With Gen. Omar Torrijos as tour guide, seven U.S. Senators headed by Democratic Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (W-Va.) crisscrossed Panama by plane, helicopter, car and canoe today in an attempt to learn what people here think about the canal treaties.
The other Senators, all Democrats, are James R. Sasser (Tenn.), Spark M. Matsunga (Hawaii), Walther D. Huddleston (Ky.) Donald W. Riegie Jr. (Mich.), Paul S. Sarbanes (Md.) and Howard M. Metzenbaum (Ohio).
The group is here on a four-day trip to gather information about the treaties that would turn over control of the canal to Panama by the year 2000. All seven have pronounced themselves undecided about how they will vote in the impending fight to obtain the 67 votes - two-thirds of the Senate - needed for ratification of the treaties.
In their time with Torrijos, the military strongman who has controlled Panama since 1968, the Senators discussed the human rights situation here, charges that Torrijos is leading the country in a leftist political direction and the possible Panamanian reaction if the Senate rejects the pacts.
These talks had to be sandwiched into the whistle-stop tour as Torrijos treated his guests to a display of how politics are practiced in Panama.
The senators got into the act, bouncing Indian youngsters on their laps for the benefit of photographers. One, Sasser of Tennessee, even found a constituent, a Baptist missionary nurse from Nashville, in a remote island outpost.
Mostly though, Torrijos dominated. Dressed in the military fatigues and bush hat that are his favorite campaign attire, he evoked the political magic for which he is known among his country's 1.7 million people.
The day began as Torrijos, the Senators and accompanying aides and reporters flew in small planes from this capital on the Pacific coast to the San Blas islands off Panama's Atlantic shore. The chain is inhabited by Indian's whose women wear gold rings in their noses, adorn themselves with heavy gold chains and weave intricate fabrics called molas that are used here to make blouses but are sold as wall tapestries in chic U.S. shops for $20 or more.
The San Blas islands were also were the only province that voted to reject the canal treaties in the national plebiscite held here last month. Torrijos had insisted that the Senators visit the region to ask why.
The best answer came in a tiny village of thatched-roofed house where Torrijos, flanked by Byrd and the other Senators, sat puffing a Havana cigar on a makeshift platform: a woman asked by Byrd to explain her vote against the treaties replied: "I voted no, because the government has not helped me - not at all."
Backed up by others in the crowed, the woman then delivered a tirade against rising prices, the lack of repairs to the local schools and hospitals and other examles of neglect by the government. She turned to Byrd and said that maybe "you Americans could helped us by voting not just for the treaties but for us - by telling the government to help us."
With a gesture that appeared to include both Torrijos and Byrd, she added, "if you don't help, I'm going to say that you're not a man - that you're not macho."
Onlookers told reportes that people in the island "do not understand what is in the treaties or care about who controls the canal." The island, the explained, are a backward part of Panama whose people interested primarily in attacking local poverty.
Before leaving, Torrijos said in a brief speech that he did not share the view that the islanders were "traitor" for voting against the treaties. He promised to work "day and night" to redress the islanders complaints and added.
"But, in return I ask one favor . . . You must love Gen. Torrijos because he loves the people here."
Then, amistd the cheers of Indian children reaching out to touch Torrijos's sleeve, the party reboarded its planes for a 90-minute flight back across Panama to Los SantosV, in the heart of a rich catte-raising and sugar-growing area 70 miles east of Panama City.
Torrijos commands strong support there and local political style more familiar.
But for the Spanish colonial architecture the town could have been an agricultural country seat in the U.S. South or Middle West. The visitors were greeted by a huge assembly of high school druman-bugle corps, with baton-twirling drum majorettes.