:

A view from the Canal Zone will naturally differ with a view from the Republic, and Mr. Thomson has perhaps forgotten that the revolution of 1968 had two leaders: he has forgotten the right-wing role played with great cruelty by Colonel Martinez. The priest he refers to as having “disappeared” I have met and spoken to. He was imprisoned and tortured in 1968, but Mr. Thomson lays the responsibility on the wrong man. The priest is a relative of General Torrijos and his trusted adviser on social matters—incidentally he has left the priesthood and married. Perhaps I did not emphasize sufficiently that not until after Colonel Martinez was expelled to Miami in 1969, and after the failure of a counter-revolution by certain officers while General Torrijos was in Mexico, did the revolution move toward the left. An example: my friend Chuchu, who had been a professor of Marxist philosophy at Panamá University, fled to France in 1968 and took his doctorate at the Sorbonne. Not until the expulsion of Martinez did he return to Panamá University, but even then not to his old post. The general is not Marxist.

I gather from Mr. Thomson’s letter that he left Panamá and the Canal Zone before the change in the nature of the revolution became obvious. I think he would find a different atmosphere in the Republic today. It’s a bit unfair to talk of a “frantic sense of urgency” over the Canal situation. Talks have been going on for thirteen years. Social frustration there certainly is, but it’s not easy to make social reforms on a shoe-string. Sugar, bananas, and yucca are not a very satisfactory base for an economy, and to my mind too much hope is based on the new copper mine. The price of copper is too easily manipulated by the great powers as Allende found. Anyway a mixed economy is far more difficult to work than a collectivist or a capitalist.

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