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The Country with Five Frontiers

The American worked in the Canal Zone, but he lived in Panamá, so he was generally regarded as an agent of the CIA, but nobody now seems much afraid of the CIA. When he heard that I was moving around, he asked my friend Chuchu, “What’s the old goat doing here?”—a fair enough question, I often asked it myself, for since the Thirties I had wanted to visit Panamá—perhaps because of a romantic French novel I had read which was set in dangerous, ramshackle, poverty-ridden Colón, perhaps because even then I felt a premonition of Panamá’s importance. Panamá’s importance is not in fact the importance of the Canal, which becomes less and less with every year—a smaller tonnage passing, a smaller revenue, a channel too shallow and locks too narrow for the great tankers of the Seventies and the aircraft carriers. The Canal is now only important as a symbol of colonialism, a narrow splinter of colonialism cutting the country in two. The situation is watched with sympathy by Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru: Panamá doesn’t stand alone.

The hurried, dishonest treaty of 1904, which was signed on behalf of Panamá only by a French engineer, granted the United States all the rights, power, and authority within the Zone “which the United States would possess and exercise if it were the sovereign of the territory…to the entire exclusion of the exercise by the Republic of Panamá of any such sovereign rights, power or authority.” Imagine yourself a Panamanian suspected of a crime in the Zone; you can under the law of the United States be hauled off for trial in New Orleans even though your home is on the other side of the street in which you were arrested, beyond a boundary line less visible than a traffic line.

After the riots of 1964 when eighteen Panamanians lost their lives and millions of dollars of property were burned, President Johnson promised the abrogation of the old treaty: a new one would be signed which would integrate the Zone with the Republic and recognize Panama’s sovereignty. That was twelve years ago. The Arias oligarchy which had ruled Panamá since 1903 were in no hurry—their fortunes rested in the United States. In 1968 the young colonel Omar Torrijos, with a right-wing colleague, Colonel Boris Martinez, made a military coup d’état which rid the country of the oligarchy; a year later Martinez followed old Arias to Miami, and four years ago General Torrijos, the chief of state, held conversations with Kissinger, which led like so many of Kissinger’s conversations only to more conversations. Once again last December a delegation arrived for talks, as usual led by Mr. Ellsworth Bunker, the former ambassador in South Vietnam: they stayed for the inside of a week on the pleasant tourist island of Contadura where it had become a habit to hold such parleys, then they went home.

The diplomats, of course, are always reassuring: to Mr. Aquino Boyd, the foreign minister, Mr. Bunker is an “old acquaintance” (old indeed, he is well over eighty). Gloria Emerson in her admirable book on Vietnam, Winners and Losers, writes less reassuringly of Mr. Bunker. “For seven years he had never faltered in supporting and augmenting American policy in Vietnam. He was thought of—in the kindest terms—as a fierce, brilliant, cold, stubborn man.” To the Vietnamese he was known as “The Refrigerator.”

The appointment of Mr. Vance, the new secretary of state, has been welcomed too for a rather odd reason—he was in Panamá when the 1964 riots raged. He was hidden for his own safety and smuggled out a very frightened man. He had seen what could happen suddenly in Panamá.

Kissinger in his talks recognized in his tactical way the principal points for discussion (the mere fact of any talks at all worried the inhabitants of the Zone). Here are the most important:

Complete Panamanian sovereignty over the Canal by the year 2000.

Reduction of American bases from fourteen to three.

An increasing share by Panamá in the running and the defense of the Canal.

Panamanian law to be introduced as soon as possible into the Zone.

Neutralization of the Canal to be mutually agreed in time of war.

The question now, after twelve years of talks, is how much longer they will go on, 1965 to 1977 is a long time. General Torrijos said to me, “The year 1977 will exhaust our patience and their excuses.” After the mild student riots last October he announced, “If the students break into the Zone again I have only the alternative of crushing them or leading them. I will not crush them.” He has also said, “I don’t want to enter history. I want to enter the Canal Zone.”

Panamá is not an insignificant banana republic with politicians and presidents up for sale, nor is General Torrijos in any way a typical military dictator. Panamá is dangerous and so is Torrijos, a man fighting to exercise prudence as Fidel Castro advised him, but a man bored with prudence—you can see it in the lines of wariness around the eyes, the sudden wicked smile which greets a phrase that pleases him (“You can choose your enemies, but you can’t choose your friends”). There are many in Panamá who say that no treaty signed with the United States can be a good treaty. Chuchu, a professor of mathematics and yet a sergeant in the special guerrilla force, the Machos de Monte (The Wild Pigs), and one of the general’s security guard, burst out rashly in the general’s presence, “I want a confrontation, not a treaty,” then looked nervously across at the general, where he lay resting in his hammock. The general said, “I am of your opinion.”

The first time I met General Torrijos was in the house of one of his friends, my first day in Panamá. He was in his dressing gown and his underpants, and he regarded me with some suspicion. I was a writer and, therefore, I must be an intellectual. The son of a teacher, he had left home at the age of seventeen and gone to a military academy in Salvador. He likes romantic poetry and the novels of Marquez. Sometimes a touch of poetry appears unexpectedly and unnoticed by himself when he speaks. “Intellectuals,” he said, “are like fine glass, crystal glass, which can be cracked by a sound. Panamá is rock and earth.”

I found myself telling him of my great-uncle dead in St. Kitt’s at the age of nineteen, leaving thirteen children behind him, and he relaxed and we spent the day together after flying out to Contadura where Mr. Bunker is so much at home. If the French had built the Canal, the general said, there would have been no problem, de Gaulle would have returned it. He began to describe the grass-roots democracy which he had substituted for the rule of the oligarchy, but broke off, “You will understand it better if you see it in action.” He spoke of a village he had visited where he had found the grass uncut in the cemetery. Then he knew it was a bad village. “If you don’t look after the dead you won’t look after the living.”

Death I was to find lies very close to him. Although he has a wife, to whom he has been married for twenty-five years, and women please him (“When one is young,” he said, “one eats anything. Now,” he added sadly, “one distinguishes”), he suffers from loneliness. He hates to eat alone. Once I sat with him while he ate (I had already had my lunch); it was as though he were performing a duty as rapidly as possible—a man in a hurry. He said he had premonitions of death, violent death. He seldom dreamed, but when he did, his dreams were bad. “I see my father across the street. There is a lot of traffic between us and I am afraid he will try to join me. I call out to him. I ask him, ‘What is death like?’ but I never hear his answer. I wake up.” Always when night comes he feels depression, but the sunrise cures it.

Death for him is not something to be avoided, so that he is a problem to his security guard. Once flying with me in his small plane to a meeting of peasant farmers he told me with satisfaction, “You can tell today we have a young pilot—inexperienced—because he is flying over the sea. The older ones hug the land because it’s safer in a small plane. Sometimes when I know that my pilot will refuse to take me by some route because of the weather, I ask for a young one who won’t know better.” All the week the general drinks nothing but water and then on Saturday nights he gives himself up to serious drinking—Black Label, then water again all the long week. On one occasion he said to me, “Like you I am self-destructive,” but I am not sure what he meant.

There is a charisma of rhetoric—Castro and Churchill are obvious examples. Torrijos is totally unaware of his different charisma—the charisma of desperation. To be only forty-eight and yet to feel time running out—not in action but in prudence: to be establishing a new system of government, edging slowly toward socialism, which requires of him almost infinite patience (and yet on his travels he hasn’t the patience to take a canoe or wait for a bridge over a river—he swims across): to live day by day with the Canal problem, dreaming, as a soldier, of the simple confrontation of violence and yet acting all the same with the damnable long-drawn-out prudence Fidel advised…. He said to me once, “And I thought when I had the power I would be free.”

Will he have the time to establish this popular democracy? In England I think, more than ever before, we are prepared to recognize other forms of democracy, even under a military chief of state, than the Parliamentary, which worked satisfactorily for about a hundred years in the special circumstances of those hundred years. In the Assembly of the Panamá Republic there are 505 representatives elected by regional votes. In order to stand for election a candidate must have at least twenty-five letters of support. The representatives meet only once a year for a month in the capital to report on their regions and to vote on legislation. The rest of the time they have to live with their electors and their problems. (No weekend “surgery” in the English fashion for them. I have an impression there is a bigger turn-over of representatives than of MPs.) A Legislative Council of about fifteen members tours the regions during the year and discusses legislation on which the Assembly will vote.

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