A review of Getting to Know the General: The Story of an Involvement by Graham Greene.
For anyone interested in the politics of Central America in the 1970s and 1980s, which of course also requires an interest in the US intervention in the isthmus that intensified during the later stages of the Cold War, this book provides fascinating insights into some of the key personalities involved. Of course, apart from Greene himself (whose knowledge of the region grows with his friendship with the general), we mainly find ourselves getting to know the Panamanian president, Omar Torrijos, and his political amanuensis and bodyguard, Chuchu. Simply as a travelogue the book works because of the personalities – the quirky and enigmatic Torrijos, the ever-willing and slightly crazy Chuchu, and the pliable, curious Graham Greene, happy to be pushed into various political roles and (literally) to enjoy the ride as he gets dispatched to various parts of Panama or the wider region, often in the presidential plane.
In those couple of decades Torrijos was an influential figure – not only in Panama, principally in steering the agreement on the future of the canal and its return to Panamanian control, but also in his involvement in regional politics. He often operated behind the scenes, giving support to the rebel armies challenging right-wing governments in various countries, providing refuge to people who needed a place of safety away from the different struggles (not only guerilla leaders but also ordinary campesinos), and publicly or clandestinely seeking solutions to the conflicts. Greene is fascinated by Torrijos’s self-adopted regional role and becomes a willing co-conspirator.
While the focus of the book is on the two main Panamanian characters, we get vignettes of many others – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Fidel Castro, Eden Pastora, Tomas Borge and many more. We get snapshot views of the canal zone, the rain-swept Bocas de Toro, the San Blas islands where the Kuna people live, and many parts of the rest of Central America.
Greene undertakes all this with seeming reluctance – he is constantly fretting about the need to get back to Antibes to sort out some domestic problem – but in practice he is ineluctably drawn in by the combined charms of Torrijos and Chuchu. And we, of course, as readers, are similarly seduced.
Greene’s last journey to Panama is in the aftermath of Omar Torrijos’s death, when his plane mysteriously crashes in a remote part of the country. At first Greene believes that the crash must have been a result of pilot error, even though earlier in the book he reveals that Torrijos spoke of the possibility of his being assassinated. Then Greene is shown some intelligence reports showing the distorted view of Torrijos held by the US administration, and he becomes suspicous that the death of his friend was not accidental. Definitive proof that it was a CIA-led plot has not yet surfaced (as far as I’m aware), but it seems likely. Certainly the insider John Perkins, in ‘Confessions of an Economic Hit Man’ believed that this was the case. Graham Greene was to die before these further revelations emerged.