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In the Time of the Tyrants: Panama, 1968-1989.

In the Time of the Tyrants: Panama, 1968-1989 In the Time of the Tyrants: Panama, 1968-1989. R. M. Koster, Guillermo Sanchez Borbon. Norton, $22.95. Yet another book on Panama! After the appearance earlier this year of John Dinges's Our Man in Panama and Frederick Kempe's Divorcing the Dictator, there would seem little left to say about this tropical outpost of two million people. Among Panama-watchers, though, this new volume has been much anticipated. Unlike Dinges and Kempe--both American journalists--Koster and Sanchez are longtime residents of Panama who have participated in the bizarre events shaking that country.

Koster, an American novelist who moved to Panama years ago, is best known outside the country for his cameo appearance in Graham Greene's Getting to Know the General. In that book, Greene, preparing to attend a party, is warned about an American "who would certainly turn up whether he was invited or not--a writer called Koster who lived in Panama City and was supposed to be a CIA agent." Hmm. Sanchez, a native Panamanian, is a popular columnist with La Prensa, Panama's most important and courageous newspaper. A relentless foe of Manuel Noriega, Sanchez was forced into exile in 1985. In 1987-1988, he collaborated with Koster on two articles about Panama for Harper's. Vividly written and boldly argued, the pieces helped galvanize anti-Noriega sentiment in this country. In the Time of the Tyrants grew out of those earlier articles.

Noriega is not the chief tyrant in this account. Anyone looking for new dirt on the drug-running dictator and his ties to Washington will be disappointed. The focus instead is on Omar Torrijos, the charismatic, mercurial general who ruled Panama from 1968 until his death in a helicopter crash in 1981. It's a timely topic. Since the U.S. invasion, Torrijismo has been the subject of intense political debate in Panama. The government of Guillermo Endara, intent on eradicating all vestiges of the military regime, has gone after Torrijos with a vengeance, casting him as the despoiler of Panamanian democracy. Among its first acts, the government dropped Torrijos's name from the international airport in Panama City. But a small vocal group of Noriega loyalists and left-leaning politicians and intellectuals is upholding Torrijos's memory. To them, Torrijos was a nationalist hero who spoke for the Panamanian masses while standing up to the United States.

Koster and Sanchez are squarely in the anti-memorial camp. In the Time of the Tyrants represents a concerted--one might say obsessive--effort to demolish the Torrijos legend. The general comes off as a nasty, brutish thug, interested mostly in screwing--his own country as much as beautiful women. When the Shah of Iran, ailing and alone, seeks refuge abroad, Torrijos almost alone among world leaders agrees to take him in--then makes repeated passes at his comely wife. While professing love for the campesino, Torrijos arranges the murder of a popular priest trying to help the poor. The general holds fraudulent elections, rigidly controls the press, and jails his political opponents. Throughout it all, he drinks to excess. Jack Vaughn, the U.S. ambassador to Panama in the early 1960s, saw Torrijos on some 50 occasions, we learn, not once finding him sober.

In the view of Koster and Sanchez, nothing Torrijos did deserves praise. Not the introduction of a new labor code--"it was destined to hurt production and swell unemployment." Not the reform of the nation's health-care system--"equality was achieved all right, but at lower standards." Not even the Panama Canal treaties. Regaining control of the canal had long been Panama's single overriding goal, and Torrijos's success in negotiating it won praise from even his fiercest critics. Not Koster and Sanchez, though. "Panama was (and still is) a country with cancer, a conquered land pillaged by vandals," the authors write in typically purple form. "Anything that might have benefited Panama had Panama been healthy, had it been free, merely fed the cancer, strengthened the barbarians." Koster and Sanchez discern only one real achievement in Torrijos's 13-year rule--turning a major thoroughfare in Panama City from a two-way into a one-way street, thereby easing traffic congestion.

This is far too grudging. Torrijos was certainly a tyrant, and the authors have performed a service in chronicling his excesses, especially now that efforts are afoot to rehabilitate him. In their zeal to tear him down, however, Koster and Sanchez have distorted the past. In spite of his misdeeds, Torrijos embodied a critical development in Panamanian history--the breaking of the white oligarchy's lock on economic and political power. Until Torrijos arrived on the scene, Panama's mestizo (mixed race) population--70 percent of the total--had little say in running the country. Torrijos brought many mestizos into his administration, and his reforms, though often stillborn, did reflect the broad aspirations of the Panamanian people. Anyone who today attempts to turn back the clock and exclude this group from power risks provoking an explosion. It remains to be seen whether the Endara government--largely white and well-heeled--grasps this. Koster and Sanchez certainly don't.

In one of their Harper's articles, Koster and Sanchez described in chilling detail the murder of Hugo Spadafora, a leading Noriega antagonist. They have incorporated that account into their new book. Noriega's agents, they relate, after beating Spadafora at length, took a sharp knife and made two deep cuts on the inside of each of his legs, from just above the knee to mid-thigh. The point "was to disable his thigh muscles so that he couldn't close his legs and disturb the pleasure they meant to take of him." The autopsy, they continue, "found Spadafora's testicles monstrously swollen, the result (it seems) of prolonged [torture]. And something was jammed up his rectum, a pole of some sort. The autopsy found his rectum massively damaged."

A horrible, horrible end. When the account of it first appeared in Harper's, it caused quite a stir. But John Dinges, researching the matter further for his own book, discovered some discrepancies: "A lurid description of Spadafora's alleged sexual tortures is contained in an article in Harper's, June 1988.... The central, gruesome detail is that Spadadfora's leg muscles were severed in order to keep him from closing his knees during the torture. The alleged cuts to the inner thighs were not mentioned in the autopsy or in [a prominent doctor's] analysis. The autopsy records no trauma at all to the genitals or anus, although it notes the presence of hemorrhoids...."

Dinges's book appeared more than six months before this one, allowing ample time for rebuttal. Koster and Sanchez offer none, raising further questions about the accuracy of theirs.
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Author:Massing, Michael
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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