The Secretary of State to the Diplomatic and Consular Offices in the American Republics, Except Panama


Sirs: The Department’s attention has been called on numerous occasions to instances in which Panamanian consuls in foreign ports, acting apparently under instructions from their Government, are demanding that Panamanian documentation (i.e., passenger and crew list visas and certification of cargo manifests) be obtained for vessels not bound for Panamanian ports but bringing to Canal Zone ports cargo and passengers destined ultimately to enter Panama or in transit to other countries. In some countries the local port authorities have been prevailed upon to refuse clearance to vessels without such documentation. This practice has resulted in considerable confusion and is viewed by this Government as a violation of Articles II and III of the Convention of November 18, 1903 and of Article V of the General Treaty of 1936 between the Governments of the United States and Panama.

These treaty provisions deal clearly and specifically with the question of jurisdiction in the Canal Zone. Article II of the Convention of November 18, 1903 states:

“The Republic of Panama grants to the United States in perpetuity the use, occupation and control of a zone of land and land [Page 719] under water for the construction, maintenance, operation, sanitation and protection of said Canal …”

Article III of this Convention states:

“The Republic of Panama grants to the United States all the rights, power and authority within the zone mentioned and described in Article II and within the limits of all auxiliary lands and waters mentioned and described in said Article II which the United States would possess and exercise if it were the sovereign of the territory within which said lands and waters are located to the entire exclusion of the exercise by the Republic of Panama of any such sovereign rights, power or authority.”

Article V of the General Treaty of 1936 states in part:

“… The Republic of Panama has the right to impose upon merchandise destined to be introduced for use or consumption in territory under the jurisdiction of the Republic of Panama, and upon vessels touching at Panamanian ports and upon the officers, crew or passengers of such vessels, the taxes or charges provided by the laws of the Republic of Panama. … However, the Republic of Panama shall not impose or collect any charges or taxes upon any vessel using or passing through the Canal which does not touch at a port under Panamanian jurisdiction or upon the officers, crew or passengers of such vessels, unless they enter the Republic …”

The right implied in Article V of the 1936 Treaty to collect charges from officers, crew or passengers who enter the Republic clearly does not confer any right to collect charges from the vessels bringing them to the Canal Zone. Under Article V Panama has “the right to determine what persons or classes of persons arriving at ports of the Canal Zone shall be admitted to the Republic of Panama and to determine likewise what persons or classes of persons arriving at such ports shall be excluded from admission to the Republic of Panama.” Since, however, this same article provides that, for the implementation of this right, “the Republic of Panama shall have the right of free access to vessels upon their arrival at the Balboa or Cristobal piers or wharves with passengers destined for the Republic,” it is evident that this right is to be exercised only after the arrival of the persons concerned at Canal Zone ports.

Several notes of protest over this practice addressed to the Panamanian Government by this Government have failed to elicit any reply. Since Canal Zone ports are entirely under the jurisdiction of the United States, and inasmuch as the Republic of Panama is excluded by specific treaty provisions from any participation whatsoever in the administration of the Canal Zone, this pretension on the part of the Panamanian Government can hardly be successful. As a practical matter, means of enforcing this requirement are lacking, since [Page 720] in the circumstances officials of the United States Government in the Canal Zone obviously would not enforce a regulation of the Panamanian Government which is considered contrary to pertinent treaty provisions.

You are accordingly requested to inform interested official and private persons that Panamanian documentation is not required of, nor should it be obtained for, vessels transiting the Canal and/or calling solely at Canal Zone ports, nor is it required of passengers travelling in such vessels. You may further state that the requirement of such documentation would constitute not only unnecessary inconvenience and expense for the individuals and companies concerned but that it is at variance with provisions of pertinent treaties governing the status of the Canal Zone. In those countries where the local authorities are actively cooperating with the Panamanian Consuls in the enforcement of this practice, you are requested to inform officially the Government to which you are accredited of the views and position of this Government in the premises.1

Very truly yours,

For the Secretary of State:
Willard F. Barber

Deputy Assistant Secretary
  1. In despatch No. 363 from Panama City, August 23, 1949, the Embassy reported that in Note 225, August 18, 1949, it had informed the Foreign Office of the contents of this circular (711.1928/8–2349).

    Ambassador Davis reported in despatch 583 from Panama City, December 3, 1949, that Panamanian consuls at certain ports were still issuing crew and passenger-list visas for ships bound for the Zone, but were no longer certifying cargo manifests (711.1928/12–349).