Since we were just discussing “Getting to Know the General,” I would like to elaborate on the historical setting of this book, the political and militant tension between the United States and Panama in reaching a new treaty regarding the ownership and operation of the Panama Canal.
This was a highly controversial topic for both countries. America was stoic in wanting to keep control of the canal- they built it, paid for it, engineered it, and reaped the monetary benefits from it. Surrounding the Canal, an American colony was established. It was affluent and run basically separate from the rest of Panama, with its own schools, government, culture, and economy.
America had all the benefits from the current deal they had with Panama- one, of course, built on exploitation. The original document regarding the conception and construction of the canal was signed in 1903 by the United States Secretary of State and a French diplomat who had been in power for 2 weeks as the Panamanian representative. In addition to later selling his shares to the US, this leader never returned to the country after signing the treaty. So yeah, basically Panama got played.
The Panamanians would welcome a surgical scar running down the country that benefited the global market if, of course, they could profit from it. Americans living in the canal zone were affluent and cut off from the rest of Panama. Everyone outside of the canal zone was very poor. The Panamanians peeking into this life saw the injustice, they saw how unfair and cruel the situation was. Panamanians would rather sabotage the canal (which was relatively easy to do since once drained, the canal would take 3 years to fill back up again) than to concede ownership of this new found industry.
So 74 years since the original treaty, plus 23 more years until the new treaty was finalized, neither side was happy. Each side felt like they gave up too much. There was a backlash on both sides. Americans thought Carter had given away a US asset, plus the US citizens living in Panama had to disrupt their lives by moving out and back to the mainland. Everyone is Panama was upset, both the rich and the poor. The Panamanian’s continued to be a puppet for the US since they had to reorganize their government to appease the US.
Greene’s story begins in winter 1976, the year before the notorious treaty was signed, when he meets General Torrijos for the first time. Over the span of 4 years, Greene unravels the story of the General, the Panamanian leader with the most at stake. He uncovers Torrijos’ philosophy and political tactics leading up to the treaty, in his relationship with the citizens of Panama, and the implications of the deal until his mysterious death in 1981 in a plane crash. There is direct evidence that the US had previous assassination attempts against him. That information is from Wikipedia, but according to Torrijos and his trusted friend, many people wanted him dead.
This book is a fascinating insight into a side of the story that is often not told. Greene opens the reader’s eyes to the struggle of the poor country and the man who was the representative of the small, impoverished country with a lot to lose.
PS- Let’s all take a moment and appreciate the courage of Jimmy Carter to help reach an agreement with Panama. Nobody in the US wanted to give the rights to this small, poor, powerless country. He did it because “it was the right thing to do.” He was very unpopular for this and was not reelected probably because of this. Not all presidents have such a moral compass. Reagan, his predecessor, tried to undo the treaty by preaching we built it, we paid for it, it’s ours.