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Quiet in Panama


By Mark T. Whitaker

IN PANAMA, the line between Tradition and Progress is marked in the grass. Abruptly, as you reach Cristobol on the edge of the American Canal Zone, the jungle--steaming, ennervating, thick with history and bananas--gives way to the manicured lawns. And the golf fairways. "There are golf courses in plenty," Graham Greene writes with a piercing simplicity in a travelog from Panama, "The Country With Five Frontiers," that appears in the February 17 issue of The New York Review of Books:

And the wind shall say: Here were the decent people:

Their only monument the asphalt road

And a thousand golf balls.

It makes you proud to be an American.

The last comment would not always have seemed snide. Fifteen years ago, the criticism in the following passage from The Quiet American, a novel many people feel prefigures the whole of the U.S.'s senseless devastation of Vietnam, would not have seemed painful. A Vietnamese woman named Phuong asks the British reporter, 'Are there skyscrapers in London?'

'No," the Britisher says, 'You have to go to America for them.'

'And the Statue of Liberty?' she said.

'No, Phuong, that's American too,' he responds.

Greene, now over seventy, is still drifting to the edges of the receding colonial world. Observing the U.S. presence in Panama, he sums up America's smug hypocrisy with his characteristically effortless cynicism. About the last official U.S. visit to review sovereignty over the Canal, Greene writes,

Once again last December a delegation arrived for talks, as usual led by Mr. Ellsworth Bunker, the former ambassador to 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 "as usual" and the "pleasant tourist island" say it all. As in most of Greene, corruption is taken for granted. Greene rises above indignation to complacency. Once a man, or a nation, has supped with the devil, he seems to say, it only takes a lapse of will to become his regular drinking partner.

A devil of sorts, according to Greene, is General Omar Torrijos, Panama's strong-man president. (He overthrew a 60-year-old oligarchy in 1968, and has slowly begun to bring socialist reforms to the impoverished countryside.)

Greene has a way of decoding signals of despair in a man's face--the hunger to destroy or the wish to die. In Torrijo's "lines of weariness around the eyes," Greene sees what he calls a "charisma of desperation." It communicates an impatience with the inert diplomacy over the Canal issue, but also a desire to leave a mark on history. If he doesn't do so on the dotted line on the document that restores sovereignty over the waterway to Panama, Greene hints he plans to leave it in blood.

YET IDEALISM'S decay has touched Torrijo. He has power, and to Greene that alone amounts to a loss of moral legitimacy. He never lashes into the General directly, as he follows him on one of his visits to the countryside. But the implication is there, all the more hard-hitting for Greene's matter-of-fact style.

When yucca farmers clamor for an end to price ceilings on their produce, Torrijo confides to Greene under his breath (the politician's touch), "I'm going to grant it...I want to redistribute money...All the same I'll keep them guessing." In another town, the peasants, gathered like "a committee elected to arrange Christmas entertainments," try to shake the military men with angry, meaningless slogans. But the government's drum-rolls drown out their protest.

There is no right and wrong in Greene's moral universe, only suffocation. In yet another village, a peasant shouts out, "We have the moral authority of those who work for low wages." Greene lets it pass, almost conceding the assertion, until he describes the workers who stand behind the Torrijo regime because of its successful "banana war" against United Brands. Suddenly he strips off the portrait of worker dignity and lays bare his outsider's insight into the weekly flight that keeps them going: "They are inclined to begin after early Mass on Sunday. When drunk they bark like dogs."

Morale is sometimes high in Panama, Greene concludes--at least when the jungle inhabitants sing of driving the Zonians into the Atlantic, "Where the sharks can eat mucho Yanqui, much Yanqui." Yet underneath Greene touches a nausea, a festering need to strike out--if nothing more, just to keep alive a glimmer of Latin pride.

Everyone in Greene's Panama is sick of the Canal situation: the businessman because it gives Torrijo too much leverage; Torrijo because he doesn't quite know how to use it; the peasants for a century worth of reasons. To revolt is not always to fulfill a class or national destiny, Greene suggests--perhaps a people may just get bored with peace.

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