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.