Fidel and Omar: moments and circumstances that keep converging


General Omar Torrijos's political thinking was not the result of exhausting ideological elaborations. He was an honest revolutionary with a clear vision that shaped his concepts, in close contact with reality and with those he trusted the most: peasants, labor unionists, former student leaders and intellectuals committed to recover national sovereignty and boost socioeconomic development [1]. This reflected on the qualities of the leaders that he admired the most, such as Sékou Touré, Samora Machel and Amílcar Cabral, as well as [Marshal Josip Broz] Tito.

When he heard that Amílcar had been assassinated, he said: “the bullet that put a physical end to Cabral hurt very deeply the feelings of all of us who fight for self-possessed, undivided homeland” [2]. Years later, referring to the leader of a poor but highly dignified country, he recognized Samora Machel, wishing that the Latin American leaders were like him. Shortly before his suspicious death, Omar intended to include Mozambique in his next international tour to meet him in person [3]. Such sympathies explain his early support for the Sandinistas when they were still very little known, and for the rebels in Guinea-Bissau.

General Torrijos's experienced political advisor Rómulo Escobar Bethancourt —who also was the chief negotiator of the Panama Canal Treaty with the United States—was his envoy to make contact with one of his main interlocutors, Fidel Castro, with whom Omar developed a strong friendship. Rómulo described Torrijos's brotherly relation with Fidel as resulting from their quick mutual understanding,revealing of both their characteristics and those of the political processes they led.

By the late 1960s, all Latin American governments —except for Mexico— had given in to U.S. pressure and broken relations with Cuba. In late 1971, under those circumstances, the Cuban Navy seized two ships sailing under the Panamanian flag as they unloaded CIA agents and equipment on the Island. The ships belonged to a prominent counterrevolutionary and former lumber tycoon, and none of their crew members was Panamanian.

The U.S. authorities exerted pressure to create a scandal and make Panama demand the release of both captains. It had been a short time since Omar had risen to political power and he was averse to picking a quarrel with Cuba and thus look hostile toward its Revolution. Together with Rómulo, he listened very closely to Fidel's statement through a short-wave radio broadcast. He was impressed that Fidel was willing to give explanations to the Panamanian government, but not to Washington. Upon hearing his words, he said: “Now is the time to send a delegation to Cuba”, and entrusted Rómulo with the arrangements.

At the time, Rómulo Escobar was the Rector of the University of Panama and in charge of rebuilding relations between the incipient Torrijismo and the student organizations. It was the university students that made an impression, not the military. Fidel described the situation with the ships and offered to release them to the Panamanian government, provided that they not be returned to their previous owner. He also exchanged views about every other issue that the Panamanians wished to talk about.

He told Rómulo that he had never met Torrijos but had a feeling that the man truly believed in what he was doing and was ready to die for the liberation of his country. Still, he called Rómulo aside and warned him that Omar was in danger of reaching a dead end and the Americans could massacre the Panamanian people as they were doing in Vietnam. As a leader, Fidel told him, he was responsible for avoiding violence, if at all possible.

When Rómulo conveyed Fidel's message, Omar said: “So that's what he said!” and wanted to hear it again. Then he remarked: “I was convinced that the man would send me a machine gun”. The fact that Fidel sent him a message of friendly concern rather than one of violence had an impact on him. According to Rómulo, that was the origin of Omar's affection for Fidel and his wish to meet him, although it was not until early 1976 that he was able to travel to Cuba.

However, two years before, while addressing the UN Security Council—unusually convened in Panama to discuss the Canal controversy with the United States—Omar seized the opportunity to state his anticolonialist thoughts, saying that “Every hour of isolation suffered by the fraternal Cuban people means sixty minutes of hemispheric shame”. [4]

Even if Torrijos was often under U.S. pressure to refuse to establish relations with Cuba, he never yielded. “I would be utterly ashamed”, he said about the stance taken by other Latin American governments, which he contrasted to Mexico's. He would rather discuss any difference with Cuba than lend himself to being a pawn of the empire. As Rómulo reported, in subsequent years Omar and Fidel had different views about various matters. “The frankness of their differences revealed the great bonds of friendship between them. There was never hypocrisy or protocol between them. They talked to and communicated with each other in all sincerity”. [5]

Their relationship built on exchanges about an issue of common interest: the resolve, sagacity, and solidarity that the struggle for national liberation and sovereignty entailed. Led by Fidel, the Cuban Revolution had merged two historic currents: the struggle for national liberation and social development—represented in the 19th century by José Martí—and the struggle for socialism, as it was perceived back in the second half of the 20th century. In Cuba, the national liberation process consolidated and survived thanks to its socialist orientation, whereas the progressive inspiration of liberation in other countries eventually fell to pieces for lack of that second driving force.

As Fidel soon pointed out, given the state of affairs in the 1960s, the Soviet aid to a Cuba besieged and threatened by the U.S. showed that the correlation of forces between the superpowers had changed. A new era seemed to be in the making: the USSR's cooperation could already help other Latin American revolutions on this side of the Atlantic and made it possible to overcome the adversity that had thwarted the Bolivian Revolution and crushed the one in Guatemala. Therefore, it was time to call upon the true Latin American revolutionaries to start a revolution, as proclaimed in 1962 by a text as substantial and compelling as The Second Declaration of Havana.

At the head of the Kremlin was someone who shared such optimism. In the context of de-Stalinization, Nikita Khrushchev envisaged a thriving Soviet economy and a political system already capable of planning for a transition to communism, even though the “thaw” of the regime was uncovering some centrifugal nationalism in certain spots of the socialist bloc and even in some Soviet republics.

I will not dwell here on the intense political-ideological debates that Fidel's thesis triggered in Latin America between the revolutionary leftists and those that still clung to the unmoving conception enthroned by Stalinism. In those years, what later became the revolutionary process had not been foreseen yet in Panama, and Omar was still an unknown young officer.

What we must underline here is that the period of revolutionary optimism lasted until a little after Che Guevara's feat in Bolivia. But its demise was not caused by the impact of that setback as much as by the fact that the USSR recanted its strategy for Latin America in the wake of Khrushchev's downfall, under the policy of Peaceful Coexistence adopted by the Kremlin pressured by the increasing difficulties facing the Soviet economy.

Following the counterrevolutionary turn of events derived from the “thaw” in Hungary (1956) and socialism's misled democratization attempts in Czechoslovakia (1968), Leonid Brezhnev's government was more interested in the preservation of the inherited regime than he was in its renovation to promote new forms of socialist development. As a result, all prospects of Soviet support of other Latin American revolutions vanished [6]. The USSR kept sustaining the big military operations of the Cuban troops to defend the Ethiopian revolution, ensure Angola's liberation and put an end to apartheid in South Africa, but in doing so Moscow acknowledged the de facto U.S. dominance in Latin America.

It was obvious that the half-open window facilitated by the temporary change in the correlation of forces had been closed. After the end of Che's guerrilla in Bolivia, various Latin American revolutionaries started to explore other ways to change the dire situation of their countries. Between 1968 and 1969 the Cuban political leaders noticed the incorporation of new forces to the revolutionary struggle in the continent. Some were not even guerrilla movements, but nationalistic army officers, as in the case of Peru and Panama. Thus the Cuban Revolution reset its concept of solidarity with Latin America, and its internationalist policy evolved together with the development of the Latin American democratizing and anti-imperialist movement.

New social, student, labor-union and community currents which gradually appeared in Latin America would often organize themselves without any links to the left. Consequently, Cuba also made adjustments to its foreign policy, increasing its relations with the new governments of Argentina, Colombia, Panama, Peru, Venezuela, and other nations before and after the bloody toppling of the Popular Unity coalition in Chile.

As a Cuban activist of those years recalls:

“As guerrilla warfare subsided […] it was imperative to support the new political processes in Latin America. Then the nationalistic military government in Panama, headed by Omar Torrijos, grew stronger. Later on other governments emerged—such as those of Cámpora and Perón in Argentina, Carlos Andrés Pérez in Venezuela, López Michelsen in Colom­bia, Michael Manley in Jamaica—which we could describe as “progressive” inasmuch as they scorned the U.S. policy of blockade and aggression against Cuba and which, therefore, voiced certain contradictions with the White House and the State Department.” [7]

Just like Fidel thought then, looking at the region through the lens of its future possibilities, the question of the struggle for development and the options to overcome the obstacles in its path would continue to be paramount. In that respect, the eventual integration and cooperation with Latin America and the Caribbean were “fundamental”, since “it is only by joining together that we can negotiate our role in this hemisphere” and the world “vis-à-vis the powerful and insatiable club of the wealthy”. This would only be possible through understanding and cooperation, even among countries with different political regimes. [8]

Far from quelling his anti-imperialist calling, Fidel would emphasize the need to revive the anticolonial movement and encourage its advance. This meant promoting collective action in defense of the demands and rights of the peoples to cleectively confront the worst expressions of the rich countries' neocolonial voracity.

In 1976 he summarized such ideas before the National Assembly of the People's Power, saying:

“In our concept, liberation, progress, and peace in the homeland are indissolubly united to liberation, progress, and peace of all mankind. Anarchy, wars, unequal development, the fabulous resources dedicated to producing arms and the risks threatening mankind today are natural fruits of capitalism. Only a just distribution of productive forces, technology, science and standards of living; only an increasingly rational use of natural resources; only the closest coordination of the efforts of all the peoples on earth […] can save mankind from the frightful dangers threatening it: depletion of the natural resources, which are limited; progressive pollution of the environment; uncontrolled growth of the population; desolating hunger and catastrophic wars”. [9]

No better convergence is possible between this way of grasping the world's situation and the way that General Torrijos spoke in 1973 to the UN Security Council when he said very clearly:

“Panama understands very well the struggle of countries that suffer the humiliation of colonialism; of countries that refuse to accept the rule of the strong over the weak as a pattern of coexistence; of countries willing to spare no sacrifice in order not to be subjugated by the most powerful; of men who refuse the exercise of political power by a foreign country in their country of birth; of generations that fight and will keep fighting to rid their homeland of foreign troops present there without the consent of the occupied country; of natives who refuse to be seen as inferior beings or animals; of those who fight to use their own resources for their own benefit and not to subsidize the economy of an arrogant country; of countries that refuse to be exporters of cheap labor; of the unredeemed masses that pay with their blood for the eradication of the poverty, injustice and inequality imposed on them by the powerful, be they domestic or foreign, because oligarchy has no nationality”. [10]

There Omar vindicated every nation's right to self-determination without foreign interference, to freely choose its friends and never be deprived of its right to make the most of its resources and to decide on its way of life. “Let us respect the sacred principle that each country must be able to choose […] the form of government they want and work for their development”. He rounded off his claim as follows:

“The awakening of Latin America must not be hindered, rather it must be assisted to foster peace. A new awareness is growing among Latin Americans, and there can only be peace if this awareness is allowed to take a course of its own. Whomever stands in its way is creating the kind of hostility which promotes upheavals. If we are prevented from making peaceful changes, we are pushing our peoples to carry out violent changes”. [11]

In other words, in the early 1970s, both men were thinking as one. How could Fidel Castro not be interested in knowing this man, exchange ideas with him and cooperate with his goals? While Omar was not calling for revolution but, rather, the required structural reforms so that the peoples would not find it necessary to undertake it, both leaders agreed on the need to demand such reforms, lest the road to development would continue to be plagued with difficulties.

Some people still act in the maliciously naïve belief that, as a military man, Torrijos was disqualified to implement a political and socioeconomic project designed to keep the peace by meeting people's demands. Fidel never believed so. Years later, he wrote the following to underscore not one, but two of Omar's legacies:

“Torrijos will go down in the history of his homeland and Latin America as the main and most dedicated combatant in the long struggle to recover his people's right over the Panama Canal and the full dignity and sovereignty of his homeland. Torrijos is, to our peoples of America, a symbol of the efforts to achieve continental unity in the battle for its identity and final integration”. [12]

In his interview for Ignacio Ramonet in 2006, Fidel mentioned Hugo Chávez's exploits. The journalist remarked that many people in Europe and even in Latin America reproached the Venezuelan for being a military man, and asked him his opinion about the apparent contradiction between progressiveness and the military. Fidel replied: “In Panama, Omar Torrijos was a model of a military man with a deep conscience of social justice and his homeland. Juan Velasco Alvarado, in Peru, also took significant action for progress”. And he gave a quick account to prove that neither of them was an isolated case.

He cited the heroic deed of Captain Luis Carlos Prestes's long march; General Lázaro Cárdenas's courageous doings; the soldiers who supported Colonel Jacobo Árbenz; and the merits of General Juan Domingo Perón's first government. He praised General Líber Seregni as “one of the most progressive and respected leaders that I have known in Latin America” and, finally, paid tribute to Colonel Francisco Caamaño, whose extended confrontation with a force of 40,000 U.S. invaders “constitutes one of the most glorious revolutionary episodes ever recorded in this hemisphere”. He mentioned Caamaño, “who returned to his homeland and gave his life fighting for the liberation of his people”, and then Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez who, in turn, started “a process as historically and internationally consequential as the ongoing revolutionary process in that country”.[13]

Such a tight summary overlooked the Cuban military men that rose up against Batista in Cienfuegos and the Venezuelans that also rebelled against the dictatorship in Carupano and Puerto Cabello, as well as Lieutenants Turcios Lima and Marco Antonio Yon Sosa, who tried to restart the Guatemalan revolution, and Bolivian General Juan José Torres. All these figures attest to the fact that an important national-revolutionary military sector was also engaged in our struggles.

The life of this movement, necessarily brief, has been risky and difficult, which demands a great deal of honesty and dignity. As Omar's closest advisor—José de Jesús “Chuchú” Martínez [14] can vouch for, General Torrijos considered national and personal dignity as “much more than a moral quality. It's a weapon of liberation, and also a political view. To instill such dignity with a political base in the Armed Forces, we must draw them toward a just and highly humane cause: nothing can be just that endangers human beings or detract from their dignity. To reach that level of dignity, the Armed Forces “should divorce from the interests of oligarchy and imperialism, heads and tails of the same coin”. Only then would they be able to ‘remarry' to the people's interests.

Omar observed: “Such an evil talent, that of the exploiters who have managed to arm the People against the People themselves”. The mission for the Armed Forces is to ‘aim their rifles somewhere else'.” That is, to change sides. [15]

In the long run, some characteristics of Torrijos's way of thinking showed a good sense that many of us failed to notice in the early 1970s. Omar was worried about the prolongation of the revolutionary war in El Salvador and Guatemala. He was quite familiar with the reality of life in Central America, including the situation of the disorganized popular masses and that of the army officers. He thought that the war was never going to end—as was happening in Colombia—and that neither force would be able to defeat the other, at the bloody expense of endless suffering and poverty for their peoples.

In those circumstances, those countries could not possibly develop. It was preferable to try to agree on alternatives with the most clear-sighted contenders who could make basic structural, political, and socioeconomic reforms to improve people's situation and focus institutionalism on the reduction of social inequality and the promotion of development. To this end, the primitivism of the Central American oligarchies and the sectarian extremism of certain leftists had to be overpowered. As to the U.S., the best chance of succeeding was during Jimmy Carter's mandate since, as could be expected, a progressive solution would be very hard to achieve under Reagan.

That is why Torrijos preferred to help the Central American revolutionary groups most prone to embrace a project intended to attract other sectors to their struggle and accept possible political solutions. Hence his affection for the Sandinistas, whose evolution, efforts to reunite different currents and entice other sectors and groups he praised, as he did their more plural and inclusive program. In the end, it was the key to their victory and also facilitated a large-scale integration of international cooperation to oust Somoza—ranging from Fidel Castro to Jimmy Carter, Rodrigo Carazo and Carlos Andrés Pérez.

To General Torrijos, a negotiation had nothing to do with curtailing the ultimate goals. Chuchú Martínez stresses that Omar considered this option as a bridge, an instrument to get closer to victory from another direction, never as an end in itself. He recalls:

“Few have insisted as much as Torrijos on the difference between means and end, tactics and strategy, high-beam and low-beam lights. The Canal Treaties and the Nicaraguan Revolution to topple Somoza highlight that Torrijos's definition of negotiation is very accurate. The former reveals its tactical nature and the latter its effectiveness for victory”. [16]

In the 1980s, such an approach to the alternatives in the region would become important evidence of their relevance, even after General Torrijos's strange death. They ranged from the Contadora negotiations—crucial to defuse the Reagan Administration's plans of direct intervention—to the Esquipulas Peace Agreement and the cessation of hostilities through the negotiation of democratic reforms, de-militarization, and peace in El Salvador and Guatemala. All this process counted on the Cuban Revolution's support.

The rationale for Torrijos's constant interest in current events, Chuchú holds, “lies on one hand in his dialectical conception of reality and, on the other, in the conviction that he who thinks and moves along with the tide of History has time in his favor”. This phrase would be equally applicable to Fidel Castro's way of doing things.

Of course, this must be understood according to each people's particular history. Fidel Castro's dialectical pragmatism made him more than capable of grasping and making the most of those experiences. Fidel's philosophical formation allowed him to appraise how the general laws of a political process consolidate through the diversity of their national peculiarities. For instance, a few years later he explained to his compatriots the nature of the newly victorious Sandinista Revolution, saying:

“Each country has its path, its problems, its style, its methods, and its objectives. We have ours and they have theirs. We did it in a certain way—our way—and they will do it their way”. [17]

He finished off his idea pointing out that “the Sandinistas are revolutionaries […] but they are not extremists, they are realists, and realists make the best revolutions”. [18] Fidel kept repeating this concept in years to come as an antidote to what he called “errors of idealism”.

Fidel had displayed such realism three years before, in 1975, when he introduced General Omar Torrijos to the battle-hardened people of Santiago de Cuba. He began by warning that he would use moderate rather than radical words at that time because the struggle of the Panamanian people could not be oversimplified. Although Panama was a geographically small country, he said, “it's a big country given the problem that it's dealing with and the difficulties of its struggle”. In Panama, the U.S. soldiers outnumbered the Panamanian. They were quartered in the Canal Zone, which splits the country in two. Fidel described it as “having an enemy in the middle of your home”, and a very powerful one at that. He went on:

“It would not be very difficult to harangue General Torrijos, the Panamanian delegation and the people of Panama from here in very radical terms. [But] I would like to share with you our impression that Panama is facing a hard, difficult and complex problem, and that's why this kind of struggle is won not only with courage […] but also with intelligence and cleverness”.

Right afterward, Fidel showed that he was not only aware of the nature of that problem but also of like mind with Omar's strategic approach to it when he wondered:

“How to counteract the negative factors of that struggle? How to fight against such a big power, against an arrogant empire that until today believed itself to be the owner of this hemisphere? Panama alone? Panama by force? No. What force can Panama create? Not that Panama is not strong or that its people relinquish their strength if there is no other choice. But force should always be used as a last resort when you can't otherwise claim your rights”.

The force that Panama can rely on—Fidel explained—is the support of Latin America and the world. That is why it “needs an international policy aimed at getting support and solidarity from all countries of the world […] and must work hard to get that support, even from people that we don't like”. Then he stressed: “We must contribute to gathering universal support for Panama, that is, support from the world and Latin America”. For years Cuba would act according to this principle, helping to increase that support within both the Non-Aligned Movement and the then-called Socialist Bloc.

Further on, Fidel insisted that the struggle of the oppressed peoples against imperialism is not waged in a piece of land like Guantánamo, but on a global scale, “with the proper weapons in every case”. Rather than liberating a piece of land, a strip or a zone, “what matters is the liberation of the continent, the liberation of Vietnam, the liberation of Africa, the liberation of Angola. As the world becomes free, the imperialists will not be able to do whatever they like. That's why our struggle is not there in the military field, in a piece of land, but […] alongside the revolutionary movement worldwide to defeat them politically and ideologically, and also militarily if they attack us and give us no other choice”.

He underscored that “every situation and every specific problem needs a strategy and a policy, and we must design that policy from a long-term perspective and fighting wherever we must, and cleverly so. That's why every country, depending on its kind of problem, must define a clever fighting strategy and tactics of its own to win a victory”, because “each people does what it should without the need of anybody else's advice or incitement. It needs support and solidarity regardless of the circumstances or the territory. And that's our unconditional offer to our Panamanian brothers and sisters”.

He reminded the people of Santiago that ever since imperialism imposed the Canal Treaty on Panama, just like it did in Cuba with the Platt Amendment, the United States has intervened many times, deciding who could rule and what had to be done. But it all ended with the Cuban Revolution, as it did in Panama with the revolutionary movement led by General Torrijos. That's why the imperialists and oligarchs would give anything to behead that movement. But even if they still have the Canal Zone and the military bases, “they can no longer decide who governs there” or keep Panama from having relations with Cuba.

Fidel went on to say:

“An important political and revolutionary process is taking place in Panama. It's not the same as ours, nor can it be so, because they have the number one problem: national sovereignty. […] But even faced with such a problem, they have been making great social efforts. […] Now for the first time the Panamanian people have a government that truly defends national sovereignty and cares about the masses”.

To conclude, he pointed out what was happening in Peru and Panama: “We must get used to perceiving the complexity of all these processes”. Even if the situation there is not the same as in Cuba and they don't have a socialist government, “there is a national liberation movement in Panama bent on recovering sovereignty and social progress. And that is the right way, as they take into account the country's particular circumstances”.

Omar Torrijos, in turn, began by expressing that he was thrilled now that he could already tell the Panamanians that they were not alone and could count on “the backing of a people that ranked high on America's geographical roster of dignity”. He spoke about the military in his country who used to be instruments of reprisal for imperialism and the oligarchy, [19] but during his life as an army officer, he didn't remember a single case of an attack against the Panamanian people which could be justified. For that reason:

“[…] a generation of new officers took power […], just like Commander Castro attacked the Moncada Garrison. You must consider the reasons for any attack. Sometimes it's the only reaction to the existing situation. So we set ourselves the goal of working for the benefit of our people, whom we had so often repressed before. [20]

“In our Homeland,” Omar continued, “the level of corruption and moral decay was very similar to the one in Cuba, which pushed a generation of good Cubans to risk everything to change their society and nation. When we chose to work for the people, we decided that the ruling class and imperialism would no longer bring armed people face to face with unarmed people. However, Panama is an occupied country,” he recalled, “and although we repudiated the Plat Amendment and suchlike, they have fourteen ‘arrogant and omnipresent' military bases in the Canal Zone. Look at the case of the fifth frontier: Panama borders on the Atlantic to the north, on the Pacific to the south, on Costa Rica to the west, on Colombia to the east, and at the center to the gringos. Go figure! The things you see!

“Panama is indeed a small occupied country, but no colonialism goes on forever, nor any Panamanian that resists it. But there they have the Southern Command, weapons and planes, and they are arrogant and provoking. They have done everything to us; they have tried to bribe us and to divide us.

“They provoked us to the point that I almost took the bait, and the fact that I didn't is one of the great things that I have Commander Castro to thank for. From here he told us: ‘Be careful not to take the bait!' They provoked us to intervene, sick of so much humiliation, to paralyze the Canal, and then they can tell the world right away that the leaders of Panama are a bunch of madmen plotting against free circulation, free transportation, and the world economy. I was like a fish chasing a hook, so had it not been for Fidel's piece of advice, I would have fallen for it.

“The leaders of the Cuban Revolution, who already had plenty of experience with provocations, told me what laid behind it all. Then I started to think more carefully about everything, “with the conviction that we would obtain freedom. The struggle for liberation is not won in one year, and I wanted it because I was losing my patience.” Hey, it's hard to see a foreign flag flying in the heart of your country! “And now they have become aggressive and haughty as if they want you to lose your nerve so that they can justify an attack.”

“We launched a liberation process. I'm not saying this because we are now negotiating the Canal issue; on the contrary: negotiation if part of a liberation process”. Here Torrijos added a warning:

“I will not leave an occupied country to the future generations, so we have to start the struggle for liberation [...] There's a colonial situation there, but Panama and its people don't have a colonial vocation, nor will they ever do.

“Commander Castro said something here that is quite true: they think money can buy anything. However, we idealists have no price. The price of the idealists is the warm welcome that you gave me here. That is my price! But you need to be an idealist to enjoy that”.

In closing, he said: “No revolutionary process happens by spontaneous combustion. Other peoples must have fought before. I have always admired and given my recognition to the Cuban people and their leaders because they paid the whole social cost that we have had to share among all the peoples of America”. And he concluded:

“We are so proud to have contributed to unblock our Cuban brothers and sisters. And mark my words: it's more shameful to blockade than to be blockaded. They have done you great good because you have raised awareness to a level that any people in the world would be right to imitate […] because you chose your course without asking for anybody's permission. And that's a very good score in the world's geographical roster of dignity.

Both speeches documented solidarity based on what Fidel labeled, with respect to Panama, as “the Number One problem”. That is, to find effective ways and means to achieve the independence, territorial integrity, and national sovereignty of a small country whose main natural and economic resource is the interoceanic corridor that crosses the isthmus from coast to coast to make navigation possible between the two oceans. Until then it was in the hands of a foreign power,

For both of them this was the concrete expression of a global problem that must be seen as part of the worldwide anticolonial movement. This problem can, on one hand, hinder international trade, and on the other, become a beacon of Latin American solidarity mobilization. Unlike the case of Vietnam, being a small and sparsely populated country can be a source of strength: on an ethical level, it would liken Panama to the paradigm of David and Goliath. The bottom line is that taking a stronger stance to cope with the challenge of a negotiation with the United States means that Panama must never stand alone. Its plight needs to take shape in the eyes of public opinion and on the world's political agenda.

As Fidel recalled many years later:

“In those days, there were strong tensions between Panama and the United States. The leader of that country, Omar Torrijos, was an honest, nationalist and patriotic soldier. He could be persuaded by Cuba to not adopt extreme positions in his struggle for the return of the Canal territory which, like a sharp knife, was splitting his country in two. Perhaps because of that, the small nation was able to avoid a bloodbath, although later on the country would be portrayed to the people of the United States and the world as an aggressor. Later, and without talking to anyone in the United States, I could predict that maybe Carter was the only president of that country with whom it would be possible to reach an honorable agreement without spilling one single drop of blood. [21]

“Negotiating an agreement involves exchanging concessions as necessary to reach a strategic goal. The “Number One Problem” was solved through treaties that constituted a years-long decolonization program that gradually reverted rights, land, and facilities to Panama. On its end, Panama formed the organization and technical staff needed to assume all Canal-related functions, jurisdiction, and sovereignty as the colonial power withdrew every last one of its soldiers and officials. [22]

Nevertheless, there was still the question of how Panama's political development would evolve at the same time. Noticing that at the domestic level the revolutionary process led by Velasco Alvarado was moving forward more audaciously than ours, I asked Omar the difference between the Panamanian and the Peruvian government. He replied that all the Peruvian ministers were generals, but they were civilians in Panama, and the Panamanian process had to demilitarize before people could get organized to guarantee its continuity. If the political profile of the process depends on that of the Commander of the Armed Forces, the future of the country would depend on that Commander's replacement.

“Following the ratification of the new Canal Treaties, Omar's most significant idea was what he called “the retreat”. The future of the country was staked on the implementation of that idea. They took a chance and, with Omar's death, they lost.

According to that idea, together with the enforcement of the Treaties, the soldiers were to retreat to their barracks. That is, they would give up the political functions that they still held and devote themselves to their professionalization, as the force bound to watch over the security of the Canal. Old and new political parties would take part in the relevant democratic opening, and the revolutionary process was supposed to win on its own, built on the levels already achieved of popular and community organization. It would be called Democratic Revolutionary Party because its mission would be to defend and carry on with the revolutionary process by democratic means.

Nonetheless, the project failed to arouse great enthusiasm among some colonels of the General Staff [23]. Omar was planning to retire after the regulatory years of service and take with him the colonels who had already exceeded such scheduled time. This would hand over supreme command to the next generation of officers, born and raised in the years of the revolutionary process. The retired ones would enjoy their respective pensions, whereas General Torrijos would dedicate himself to party work. However, his sudden decease left the retreat unfinished. None of the colonelshad Omar's sharp insight, and none decided to retire. The party was still in its infancy, and neither in Panama nor in Peru would the next Commander of the Armed Forces be a continuator of the process.

If there is a major difference between Omar and Fidel, it lies in the matter of the party. The former lacked the latter's tireless tenacity to make a political party out of the revolutionary process, his collective intelligence and vigilant moral eye for careerism and client politics, and his driving force to preserve continuity.

Was General Torrijos the victim of a plane crash or an assassination plot? If it was the second, what was the purpose, given that the source of conflict—the Canal issue—had been already settled? There were, and still are, two things to think about: first, the Carter Administration considered the matter settled, but neither Reagan nor Bush accepted it; second, the area of conflict had moved to Central America. As Chuchú Martinez points out,

“The Santa Fe Document and the Dissent Papers state very clearly, even for those who refuse to hear, that there were plenty of reasons on July 31, 1981, to remove from the Central American scene the leader who could most strongly and effectively oppose the imperialist strategy in the region. [24]

Mutatis mutandis, in the years that followed that fateful date, Fidel's strategy in Central America kept advancing in line with Omar's concerns and vision. The constant external support that it received contributed to preserving the Contadora initiative, preventing the U.S. from invading, meeting the Esquipulas agreement and, finally, negotiating peace in El Salvador and Guatemala.

But in regards to the Panamanians, Torrijos's thoughts and methods remain tensely waiting for their necessary deployment in the 21st century. Meanwhile, the oligarchy keeps doing its best to distort and bury them. They will not succeed, because those thoughts and methods come from an indomitable patriotic culture, not from a theoretical laboratory.


Traductor: Jesús Bran



[1]. Luis Báez, interview of Rómulo Escobar Bethancourt, 1982. See “Torrijos admiraba a Fidel” in Prensa Latina, May 2, 2014, and in

[2]. See Luis Báez, “Desaparición física de Omar Torrijos, ¿accidente o asesinato?” in Bolpress, July 22, 2004.

[3]. See the aforesaid interview of Rómulo Escobar Bethancourt.

[4]. Dalys Vargas and Manuel Zárate, General Omar Torrijos de Panamá y de la Patria Grande, 2da Edición, Panamá, 2017, p. 103

[5]. See the aforesaid interview of Rómulo Escobar Bethancourt.

[6]. Seeking a modus vivendi more directed to the revival of the depressed Soviet economy, Brezhnev adopted a foreign policy designed to distend relations with the United States and its allies. Soviet actions in solidarity with revolutionary causes throughout the Third World decreased. In 1967, Moscow announced its opposition to the policy of encouraging liberation wars, and Brezhnev even warned that the USSR could reconsider its commitment to defend Cuba if the Island kept supporting guerrilla forces in Latin America.

[7]. It was Fernando Ravelo, deputy chief of the Department of America at the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba. Quoted by Luis Suárez Salazar and Dirk Keuijt in La Revolución Cubana en Nuestra América: el internacionalismo anónimo, in RUTH Casa Editorial, 2015

[8]. See interview of Fidel Castro by Federico Mayor, former Director-General of UNESCO, published in the daily newspaper Granma on June 22, 2000.

[9]. Speech to the ceremonial session for the constitution of the National Assembly of the People's Power, December 2, 1976

[10]. General Omar Torrijos de Panamá y de la Patria Grande, cit., p. 101.

[11]. Ibid, p. 102

[12]. See Fidel Castro, Telegrama al Dr. Aristides Royo, Presidente de la República de Panamá, July 1981, in Comandante de los pobres. Testimonios sobre Omar Torrijos de…, Centro de Estudios Torrijista, Panamá, 1984, p. 79

[13]. Ramonet, Cien horas con Fidel, installment with chapter 24, pp. 24 a 26.

[14]. Poet, narrator, essayist, and air pilot; Doctor of Philosophy and Mathematics in the Sorbonne; he was a professor at the University of Panama when he joined the National Guard to put General Torrijos to the test. Torrijos made him a member of his escort, and he was eventually promoted to the rank of sergeant and became Omar's fellow traveler and adventurer, as well as his liaison with foreign intellectuals—such as Graham Greene and Gabriel García Márquez—and confidential courier for some of the main Central American guerrilla leaders.

[15]. José de Jesús Martínez, Preface to Papeles del General, Centro de Estudios Torrijistas, Panamá, 1984, pp. 13 y 14.

[16]. Prologue to Papeles del General, p. 14.

[17]. Speech delivered in Holguín in 1979 for the anniversary of the Attack to the Moncada Garrison. See Fidel Castro, Victoria de las Ideas, Editorial Política, La Habana, t. 2, p. 166.

[18]. Ramonet, p. 174‑75.

[19]. “Even if saying imperialism and oligarchy is redundant,” he underscored, “because they are the same thing; they are identical”.

[20]. Dalys Vargas & Manuel Zárate, Speech in Santiago de Cuba, January 12, 1976, in General Omar Torrijos de Panamá y de la Patria Grande, 2da. Edición, Panamá, 2017, pp. 168-173.

[21]. See The Only American Ex-President I Have Met, Reflection of May 8, 2009. After a short while, in 1976, Carter signed with Panama the agreement between both countries at the OAS headquarters in the presence of all the Heads of State in the continent, excluding Cuba.

[22]. Ten years later, it had become obvious to both countries and the world that the Canal was much more efficient, accommodating, safe and cost-effective in Panama's hands than it was under U.S. rule. Soon the conversion of areas of unfruitful military occupation into spaces of maritime, port and logistics investments made the national economy strong and the Panamanian State solvent.

The fact that these advantages were not used wisely since imperialism helped the oligarchy regain political control in Panama—thus increasing social inequality, injustice, and corruption—is another issue that should be addressed separately.

[23]. As befits the usual practice in the military, they were there because of the priority of their promotion roster. Torrijos and Velasco Alvarado, as career soldiers rather than political leaders, respected their respective scale.

In the words of Chuchú Martínez, General Torrijos “never deluded himself about the quality of his surrounding cadre and […] expected from them ‘according to what they were, not what he wanted them to be', as he stated in an essay”.

See Mi general Torrijos, Centro de Estudios Torrijista, Panamá, 1987, p. 142.

[24]. See José de Jesús Martínez, Mi general Torrijos, p. 351.

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