After Sept. 7, when President Carter and Brig. Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera signed the Panama Canal treaties, Panamanian voters confirmed them three to one in a special plebiscite. The U.S. Senate has yet to vote for or against. The delay has resulted in a mini-tourist boom for Panama as yanqui congressmen and opinion-makers, from Senators Byrd, Eagleton and McGovern to former protocol chief Angler Biddle Duke and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, jet south for an on-site inspection and a talk with 48-year-old Torrijos. He has been Chief of Government (i.e., strongman) of the Central American republic (pop. 1.7 million) since 1969. Bernard Diederich accompanied one group to Panama for PEOPLE. His report:
Visitors arriving at Farallón, Gen. Torrijos’ Pacific-shore equivalent of Camp David, are in for a surprise. Sometimes there is conversation around Torrijos’ blue, white and red hammock. More often they find El General suited up in green fatigues and a bush hat, all set to lead them on a day-long trek.
Torrijos’ favorite destination is his hometown of Santiago de Veraguas, 60 miles into the interior, where he moves confidently along the streets with abrazos for old people, waves to the children. “In the October plebiscite [to ratify the treaties], we got 80 percent si votes in this province,” he points out, adding slyly, “More, I bet, than President Carter got in Plains.”
Torrijos lets his visitors know that, yes, under the prodding of Senator Byrd, he has made some concessions on civil rights. It was “humiliation,” but he asked the newsmen’s union to draft a new censorship law. “They told me they were not in a hurry,” he says, and chuckles, “A Panamanian who can shut up another Panamanian has yet to be born. These people will say what they think.” Then he ticks off his positive moves: He personally signed credentials for the Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States to enter Panama’s jails; a U.N. team monitored the voting on Plebiscite Day; he has erased decrees restricting the right of assembly and subjecting cases of alleged subversion to summary justice. But, he grumbles, “U.S. leaders are worried about ‘oppressive laws’ our people are not worried about.”
Addressing teachers and students at Santiago’s teachers college (where he persuaded visiting Americans to help hand out awards), Torrijos uses his audience as a sounding board. “I have great faith in the leaders of that great country, the United States,” he says. “But we are marking time. Investments have stopped in Panama. Economic growth is down to zero; it used to be eight percent. The country waits, ringed by 100,000 unemployed. The people fear we may turn out to be this hemisphere’s Vietnam.”
Torrijos makes it clear he likes Americans. “When I was a lieutenant [at the U.S. Army School of the Americas, at Fort Gulick, C.Z.], I always preferred to live next to an American. They are good neighbors,” he says. But, he goes on, “The Canal Zone has all the characteristics of a colony.”
Within the zone, Torrijos points out, a Panamanian is under U.S. law. “He could even be executed,” Torrijos notes, “because the death penalty exists in the zone but not in Panama. It is up to the U.S. to correct that injustice.” How soon? “I would say Panama’s patience machine has fuel for only six more months,” Torrijos says. And if the Senate doesn’t act? “Then it would be up to the U.S. Marines to run the country.”
Back in Farallón after the day’s outing, Torrijos kicks off his boots and falls into the hammock. To his guests he passes out long, fragrant Havana cigars, each with his personal band. They are the gift of Fidel Castro.
“Most leaders tell me what to do,” Torrijos says. “Castro told me what not to do. ‘You’re like a snapper going after the hook,’ he told me. ‘Slow, Torrijos, take it slow.’ ”
Americans sometimes ask Torrijos if he is a Communist. The general grins and replies, “Much less than Jefferson, less than Lincoln and an inch less than Kennedy. I tell my people, ‘The gringo shark is not going away for us to bring in the Russian shark.’ ” Finally one American wanted to know what the Canal Zone will be named if it becomes Panama’s 10th province. The general casts a shrewd look at his inquisitor, draws on his cigar and explodes with laughter. “Who knows?” he says. “Maybe we’ll call it Theodore Roosevelt!”