Torrijos: The Man and the Myth
Photographs by Graciela Iturbide
Essay by Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez
In the annals of Latin American politics, Omar Torrijos of Panama was a David against Goliath, a charismatic leader who challenged the landed rabiblanco (white tails) oligarchy, redistributed land and wealth, and died tragically in a 1981 plane crash widely rumored to be the work of the CIA.
The Torrijos legend is of a man of action, yet an introspective thinker. Known for macho swagger: "They will find us standing or dead, but NEVER on our knees!" he is also remembered for the poetic, even romantic: "He who gives love, receives love."
This is a unique, intensely personal homage to Torrijos by two giant talents, the great Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide, who befriended Torrijos in the 1970s, and photographed this period of social upheaval in Panama and the Nobel Prize-winning Columbian writer García Márquez. It shows Torrijos in never-before-published photographs and never-before-told personal reminiscences, offering up candles of memory. Márquez describes a moody, lonely president drinking whiskey all night, and in predawn, summoning one of six different women he had relationships with to keep away the demons.
This homage by two friends is meant as a corrective to history. Hardly a dictator who silenced opposition, closed the media, ran up debt and turned a blind eye to corruption, instead they argue for Torrijos as a flawed hero in the footsteps of Simon Bolivar: the first Panamanian leader to advocate for the majority population, the poor and mestizo (indigenous, Hispanic, and African), an innovator who opened schools and job opportunities for the less fortunate, initiating wide-ranging social and economic reforms, like a new labor code and comprehensive health care, especially in rural areas, along with ambitious public works programs, including roads and bridges that greatly benefited the rural areas. Torrijos also lured foreign investment, especially banking, to make Panama a regional financial center, but his greatest legacy and gift to his people was the Canal Treaty, signed with President Carter in 1977, giving the people of Panama Control over the "big ditch."
With Torrijos` son Martin now wearing his father`s mantle as the young and dynamic president of Panama, the circle of history is complete. This is a memoir of love and redemption about a man ahead of his time, told with power and pathos.