Memorandum by the Chief of the Division of Latin American Affairs, Department of State (White)

The Panaman Minister called on Wednesday, April 18, to say, with regard to the draft proposed Procès Verbal of a meeting to take place between the Secretary of State and the Colombian and Panaman Ministers, copy of which was given him on April 12, that his Government has instructed him that it does not feel that the boundary question should be settled in an informal document of this sort, and pointed out that the Panaman Constitution provides that the boundaries of Panama and the Republic of Colombia shall be determined by public treaties. He stated that even should the Procès Verbal be signed as drafted it would have no binding effect upon Panama until included in a treaty ratified by the Panaman Assembly.

I told Señor Alfaro that I quite appreciated that the boundary agreement would finally have to be ratified by the Assembly. I pointed out to him that it was of great value to include a statement of the boundary in the Procès Verbal as showing the intention of the Panaman Executive to conclude a treaty on that basis and thus remove from further negotiation a subject which might give rise to further difficulties. Señor Alfaro stated that he thought the matter could be satisfactorily handled in the negotiations to be carried on [Page 332] upon the institution of diplomatic relations and he said that he felt sure satisfactory arrangements could then be arrived at. I asked him whether he meant by that that his Government would accept the boundary as stated in the Procès Verbal. He replied that he could not give me any assurance on that point as he did not know whether his Government would want to give up the Juradó territory which had been claimed by previous administrations.

I called his attention again to President Porras’ letter to Mr. Phillips, of January 10, 1920,36 and he said that this could have no binding effect as under the Panaman Constitution an Act of the President had to be countersigned by one of the Secretaries of State, and that this could only be considered as an informal negotiation. Señor Alfaro stated that he had been in the Cabinet at the time the letter had been written and had heard nothing whatsoever about it and was sure the matter had not been considered by that body. I told Señor Alfaro that this Government would certainly learn with great surprise that a written statement of the President of Panama was without any value whatsoever, and that President Porras personally would go back on a statement solemnly given. He stated that President Porras would, of course, not do so, but that he saw no reason why the boundary should be definitely stated in the treaty when the settlement of pecuniary liabilities is left to the negotiation of the two Governments upon the establishment of diplomatic relations.

I pointed out to him that, as Minister Price was instructed to inform the President (see Department’s instruction No. 692, of November 13, 191937), boundary disputes are often the foundation of strained international relations which all too frequently hinder progress and contribute to the unrest of the nations involved. I pointed out that a question of pecuniary liability, while perhaps causing protracted negotiations, does not lend itself to the serious situations that a disputed boundary does. I pointed out that if two powers both claim the same territory its occupation by one of them might very well give rise to an outburst by chauvinistic elements in the other and thus cause serious complications. Señor Alfaro said that it was inconceivable that such should happen in this case. I pointed out to him that such, nevertheless, had unhappily been the situation as regards the Panama-Costa Rica boundary only two years ago, and while I ardently hoped that it was beyond the realm of possibility in the present case the only sound way of approaching the matter was by removing any such possibilities however remote.

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Señor Alfaro stated that he agreed with me that it was well to settle as many questions as possible, but again pointed out that even should the Procès Verbal be signed it would not mean the settling of the frontier, because it would still have to pass the Panaman Assembly. I pointed out to him that all negotiations are, in the nature of things, between the executive branches of the Government[s]; that the executive cannot, of course, bind the legislative branch, but that, in any case, the negotiations must be carried on by the executive. I pointed out to him that President Porras has it within his power to settle now for all times this boundary dispute, because by making such a statement it will be a confirmation by the Panaman Executive to the Colombian Executive of the undertaking given by the Panaman Executive to the United States that Panama would settle the boundary along the frontier mentioned in the Procès Verbal. Then, of course, the Panaman Executive would instruct its plenipotentiary in Bogotá to conclude a treaty on that basis, and half the steps looking to its final settlement would then have been accomplished. Señor Alfaro said that the Assembly might then undo the work and pointed out that the next Assembly does not meet until next September. I pointed out to Señor Alfaro that the Panaman Executive now fortunately enjoys a majority support in the Assembly and that I presumed that in a matter of such importance the President would wish to call a special session of the Assembly, and that, with his majority support therein, it seemed likely that the boundary treaty would be ratified; that it is, therefore, within President Porras’ power to settle now once for all definitely the boundary question.

Señor Alfaro stated that he would send a private telegram to President Porras in this sense. I asked him whether he would indorse the suggestion and recommend to the President that he should take the action outlined. Señor Alfaro stated that he could not; that he did not feel in a position to give any advice on such large matters of policy when so far from his country; that he would be quite willing to do so were he in Panama where he could answer any attacks and criticisms against it, but that he was so far away he could not do so. I pointed out to Señor Alfaro that I had not contemplated a press campaign or public discussion of the matter but merely confidential advice to his Government. He stated that he regretted the nature was such that the matter could not help becoming public and that he, therefore, did not feel that he could do so.

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