Greene found the notion that US troops had “restored democracy” to Panama ridiculous. He was visibly angry about the Panamanian government’s current anti-Torrijos campaign, and he termed the argument that Noriega and  Torrijos were cut from the same cloth “absolutely absurd”

“Now you [the United States] have become dictators, and not such good ones as Torrijos.”

What kind of dictator was Torrijos?

“Well, he was very benevolent. He was shifting more and more interest [away from the rich] toward the agricultural side of Panama, to the peasants and land. He had the reins of government in his hands, but he was trying to move toward parliamentary system. He started parties. And he was moving slowly toward democracy.”

What about America’s belief that the “restoration of democracy” in Panama was part and parcel of a general trend worldwide?

“Is it breaking out of the United States?” he asked sharply. “I hope it is [spreading], but I see no sign of it in Latin America thanks to the US, which is responsible for Pinochet and is responsible for Guatemala and El Salvador, and supported the contras. So that I don’t see any sign of democracy coming in the American continent except a sort of patch that occasionally may emerge for a short time.”

At various points in the conversation Greene launched questions at me. “And what is the difference between Kuwait and Panama?” He asked at one such moment.”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “Except oil, I suppose there isn’t much difference.”

“No” said Greene. “Panama hasn’t got the oil.”

To Greene the common thread in American politics is hypocrisy, which brought us to the subject of Noriega and drugs. The arrest of Noriega, according to President Bush, had been tantamount to the arrest of a major drug-dealer.

“The US grows more marijuana than any other place in the world, doesn’t it?” he said.

“What do you think is going to happen to Noriega?” he asked. “My theory is that there’s going to be a wonderful show of how just the US courts are. The judge will decide that its completely unfair to try him in the US for offenses committed in Panama, and they’ll return him to Panama - to the so-called legitimate government of Panama - to be killed.”

Greene’s prediction made me wonder again why he hadn’t been heard from during the invasion. It seemed that some US reporter must have tried to contact him.

“They may have” said Greene. “but I always refuse to appear on television. I think it turns you into a comedian. I’ve seen so many people, good writers, men like Malcolm Muggeridge, who was a good and promising novelist, damaged by it. He became a TV star and ceased to be a writer. And we had a very good poet, John Betjeman, who became a television star and his poetry suffered from it.  I mean, if one’s good, one might become a star and it would be the end of one. If one’s bad, why be honored?”

However reluctant Greene may have been to promote himself or his political opinions on television, he was never shy about helping out his favorite causes in other ways. Even after the death of Torrijos, he consented to undertake a semi-official mission for the new government, to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and to Cuba to see Castro.

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