SOON AFTER I moved to Washington in 1975, among the first people I met, and immediately liked, was a charming and exceedingly bright woman named Adelaide Eisenmann from Panama. It soon turned out that Adelaide was far more than the retired social worker, plus committed Democratic Party activist, that she seemed.
"There has got to be democracy in Panama," she would say emphatically to carefully chosen interlocutors. "Since 1903, all patriotic Panamanians have desired a new canal treaty, but today's first concern is restoration of democracy and human rights."
Even then, though she stood less than 5 feet tall, Adelaide spoke so incisively and made so much sense that neither congressmen nor White House aides found it easy to ignore her.
"I remember I went to the White House and called on a top White House official working on the drug problem," Adelaide recalled to me recently. "I went to him with three volumes of human rights abuses in Panama. He told me, 'I know what you are saying is so, but we're not going to do anything about it, because Jimmy Carter wants a treaty.' I was so sick -- but that was the beginning . . ."
Then, quickly move up 17 years to this winter in Panama City -- to Feb. 13, to be exact. Adelaide had just turned 75, and she was tinier than ever, but with just as warm (and determined) a demeanor and just as pretty a smile. Now four times a grandmother, she was standing in the formal ceremonial Alfaro Room of the Panamanian Foreign Ministry.
The small group of 40 human-rights co-workers, who are now top officials in Panama, her family and her second husband, Dr. Robert A. Newburger, watched with pride. The indefatigable Adelaide was being awarded the highest honor, Panama's Order of Vasco Nunez de Balboa -- in recognition of her extraordinary work to help restore Panamanian democracy.
Adelaide and Richard Eisenmann's saga began on Jan. 20, 1976, when, both of them being in their mid-50s, they were ready to retire to a condo on Panama's Coronado Beach. Richard came from one of the most prominent business and political families in Panama, and Adelaide had happily married into it.
But that very day, the Eisenmanns heard that their accomplished nephew Roberto, or "Bobby," then in the political democratic opposition, and 14 other democrats had been picked up by Gen. Omar Torrijos -- and disappeared. This was ominous stuff in Panama in those days, and until Bobby reappeared, exiled in Ecuador, they feared the worst.
From that moment on, Adelaide and Richard were a night-and-day political team. They totally gave up retirement; moved to Washington; started the Panamanian Committee for Human Rights; lobbied congressmen to cut military aid to the dictators; tried to convince journalists that they really were not crazy (I wasn't so sure myself at a couple of points); and testified a dozen or more times before Senate committees as proxies for Panamanian citizens who could not legally testify here. Their work never ended, and the little dining room table in their handsome, art-filled town house in southwest Washington became the center for exiled Panamanians and people who didn't like dictators. But it was their know-how -- their moxie -- that made it work.
Once when a group of high-level congressmen were traveling to Panama to look into the canal treaties, for instance, Adelaide called Sen. Robert Byrd's office as soon as she learned of the trip. Within 10 minutes, she was in his office, asking, "Do you have materials?" She rushed home and carefully assembled human-rights briefing kits with the name of each senator on each one and personally took them to the plane. They all read them on their way down to Panama.
"That Saturday they had a meeting with Torrijos, and the headlines in the New York Times had Torrijos telling the senators that he didn't know he was violating people's human rights," she recalled recently. "That was when they laid down stringent conditions for the treaty -- that the exiles must be allowed to return, that there must be a free press."
She paused and recalled, "That was a real milestone."
Everything, of course, has changed now. Dictator Torrijos is long gone, dead in a mysterious helicopter crash in 1981, and the historical record on his dictatorial reign is now much closer to Richard and Adelaide's analysis of him than to that of his admirers. His vulgar successor, Manuel Noriega, whom Adelaide also vigorously fought, has been convicted of drug smuggling. The Panama Canal still suffers from the damages these two corrupt men inflicted on it.
Richard died of cancer in 1986, but he lived to see many of the changes that the two of them almost single-handedly wrought. Roberto "Bobby" Eisenmann is now the highly respected founder and publisher of the great Panama newspaper "La Prensa." And Panama is free.
Adelaide Eisenmann, of course, did not do this all by herself, but she and Richard were the catalysts and the ballast. They formed the crucial safe base from which the exiles could work; and they were the constant, incessant, tireless voices of conscience speaking to the U.S. Congress and government. Finally, because it did not listen earlier, that government had to invade Panama late in 1989 to accomplish what Adelaide would have accomplished so much earlier and at far less cost.
Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.