Panama's strongman, Brig. Gen. Omar Torrijos has emphatically denied a Washington Post report quoting him as saying that Panama could accept a future U.S. military role in guaranteeing the neutrality of the Canal once it passes into Panamanian hands.
This statement was interpreted as indicating an important shift of the Panamania position on the crucial netraility issue. If it became Panama's official negotiating position, it would have a mjor impact on the course of the current treaty talks in Washington.
Torrijos was quoted as being prepared to accept the principle that the United Stated could take action against a third country if necessary to safeguard.
The political importance attached to the denial was apparent from the way it was splashed in the headlines on the front pages of Panama's four newspapers. All four papers are directly indirectly controlled by the military government.
The unsigned article, quoted "Torrijos, 40, as saying he had not received any Washington Post reporter recently and that he did not say anything of what appeared in the Post dispatch, "not only with regard to Panama and negotiations but also in regard to references to other Latin American countries." The Panamanian papers paraphased Torrijos without actually quoting him, except for one passage in quotation marks above.
The Washington Post interview in question took place last weekend and was spread out over the three days I spent with Torrijos. The conversation - lasting some 40 hours altogether - began early Friday as Torrijos received a Mexican-based group of women journalists from half a dozen nations.
Each journalist in the group identified herself by name and newspaper. I introduced myself as Dutch newspaper and for The Washington Post. My relationship with The Washington Post was mentioned on four separate occasions in the presence of the general and several of his close aides.
His initial meeting on Friday morning with the main group lasted four hours but conversation with Torrijos and a group of three reporters continued until Monday morning. It took place at his home at Farallon, about 100 miles west of Panama City and during plane and helicopter rides around the country. On this tour, Torrijos inaugurated potato silos at Cerro Punta and talked to a banana workers union at Puerto Armuelles.We also made stopoffs at the towns of David and Santiago.
Most of our talks, particularly on the canal negotiations, were heard by myself and two Mexican reporters, Nidia Marin from El Universal and Paz Munoz of El Dia.
Aware of the importance of the general's views on the neutrality issue, I returned to the subject several times on different days to avoid any misunderstanding.