Breaking away from a discussion with a leftist student leader. Gen. Omar Torrijos told a story about his daughter's student experience.
When she went to register for her first classes, the general said, the other students told his daughter they didn't want her at the university, "because her father is a dictator."
Torrijos paused and started a slow smile. "And they were right," he said in a conspiratorial whisper. The American reporters in the room scribbled furiously.
The general, as his countrymen call him, likes to shock almost as much as he likes telling stories and puffing on custom-made cigars, almost as much as he says be dislikes the thought of the American military bases in the Canal Zone a few blocks from his house.
For the past few months. Torrijos hasn't had much chance to be shocking. Instead, the Panamanian leader has traveled the world playing the role of sober statesman, drumming up international support for the Panama Canal treaties he signed with President Carter in September.
It is a role that does not come easily to a man who has spent most of his life in this country's steamy jungles, and whose idea of political outing is to hike into a remote village, strop to his T-shirt and jump into the nearest river to cool of with the peasants.
If the canal put Panama on the world map, it is the treaties that have made Torrijos, 49, an international figure out of all proportion to his position as head of a mere 1.7 million people in one of Latin America's smaller countries.
The irony of it all is not lost on the general. In the years following his takeover in a 1968 military coup, Torrijos was dismissed, depending on the persuasion of the speaker, as one of Latin America's less enlightened "military strongmen" or "Marxist dictators." "Today, he notes, most of the American media refers to him as the "Panamanian leader."
Torrijos and his government seem alternately awed and bemused by all the attention. Describing a state dinner following the treaty signing in Washington, the general raised his eyes to the heavens and likened himself to Don Quixote's rustic squire.
"There I was," he said, "Sitting right between Rosalynn and Jimmy. And I thought to myself, 'Sancho, we have stumbled onto the White House.'"
It is noon, two days after the Oct. 23 referendum in which Panamanians, by a two-to-one margin, voted to approve the treaties he fought so hard for Torrijos, dressed in a loose fuscia shirt, khaki-colored trousers and lightweight combat boots, is relaxing by granting audience to some 30 Panamanians lined up outside his door.
Most are low-income city residents looking for a job, a pardon for a jailed relative or a few dollars to get them out of the hole. A similar group comes nearly every day, hoping to hit one of the arbitrarily scheduled three or four times a month that Torrijos sets aside for them.
The house itself, one of several he uses in Panama, is a modest structure on a busy street, surrounded by small businesses and gas stations.
Admitted to the sweltering living room, the supplicants swarm toward Torrijos, patting him on the back, shaking hands and offering tentative embraces. Women with their hair in curlers and men in work clothes all begin talking at once, trying to outshout each other like a flock of magpies. Torrijos jumps from his chair, mugs an expressions of pain and dances around the room with his hands over his ears.
"I want to know what you really think," he tells them. "If you really love me." The people applaud and cheer.
Later, he sits down with them on by one at the dining room table with $2,000 in small bills slipped to him by an aide, and a note pad.
Occasionally, Torrijos shouts for one of several Cabinet ministers who sit gossiping on a nearby couch. At his instructions, they sign handwritten notes promising manual labor jobs or space in a public housing project.
It is an awkward sport of personalized welfare system, with no small presemblance to 13th Century feudal patronage.Yet, Torrijos and the ministers agree that it is the only way he, can find out what people are thinking what their problems are, without the stultifying screen of bureaucracy.
Arcelia De Guerre, a housewife from the city slums, is the mother of five. Her husband, a butcher, makes $12 a week and she is months behind in her rent, and her electricity and water are about to be turned off.
After a five-minute conversation with the general, she gets up from the table and walks to the door with tears in her eyes.
"My problems are over," she says in an awed voice. 'Thanks to God and Torrijos." In her pocket is $600 in cash.
Under a 1972 decree, virtually all Panamanian presidential powers were transferred to Torrijos, the "maximum leader of the revolution," for a six-year period that is to end next October.
Before that time, Torrijos must decide whether to extend the decree, which would have bad political ramifications aboard; step down and run for president himself, a thought that makes him obviously uncomfortable, or retire.
One problem with running himself is that he has no political party. Torrijos outlawed all existing parties before the last legislative election in 1972, and is now grappling with the question of restoring them.
While certain elements call for his overthrow, and point to a larger than expected antitreaty vote as evidence of strong anti-Torrijos sentiment, more moderate opponents describe the general as "a lesser evil" than the more extreme alternatives. They are willing to go along with his treaties, and the money they will bring, if only to give him enough rope to hang himself.
Although U.S. treaty opponents have called his government "unstable" and "Marxist," judged by Latin American standards it is neither.
With no serious threat since an abortive attempted counter-coup shortly after his 1968 takeover, Torrijos ranks among the top five Latin leaders in terms of staying power.
While his government keeps a tight grip on press and political activities, only on occasion has it felt compelled to punish people through imprisonment or exile. Within the Latin military spectrum, Torrijos' dictatorship falls far on the side of moderation in terms of repression and human rights violations.
If he must be called a dictator, Torrijos said, then he is an "affectionate dictator."
Torrijos has repeatedly promised that the approximately 100 leftist political opponents he has exiled can come home with impunity, but so far none has made the trip. The same promise has not been extended to a small but vocal group of rightist opponents living primarily in the United States.
Panama does not have diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union.Although the government is sprinkled with former Communists Party members of the nationalistic tropical variety. Torrijos has made Panama a haven for free enterprise capitalism, and home to more than 70 international banking institutions.
While his heart may well be in the radical rhetoric he offers the left. Torrijos has more than satisfied the right with substance, including some of the world's most conservative economic policies. His admiration for Fidel Castro is matched only by his respect for Jimmy Carter.
His more discerning local critic believe that Torrijos himself has remained remarkably free of corruption, and there is little evidence that he has profited from his position. Nevertheless, with near unanimity they criticize Torrijos for those who surround him - a group of high civilian and military themselves while the general turns his head.
Collapsed in his living room with a plate a barbecued pork and cole slaw, Torrijos is alternately flippant and thoughtful as he parries questions on the treaties.
While he knows that they are in trouble in the United States, where the majority of senators who must ratify them have indicated they are opposed or undecided, Torrijos says he is not worried.
"Once they study this thing really well, they're going to be allies. The senators represent a people who are not used to playing dirty, and I know they are not going to play dirty," he says.
Torrijos displays an almost reverential trust in Jimmy Carter, a man who, he says, "came to power in a moral coup." After two "eye-to-eye" meetings, Torrijos describes his relationship with Carter as "a special chemistry."
He refuses to listen to warnings that Carter himself may be in trouble, that the President's personal popularity may have waned to the point he would be unable to counter the strong opposition to the treaties.
As for arch-treaty opponent Ronald Reagan, Torrijos is sure he can "unconfuse" Reagan in person. "Go on, tell him I invite him. If I can convince him. I can convince anyone," he says. As proof of that possibility, Torrijos' advisors point to the pro-treaty conversion of actor John Wayne, whom they consider their biggest victory to date.
The basic problem, Torrijos says, is that people in the United States simply do not know enough about Panama. "The U.S. education system has really failed with respect to Panama," he said. "If you took a batallion of U.S. soldiers and sent them to Panama, they'd probably end up in Europe. Most Americans don't even know where we are."
As for U.S. criticism of Panama's current form of government. "You Americans can't understand anyone who doesn't think like you . . . anyone who doesn't have those political conventions where people dance around like crowds." Torrijos stands up and does a clown jig, rolling his eyes and waving his hands in the air.
Anyway, he smiles, "I'm under the impression that the United States is going to adopt our system of government. It's purer and there is more contact with the people. In the long run. I'm sure that's how it's going to turn out, because the Americans seem to like it here so much."
Under the terms of the treaties, the Americans will not leave Panama until noon on Dec. 31 - "and you can be sure that's gringo time, not Panamanian time."
What happens if the treaties are not ratified?
"Innocent traffic" will disappear from the canal, Torrijos said. To protect them from the wrath of Panamanian nationalism, the ships will become "convoys under custody" (of Panamanian and U.S. military forces) at a rate of $50 per ton - 40 times the current price - to pay for the protection.
Volatile Panamanian students have another answer.
"The message we want to send to the American people," said Miguel Vanegas, president of a coalition of leftist student groups, "is that this is our home, and we know it well. The youth of Panama know how we can destroy any part of the canal, with or without Torrijos."
Some Panamanians call it charming naivete, some stupidity. Others attribute it to the natural inclinations of a warm man who has spent most of his life in the barracks. Whatever its source, Torrijos' informality with strangers, especially the press, has gotten him into trouble more than once.
Last summer, the general caused a minor flurry when he described some of the more intimate problems of being a head of state to a group of 20 Mexican society and feature reporters.
Among his stories, which were by all accounts sidesplitting, Torrijos told one of landing his helicopter, during a cross-country trip, in an ostensibly vacant field to answer a call of nature. Just as he was settling down in the grass, the general said, several hundred children, alerted by the landing, swarmed to greet him from their school on the other side of the hill.
The story, in which Torrijos energetically acted out his own dismay and attempts to right his trousers, was repeated word for word in the Mexican press.
Those indiscreet days are gone, Torrijos told a group of reporters invited last week for an overnight stay at Farallon, Panama's seaside version of Camp David. Coughing and pulling himself up in mock seriousness, Torrijos said, "I am a mature leader now."
The effect of the statement was somewhat overshadowed at breakfast the next morning, when the general came to the table in his pajamas, a bright red, trap-doorless version of old-fashioned Doctor Denton's.