When the telephone rang in Gen Omar Torrijos' home in Farallon earlier this summer, he was asked where and when he wanted to see the negotiating team. They had flown in from Washington with a new U.S. proposal for the future of the Panama Canal and asked for a few hours of Torrijos' time.
"No way," replied the general. "That means you didn't get yourselves together and you want the old man to give you the line. I need your opinions more than you need mine."
Torrijos, 49, is generally known as "the Panamanian dictator," and there are few people in this small Central American republic who doubts he is the boss. Torrijos' title is head of government and "maximum leader of the revolution."
Despite the anecdotes and often-heard cracks about tin-horn dictators, long-time Torrijos watchers here agree that the man who may win the battle over the Panama Canal is not an iron-fisted chief. He is known to take advice and criticism from the top command of the National Guard and from a battery of civilians both within and outside the cabinet. Moreover, he often yields to pressure both from the country's conservative and progressive interest groups.
Torrijos' leftist and anti-American rethoric has earned him the reputation among American conservatives of being a "Marxist," but after nine years of running the country, domestic and foreign analysts still find him a political paradox.
While easing banking laws and turning Panama into an offshore financial haven, he has been unrelenting in his telling the Americans to go home.
"I am not an intellectual or a follower of Marx or Lincoln," he said in a recent interview. "What I want for Panama is that the people are neither castrated nor Castroites. I don't like commumism because it hands out wealth through rationing books, but I learned from Fidel Castro that first of all the countryside must produce."
As one of 11 children of a Colombian-born teacher, Torrijos grew up in the simple setting of Panama's tropical countryside. At age 17 he left to study for five years at a military academy in nearby El Salvador and has worn the military uniform ever since.
Like so many other members of the National Guard, he received much of his training in the U.S. Army School of the Americas in the Canal Zone. He learned enough, so one of his aides quipped, to keep a tight grip on Panama's 10,000-man National Guard, to abort an attempted coup and to fight off power-hungry colonels for the last nine years.
He came to power on Oct. 11, 1963 when he and a group of younger officers overthrew the recently elected president, Arnulfo Arias. In his own version of events, they waited until the tenth day of the month had passed "because that was pay day. We needed the money because we did not know how long we had to hold out."
Now that basic agreement on a new canal treaty has been reached. Torrijos provides the near certainty that he can guarantee overwhelming ratification and see the new canal authority established.
Yet, he is also well aware that American officials in the past have called him inconsistent and unpredictable. The general himself laughs at that." I do exactly what the Gringos taught me. You conduct psychological warfare by keeping your enemy off guard."