High in Panama's central jungle, where the only roads are rutted red clay tracks and the daily rain turns to steam almost before it hits the ground, Gen. Omar Torrijos is thinking about the future.
Ever since the U. S. Senate's ratification of the Panama Canal treaties April 18, Torrijos has been in seclusion. Traveling by helicopter, he shuttles back and fourth between Farallon, his Pacific beachside retreat, and Coclesito, a small village in the hills where his three-room house is indistinguishable from the others and the only telephone for miles rarely works.
Back in the city, concerned Panamanians say they are waiting for "The new Torrijos" - the post-treaties Torrijos - to finish his meditation and come out of the jungle to tell them how he will solve Panama's problems.
After years of near constant preoccupation with the treaties, hardly anyone here talks about them any more. As if startled from the long dream of negotiations and debates, Panama has suddenly awakened to find its economy in shambles, its population divided and apprehensive and its decade-old revolution at a political cross-roads.
"We are really hitting rock bottom now," said one local industrialist. "Sales are down, inflation and unemployment are up and, in large part because of investor apprehension over the future of the canal, there has been both students and workers have held no growth for the past two years demonstrations in recent weeks, and Torrijos' political opposition is gearing up a major challenge to his power.
In an interview at Coclesito, where visitors arrive only by government aircraft and are received on a mudfloored veranda, the general said he has been thinking about all of these things.
"The government has plans," he said, "very definite plans."
Among the conclusions Torrijos has reached so far is that he will not step down as Panama's head of state. "I can't retire," Torrijos said."Not yet."
During the treaty debates, there was speculation that Torrijos would not renew his mandate once the documents were approved. He rules by virtue of a 1972 constitution, promulgated by his own government, which authorized him six years of power, due to expire in October, as "supreme leader" of the revolution. Torrijos suggested that his term would be extended.
The general is also commander of the National Guard. He seems to believe, and many but certainly not all Panamanians appear to agree with him, that Panama both wants and needs him to institutionalize the government changes and social reforms he started 10 years ago.
"I feel that I'm ruling by popular consensus," Torrijos said. "I know that's what all dictators say,": he noted, "but more than 50 percent of the electorate has already registered" for legislative elections in August, "And that demonstrates acceptance of the system."
Panama's system of government, which Torrijos' political opponents liken to Fidel Castro's Cuba, includes the temporary position of head of state, an indirectly elected president and vice president, and a 505-member body of locally elected representatives called corregiadores.
The system replaced a government loosely modeled on that of the United States. Under the 1972 constitution, the corregiadores have virtually no legislative power but serve to elect the president every six years and to advise the administration of their constituents' needs.
Torrijos, born and raised in one of the poorest parts of rural Panama and nurtured in the National Guard barracks, is uncomfortable with protocol. His style centers more around personal contacts and a tendency to formulate policy on his feet.
One popular tale here finds Torrijos in a remote village, promising the villagers a new bridge.
But general, the people in the story reply, we don't even have a river here.
No problem, answers Torrijos. I'll give you a river.
It is precisely this style that makes businessmen uneasy. "He has to start backing up his own institutions, instead of going over their heads," a Panamanian businessman said. "He's been breaking every rule. Somebody has to tell him that you can't go out and promise a highway that's not in the budget."
Torrijos admitted that the charge carries some truth. "Next year," he said, "There will be more participation" by others in the government. Torrijos has scheduled a meeting with corregiador leaders and said he planned to propose amending the constitution to give them more legislative power.
Much as Torrijos' critics would like to pin him down, he has developed a knack for defusing them by seeming to agree with them. To charges he has been too far to the left, Torrijos noted that "in the first couple of years" of his government, "there was a sort of leftist infantillism."
Now, his focus has changed. The important thing today, Torrijos said, is that "yesterday the investors were leaving, and today they're coming back."
Most of the business community appears ready to work with him, but Torrijos' cooperation with these groups may further damage his already tarnished image with the leftist labor and student groups that, along with the rural poor, are the backbone of his support.
The government refused to respond to a May 1 labor union call for repeal of a 1976 law that prohibits collective bargaining until the end of this year. The law was designed to control inflation - close to 10 percent last year.
Torrijos described these conflicts as "fights between friends" and they indeed seem mere spats compared to his clashes with the Panamenista Party, which like all other parties was declared illegal early in the Torrijos government.
Since late last year, however, party activity has been permitted.
"Our target is to destroy this political structure," said a Panamenista official. "If we accept it, we would be accepting a socialist system."
The party, another official said, plans to launch a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience beginning with boycott of the August election and the return of exiled party leader Anulfo Arias on June 10, one week before President Carter is due to arrive for formal exchange of treaty ratifications.
Torrijos said Arias would have no problem entering the country next month, but predicted the welcoming turnout would be light.