The Great Spectacular—the signing of the Panama Treaty—is over and there will be no general distribution. I had seen nothing like it since Around the World in Eighty Days. All the familiar actors from how many television screens and newspaper photographs seemed to be there—all except Elizabeth Taylor. Kissinger, before the delegations settled into their seats, could be seen button-holing his way around the hall of the Organization of American States with his world-wide grin: five rows in front of me I could see Nelson Rockefeller being strenuously amiable to Lady Bird, as though the two of them were sitting out a dance together, ex-President Ford more blond than I had imagined him from the screen—or had he been to the barber? There too were Mr. and Mrs. Mondale, Mrs. Carter. Two rows in front of me sat Andy Young, bright and boyish. All of them looked strikingly unimportant, like the stars in Around the World. They were not there to act, only to be noticed, party-goers having a night out together, pleased to feel at home with friendly faces—“What, you here?”

The real character actors were all up on the platform—an unpleasant sight but more impressive than the stars below: General Stroessner of Paraguay, whom I had last seen in uniform one National Day in Asuncion saluting the cripples of the Bolivian war as they wheeled by and the colonels stood stiffly upright in their cars like ninepins in a bowling alley (he had reminded me then of some flushed owner of a German Bierstube, and in civilian clothes he looked more than ever the part); General Videla of Argentina with a face squashed so flat there was hardly room for his two foxy eyes; General Banzer of Bolivia, a little frightened man with a small agitated mustache—he would have looked more like a dictator if he had worn a uniform, he had been miscast and misdressed; there too was the greatest character actor of them all—General Pinochet himself, the man you love to hate. Like Boris Karloff he had really attained the status of instant recognition, he was one who could look down with amused contempt at the highly paid frivolous Hollywood types below him. His chin was so deeply sunk in his collar he seemed to have no neck at all; he had clever, humorous, falsely good-fellow eyes which seemed to tell us all not to take too seriously all those stories of murder and torture. (A week before I had listened in Panama to an Argentine refugee. She broke down as she described how a bayonet had been thrust into her vagina.)

Pinochet, I feel sure, knew that he dominated the scene—he was the only one people were protesting about with banners in the streets of Washington—perhaps they couldn’t spell Stroessner’s name and they couldn’t remember Banzer’s. Pinochet was tactful, he didn’t wave to his ally Kissinger down below, and Kissinger never looked up at him. Then we all stood for the national anthems as Carter and General Torrijos entered to sign the treaty, a bit shop-soiled since it had been fingered and corrected for thirteen years, ever since negotiations began after the riots of 1964, when Torrijos was an unknown young officer in the Guardia Nacional and Lyndon Johnson was alive and nobody dreamt of Nixon, Ford, or Carter. Yet I feel sure I was not the only one who continued to watch Pinochet. Like Karloff he didn’t need to have a speaking part—he didn’t even need to grunt.

Carter looked miserably unhappy. He made a banal little speech and was almost inaudible from five rows back in spite of all the microphones. I happened by a quirk of fate to be a member of the Panamanian delegation (we were a mixed bag including, as well as ministers and negotiators, a student leader and the mother of a student killed by American troops in the riot of ’64, as well as the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, author of A Hundred Years of Solitude). Remembering how once I was deported from Puerto Rico I savored a gentle revenge when I arrived in Washington with a Panamanian passport. I felt proud too as a temporary Panamanian of General Torrijos who spoke in a voice with a cutting edge very unlike Carter’s. He began abruptly (no conventional “Mr. President, Your Excellencies, etc.”) so that even the stars began to listen—it sounded for a moment as though he were attacking the very treaty he was about to sign. “The treaty is very satisfactory, vastly advantageous to the United States, and we must confess not so advantageous to Panama.” A pause and Torrijos added, “Secretary of State Hay. 1903.”

It was a good joke to play on the senators, who were there in force, but it was a good deal more than a joke. Torrijos was signing the new treaty with reluctance; he had said himself it was only “to save the lives of 40,000 young Panamanians.” Two clauses of the treaty particularly stuck in his gullet; the delay till the year 2000 for Panamanian control of the Canal and the clause which would allow the United States to intervene even after that date if the Canal’s neutrality were endangered. He will not, I think, be entirely unhappy if the Senate refuses to ratify the treaty; he will be left then with the simple solution of violence which has often been in his mind, with desire and apprehension balanced as in a sexual encounter. I asked him before he left for Washington if the long-drawn negotiations had affected his dreams. He told me that on the last night of the negotiations he had dreamt that guerrilla war had begun and he found himself in the jungle without his boots. There was nothing to be done without boots, and he felt a horrible humiliation because he would be captured in the first hours of the war.


The United States is lucky to be dealing with Torrijos, a patriot and an idealist without a formal ideology, except a general preference for left over right and a scorn for bureaucrats. His position is a difficult one; for he is a lonely man without the base of a political party, and the old parties continue to exist in the shadow—the Christian Democrats consisting of the bourgeoisie who hate him, the Communists who give him at the moment a reluctant tactical support, the extreme left groups who are all against the treaty (ironically for much the same reason as the General). Some opponents have been exiled to Miami, which is known in Panama as the Valley of the Fallen, but there are no political prisoners, and unobtrusively Torrijos gives aid to many political refugees from Chile and Argentina.

The General is popular in the countryside (especially with the children), he can trust the younger officers of the Guardia Nacional, and he can depend on the elite of the army, the Wild Pigs, trained in guerrilla fighting, with whom he goes on strenuous maneuvers twice a month. About some senior officers of the Guardia one must speak with more caution. |If the treaty is not ratified Panama will need the General, and his position and his popularity will be secure. If the treaty is ratified, the General’s future and Panama’s future are more dubious.

With ratification more than three hundred square miles of valuable real estate will be returned immediately to Panama—and a great deal of cash. Plenty of pockets are ready to be lined. Their owners are not interested in the General’s plans for free school meals and free milk for all children (the General’s father was a schoolteacher), for the elimination of the slums of Colón and Panamá City, and pleasure parks for the poor who are now condemned to spend their free hours in such horrifying districts as the one in the city ironically known as Hollywood where for safety a visitor needs a resident to guide him.

Addressing the banana workers on a plantation Torrijos told them, “I have no intention of exchanging coffee-colored landlords for white landlords,” but the landlords of Panamá City—and they include some high army officers—are likely to have other ideas. The General’s life if the treaty is ratified will be a poor risk for an insurance company, for he is not a man who can be flown, like a politician, to Miami. No wonder he dreams a good deal of death, and his dreams are reflected in his eyes.

There were eight other generals of the hemisphere on the platform to watch Torrijos sign this treaty which he didn’t like, and I think many demonstrators in Washington confused them together—they were all generals, they were all in some way dictators, a protest against Pinochet was a protest against the whole lot. Torrijos was well aware of that danger. He had wanted only the more reputable leaders to be present, the presidents of Colombia, Venezuela, and Peru, who had given him active support. Carter insisted on inviting all the members of the OAS, so that Fidel Castro became perforce a notable absentee (as we flew from Panama over Cuba the General radioed him a friendly message).

Carter’s insistence was a triumph for Pinochet, and an embarrassment for Torrijos. After the signing of the treaty Carter and Torrijos set off down the platform in opposite directions to greet the heads of state. An embrace is the usual greeting in the southern hemisphere, and I noticed how Torrijos embraced the leaders of Colombia, Venezuela, and Peru and confined himself to a formal handshake with Bolivia and Argentina as he worked down the row toward Pinochet. But Pinochet had noticed that, and his eyes gleamed with amusement. When his turn came he grasped the hand of Torrijos and flung his arm around his shoulder. If any journalist’s camera had clicked at that moment it would be thought that Torrijos had embraced Pinochet.


This Issue

January 26, 1978