Friday, February 27, 2009

Economic Hit Man - Ch.13

Conversations with the General

The invitation was completely unexpected. One morning during that same 1972 visit, I was sitting in an office I had been given at the Institutode Recursos Hidraulicos y Electrificacion, Panama's government-owned electric utility company. I was poring over a sheet of statistics when a man knocked gently on the frame of my open door. I invited him in, pleased with any excuse to take my attention off the numbers. He announced himself as the general's chauffeur and said he had come to take me to one of the general's bungalows.

An hour later, I was sitting across the table from General Omar Torrijos. He was dressed casually, in typical Panamanian style: khaki slacks and a short-sleeved shirt buttoned down the front, light blue with a delicate green pattern. He was tall, fit, and handsome. He seemed amazingly relaxed for a man with his responsibilities. A lock of dark hair fell over his prominent forehead.

He asked about my recent travels to Indonesia, Guatemala, and Iran. The three countries fascinated him, but he seemed especially intrigued with Iran's king, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The shah had come to power in 1941, after the British and Soviets overthrew his father, whom they accused of collaborating with Hitler.l

"Can you imagine, Torrijos asked, "being part of a plot to dethrone your own father?"

Panama's head of state knew a good deal about the history of this far-off land. We talked about how the tables were turned on the shah in 1951, and how his own premier, Mohammad Mossadegh, forced him into exile. Torrijos knew, as did most of the world, that it had been the CIA that labeled the premier a Communist and that stepped in to restore the shah to power. However, he did not know—or at least did not mention — the parts Claudine had shared with me, about Kermit Roosevelt's brilliant maneuvers and the fact that this had been the beginning of a new era in imperialism, the match that had ignited the global empire conflagration.

"After the shah was reinstated," Torrijos continued, "he launched a series of revolutionary programs aimed at developing the industrial sector and bringing Iran into the modern era."

I asked him how he happened to know so much about Iran.

"I make it my point," he said. "I don't think too highly of the shah's politics — his willingness to overthrow his own father and become a CIA puppet —but it looks as though he's doing good things for his country. Perhaps I can learn something from him. If he survives."

"You think he won't?"

"He has powerful enemies."

"And some of the world's best bodyguards."

Torrijos gave me a sardonic look. "His secret police, SAVAK, have the reputation of being ruthless thugs . That doesn't win many friends. He won't last much longer." He paused, then rolled his eyes. "Bodyguards? I have a few myself." He waved at the door. "You think they'll save my life if your country decides to get rid of me?"

I asked whether he truly saw that as a possibility.

He raised his eyebrows in a manner that made me feel foolish for asking such a question . "We have the Canal. That's a lot bigger than Arbenz and United Fruit."

I had researched Guatemala, and I understood Torrijos's meaning. United Fruit Company had been that country's political equivalent of Panama's canal. Founded in the late 1800s, United Fruit soon grew into one of the most powerful forces in Central America. During the early 1950s, reform candidate Jacobo Arbenz was elected president of Guatemala in an election hailed all over the hemisphere as a model of the democratic process. At the time, less than 3 percent of Guatemalans owned 70 percent of the land . Arbenz promised to help the poor dig their way out of starvation, and after his election he implemented a comprehensive land reform program.

"The poor and middle classes throughout Latin America applauded Arbenz," Torrijos said. "Personally, he was one of my heroes. But we also held our breath. We knew that United Fruit opposed these measures, since they were one of the largest and most oppressive landholders in Guatemala. They also owned big plantations in Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Santo Domingo, and here in Panama. They couldn't afford to let Arbenz give the rest of us ideas."

I knew the rest : United Fruit had launched a major public relations campaign in the United States, aimed at convincing the American public and congress that Arbenz was part of a Russian plot and that Guatemala was a Soviet satellite . In 1954, the CIA orchestrated a coup. American pilots bombed Guatemala City and the democratically elected Arbenz was overthrown, replaced by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, a ruthless right-wing dictator.

The new government owed everything to United Fruit. By way of thanks, the government reversed the land reform process, abolished taxes on the interest and dividends paid to foreign investors, eliminated the secret ballot, and jailed thousands of its critics. Anyone who dared to speak out against Castillo was persecuted. Historians trace the violence and terrorism that plagued Guatemala for most of the rest of the century to the not-so-secret alliance between United Fruit, the CIA, and the Guatemalan army under its colonel dictator .2

"Arbenz was assassinated," Torrijos continued. "Political and character assassination." He paused and frowned. "How could your people swallow that CIA rubbish? I won't go so easily. The military here are my people. Political assassination won't do." He smiled.

"The CIA itself will have to kill me!"

We sat in silence for a few moments, each lost in his own thoughts. Torrijos was the first to speak.

"Do you know who owns United Fruit?" he asked.

"Zapata Oil, George Bush's company—our UN ambassador." I said.

"A man with ambitions." He leaned forward and lowered his voice. "And now I'm up against his cronies at Bechtel."

This startled me. Bechtel was the world's most powerful engineering firm and a frequent collaborator on projects with MAIN. In the case of Panama's master plan, I had assumed that they were one of our major competitors.

"What do you mean?"

"We've been considering building a new canal, a sea-level one, without locks. It can handle bigger ships. The Japanese may be interested in financing it."

"They're the Canal's biggest clients."

"Exactly. Of course, if they provide the money, they will do the construction."

It struck me. "Bechtel will be out in the cold."

"The biggest construction job in recent history" He paused. "Bechtel's loaded with Nixon, Ford, and Bush cronies." (Bush, as U.S. ambassador to the UN, and Ford, as House Minority Leader and Chairman of the Republican National Convention, were well known to Torrijos as Republican powerbrokers.) "I've been told that the Bechtel family pulls the strings of the Republican Party."

This conversation left me feeling very uncomfortable. I was one of the people who perpetuated the system he so despised, and I was certain he knew it. My job of convincing him to accept international loans in exchange for hiring U.S. engineering and construction firms appeared to have hit a mammoth wall. I decided to confront him head-on.

"General," I asked, "why did you invite me here? "

He glanced at his watch and smiled. "Yes, time now to get down to our own business. Panama needs your help. I need your help."

I was stunned. "My help? What can I do for you? "

"We will take back the Canal. But that's not enough." He relaxed into his chair. "We must also serve as a model. We must show that we care about our poor and we must demonstrate beyond any doubt that our determination to win our independence is not dictated by Russia, China, or Cuba. We must prove to the world that Panama is a reasonable country, that we stand not against the United States but for the rights of the poor."

He crossed one leg over the other. "In order to do that we need to build up an economic base that is like none in this hemisphere. Electricity, yes — but electricity that reaches the poorest of our poor and is subsidized. The same for transportation and communications. And especially for agriculture. Doing that will take money—your money the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank."

Once again, he leaned forward. His eyes held mine. "I understand that your company wants more work and usually gets it by inflating the size of projects—wider highways, bigger power plants, deeper harbors. This time is different, though. Give me what's best for my people, and I'll give you all the work you want."

What he proposed was totally unexpected, and it both shocked and excited me. It certainly defied all I had learned at MAIN. Surely, he knew that the foreign aid game was a sham — he had to know. It existed to make him rich and to shackle his country with debt. It was there so Panama would be forever obligated to the United States and the corporatocracy. It was there to keep Latin America on the path of Manifest Destiny and forever subservient to Washington and Wall Street. I was certain that he knew that the system was based on the assumption that all men in power are corruptible, and that his decision not to use it for his personal benefit would be seen as a threat, a new form of domino that might start a chain reaction and eventually topple the entire system.

I looked across the coffee table at this man who certainly understood that because of the Canal he enjoyed a very special and unique power, and that it placed him in a particularly precarious position. He had to be careful. He already had established himself as a leader among LDC leaders. If he, like his hero Arbenz, was determined to take a stand, the world would be watching. How would the system react? More specifically, how would the U .S. government react? Latin American history was littered with dead heroes.

I also knew I was looking at a man who challenged all the justifications I had formulated for my own actions. This man certainly had his share of personal flaws, but he was no pirate, no Henry Morgan or Francis Drake — those swashbuckling adventurers who used letters of marque from English kings as a cloak to legitimatize piracy. The picture on the billboard had not been your typical political deception. "Omar's ideal is freedom; the missile is not invented that can kill an ideal!" Hadn't Tom Paine penned something similar?

It made me wonder, though. Perhaps ideals do not die, but what about the men behind them? Che, Arbenz, Allende; the latter was the only one still alive, but for how long? And it raised another question : how would I respond if Torrijos were thrust into the role of martyr? 

By the time I left him we both understood that MAIN would get the contract for the master plan, and that I would see to it that we did Torrijos's bidding.

- pages 71-75


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