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.

Ministers are appointed by the chief of state—this was why Torrijos smiled when I said a man could choose his enemies but not his friends, for there are reactionaries among his ministers chosen for tactical reasons. The general, like his Legislative Council, is constantly on the move, listening to the complaints, carrying with him the ministers concerned who have to reply to the people. The system may well work in Panamá, a small country. It is closer to the democracy of the Agora than to the democracy of the House of Commons—not for that reason to be despised.

I went to one such meeting in El Chorillo, one of the poorest parts of Panamá City. The representative spoke at inordinate length—complaints reached down even to the slack behavior of the man in charge of the local swimming baths. You could see how bored the general was by the way he twisted the cigar in his mouth—one of the good Havanas provided for him by Castro with his name on the band. One thought of all the hours of meetings like this he must suffer as he moved around the country. Propaganda posters hung on the walls—“Omar has his ideal—total liberation. They have not yet launched a projectile which can kill an ideal.” “The country with a fifth frontier.” “El Chorillo—the Avenue of the Martyrs.” (It was in Chorillo, which abuts on the Canal Zone, that many students lost their lives in 1964.)

Everyone in the crowded hall was glad when the representative left the podium. The meeting sprang to life. A colored girl, dragging an old quiet woman in her wake, shrieked like a Voodoo dancer and flung her arms around her head—the old lady was seventy-six and still working for the government and she had no pension. The points of the speeches now were underlined by the drums of supporters and that made the scene even more Haitian. A Negro speaker talked with great dignity and confidence and fire. “We have the moral authority of those who work for low wages.” Again and again the Zone cropped up in his speech—“We are waiting to go in, we are with you, you only have to give the order,” and all the drums rolled. The general no longer twisted his cigar.

An important complaint emerged. A number of high-rise flats had been built with the inevitable sabotage of lifts and windows that we have experienced in England and in France. High-rise flats are for the rich who can escape their isolation, not for the poor. Moreover the charge for these flats was beyond their means, so that they were in debt. There was a deposit of 500 dollars and a rent of 250 dollars a month when the average wage was 150 dollars. The general told his minister of housing to reply and a very bad job he made of it. The general asked for more information. A girl spoke up with anger, a woman had hysterics, the drums beat. There were complaints about the health service—the minister of health indignantly defended his doctors. He made a better impression than the minister of housing. A young magistrate demanded better security in the streets. The hours passed. The general was balanced on the giddy edge of the platform, a glass of water in his hand, a swim of faces close below him—not much security there. The chief of staff sat immobile on the platform, chewing gum like an American colonel.

It was the general’s first meeting in the slums of Chorillo, and Chorillo was going to have its say. The faces might appear fierce and fanatical and angry, but they were friendly. “We know you very well here, general. We see you driving by every week to buy your lottery tickets.” Laughter and the drums laughed too.

Afterward, a rumor was spread by one who had attended the meeting and knew it was a lie that the general had been drunk with vodka and fallen off the platform. One chooses one’s enemies….

Another meeting—this time in the country without his ministers. There was no platform. We sat and stood in a circle. The general began with an interruption. “No, let’s leave the most difficult thing to the last and deal first with the easy ones.” A new bridge to be built, a new road, the position of a new lime plant to be decided. The last item was the most important. The yucca farmers were claiming a higher price for their yucca, and the general had told me on the way, “I’m going to grant it. This yucca center was a mistake—our mistake. Anyway I want to redistribute money—more to the country and less to the towns. All the same I’ll keep them guessing.”

The banana workers are strongly behind the government ever since the successful “banana war” against United Brands waged by Panamá in isolation—her allies had been bought off one by one, but the peasants are another matter. Their eyes are fanatic and amused as though they are thinking, “We know what we want and we can see through you.” At the meeting they were all wearing the same round straw hats balanced on their protuberant ears; they follow the same drinking habits as the general except that they are inclined to begin after early Mass on Sunday. When drunk they bark like dogs.

On the road in the country one Sunday evening Chuchu had bought enough leather in a village store for two pairs of sandals, and the leather was being soaked and cut to fit our feet by a family we had found along the road. Suddenly we heard the barking. You would have taken it for two angry dogs if you had not been warned. Two peasants just able to stand came staggering into the yard. One adopted me and knelt beside me, clasping my hand—he said he wanted to talk about “Religión.” He said it was the only subject he wanted to talk about—he was a Catholic, but he didn’t much care for the priest who was too materialist. Religión was the only thing he was interested in. Was I a gringo? No, I wasn’t a gringo. I was English. Was I católico? Yes, I was católico. Then we must talk about Religión. The other one, after a spell of barking, preferred to sing—he wanted our names so that he could introduce them into his improvised songs. The sandals took an hour and a half to make, so there was plenty of time for songs and religión—and politics. I wanted to know how they regarded the general.

“Half good and half bad.”

“What is the bad half?”

“He doesn’t like the gringos.”

“What do you think about the Zone?”

“We are not interested in the Zone.”

“Why do you like the gringos?”

The Peace Corps has been expelled by the general, but at least in this poor area near Las Minas one of them had made converts. “He was a good man. He taught us many things. And he drank with us.”

I told the general as we went to the meeting. He said, “They are afraid for their land. They think Panamá is going to belong either to the States or to Russia and they prefer the States.”

At the meeting the same fanatical knowing faces formed a background. One of the faces smiled and winked at me. Was it one of the barkers?

A comedy was played on both sides, the peasants fierce and persistent, the general apparently stubborn. Who was going to provide the money? It would have to come out of the pocket of others. The rise they were demanding was too much. The general began to haggle, and the farmers began to see what he was at—now they argued with half-smiles and disputed with cracks of humor. Suddenly he gave way. There was laughter and claps. They had got what they wanted. Perhaps above all they had had fun.

Certainly Panamá is not the Canal, and the Zone is a whole world away from Panamá. You can tell the moment you enter the Zone from the well-built houses and the trim lawns. You feel the jungle has been held back by a battalion of lawn mowers. There are golf courses in plenty.

And the wind shall say: Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.

Cross the street from the Colón side (Panamá) to the Cristóbal side (the Zone) and you are in another world—no wooden houses with balconies, dating from the days of the French canal, picturesque to those of us who don’t live in them, and no horrifying poverty. I was told a story, perhaps exaggerated but nearly believable in Colón, of a child taken to the hospital after he had begun to eat his own fingers from hunger. Crime in Cristóbal is well under control. In Colón a friend and I were walking up the long and almost empty street leading toward the old elegant Washington Hotel when we were stopped by a Panamá police patrol and bundled into a police van for the last two hundred yards. “This street is dangerous,” they said. “You are carrying cameras. We’ve already shot two men this week who were knifing tourists.” We had been directed on our way by a photographic store in the same street—perhaps later they hoped to get our cameras cheap.

Another contrast. I went to a demonstration in a stadium in the Canal Zone only a few hundred yards away from the meeting in Chorillo. A police officer, Mr. Drummond, was meant to be the star. He had issued a writ on constitutional grounds against Ford and Kissinger for holding talks on a new treaty without first getting the approval of Congress. Then his car had been destroyed by a bomb in mysterious circumstances. This gave an impression that he was a dangerous man whose life was in danger, an impression not borne out by the demonstration. Mr. Drummond had the thinnest legs, bandaged in tight brown trousers, of any man I have ever seen. When he stood up to speak—very uninspiringly—one leg seemed to lean against the other for support, or perhaps to make music like a grasshopper.

Isolated by the are lights in the middle of the stadium he was supported by a little group of men and women who looked like a committee elected to arrange Christmas entertainments. They spoke in turn, throwing back at Chorillo their slogans, but unaided by drum beats they seemed to get lost in the night air before they reached the audience. Only one blue-haired old lady, like a Universal Aunt, got some energy into “God and Country”…”Eighth Wonder of the World”…”We left our country and our home life”…”No desire to live under a repressive form of government”…”The Canal can’t be worked without a US Zone and US laws”…”The Zone’s got to be incorporated into the Union like the Virgin Islands.” The audience cheered sometimes but not often, usually when the speakers attacked their fellow countrymen.

They used Christian names like pejoratives. “Jerry” was a traitor, “Henry” was a traitor—they could find no term bad enough to describe the State Department, perhaps because it hadn’t got a Christian name. They looked very lost and lonely in the vast stadium in the hot and humid night, and one felt a little sorry for them. God and Country would probably let them down just as Jerry and Henry had. A young woman asked the audience to send letters and “clippings” to congressmen. “I can supply you with their telephone numbers.” She wasn’t as impressive as the Negro in Chorillo.

They too looked on 1977 as a critical year, but confrontation in their eyes was a simple affair of flying in reinforcements from Fort Bragg. Perhaps they had been encouraged by the mildness of the riots last October which had been intended to prove that Panamá was ungovernable. They didn’t know that the general had fifteen days’ warning of what was planned through a CIA agent who squealed under pressure. (Forty students were lodged for the day in prison and lectured on political problems.)

A confrontation means war—a war between the tiny Republic and the United States, but the smaller the country the greater the shame and the humiliation of even a temporary reverse. Is the Canal Zone worth the shame?

The Panamanians are not romantic. There is a hard cynical streak which you can find in their popular songs—“Your love is a yesterday’s newspaper,” and the slogans on the beautifully painted buses—“Don’t get dressed because you are not going.” They estimate their chances in an armed confrontation realistically: they believe they could hold the city of Panamá for two or three days and temporarily close both ends of the Canal. After that it would be guerrilla war for which Panamá is peculiarly suited; the Central Cordilleras rise to 3,000 meters and extend to the Costa Rican frontier on one side of the Zone and the dense Darién jungle, almost as unknown as in the days of Balboa, crossed only by smugglers’ paths, stretches on the other side to the Colombian border. Here they believe they could hold out for two years—long enough to rouse the conscience of the world and American public opinion. For the first time since the Civil War American civilians will be in the firing line—there are 40,000 of them in the Zone.

There are areas of jungle inside the Zone itself where the Americans train their own special troops, as well as troops from other Latin American states, in guerrilla warfare. The Panamanians, rightly or wrongly, regard this training school with some contempt. The general goes out on training patrols himself twice a month, and the special brigade, the Machos de Monte, believe themselves second to none. Recently when the Americans were holding jungle maneuvers inside the Zone they were surprised to encounter a Panamanian patrol who had penetrated the Zone unobserved because as they explained with courtesy something had gone wrong with their compass.

Morale is high. There is a song I have heard the recruits singing at the run. No one wrote the song; it is improvised a little by every squad to go with the beat of the feet. The theme is this:

I remember that January 9 when they massacred my people, students armed only with stones and sticks, but I am a man now and I carry a gun. Give the order, my general, and we will go into the Zone, we will push them into the water, where the sharks can eat mucho Yanqui, mucho Yanqui.

Los bottaron
De Vietnam
Los tenemos
Ahora en Cuba
Dales, Cuba
Dales duro
Dales duro
Dales duro
Puerto Rico
Dales duro

It is not a nationalist song, it is a revolutionary song for Latin America. That is the strength of Panamá’s position. She represents more than the Isthmus.

And the weakness? The old man Arias, exiled and intriguing in Miami, hardly counts, nor do the Cuban refugees and their car bombs. The Communist party supports the general in his moderate approach to socialism. The danger comes as it did in Chile from two directions—the impatience of the extreme left, who will sup even with the devil to gain their ends, and corruption in the higher ranks of the army. Junior officers are mainly promoted from the ranks and can be relied on. It is accepted that some senior officers have their privileges and their pickings. Otherwise they would turn to the CIA.

Negotiations were symbolically reopened for a few days before Christmas when Mr. Bunker arrived with his troupe. Let us hope they were genuine. My personal fear is that the ball may be kept in the air with a purpose—a little concession here, a little concession there—while underground money passes, promises are made. General Torrijos in seven years has given Panamá a national pride. It would be a tragedy for Latin America if he fell a victim to the impatience of the left or the chicanery of the right. A guerrilla war is less to be feared than the sudden limited violence which kills one man and solves nothing. As Chuchu said, as he regretfully laid the revolver, which he always carried in his pocket on our travels, down on his bedside table, “A revolver is no defense.”

This Issue

February 17, 1977