444. Information Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson 1

SUBJECT

  • Panama Situation

There is a marked deterioration in the situation in Panama in the wake of the National Assembly’s impeachment of Robles on Sunday2 and the increasingly repressive actions taken by the National Guard against the rival government of “President” Del Valle and Opposition Candidate Arias.

National Guard Commander Vallarino has not formally abandoned his neutral stance of maintaining law and order until the Supreme Court rules on the Assembly action.3 But under this guise, he has ransacked the headquarters of opposition candidate Arias and cordoned off the National Assembly Building—the seat of the Del Valle Government.

There was a showdown at 5:00 p.m. today when “President” Del Valle, his Cabinet and the majority of the National Assembly members tried to enter the Assembly Building. Ambassador Adair has just reported the National Guard drove them off with barrages of tear gas.

So far, we have not been dragged into the dispute. But the danger signals are up. The heavy-handed action by the National Guard against the Arias–Del Valle group could bring a sharp public reaction.4 This reaction could be turned against us out of frustration or hostility by [Page 944]playing on the fact that the tear gas (being used rather indiscriminately) is from the US and we have heavily subsidized increases in the strength of the National Guard during the past two years. References to this are beginning to appear in the anti-Robles propaganda.

So far, the general public—and even the students—have been apathetic and aloof from the political maneuvering. Even the communists and their allies have not taken sides. Whether the action by the Guard this evening will bring the people into the streets in support of Arias and Del Valle remains to be seen.

Ambassador Adair continues to monitor the situation closely. He believes there is little we can do to influence events in this domestic squabble which would not drag us into the middle.

Walt
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Panama, Vol. IX, June 1967–April 1968. Secret. A note on the memorandum indicates the President saw it.
  2. The United States was notified on March 27 that, by virtue of a judgment issued by the Panamanian National Legislative Assembly, Robles had been deposed and First Vice President Maz Del Valle had been sworn in as President on March 24. (Telegram 139993 to all Latin American posts, April 1; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 15 PAN)
  3. The Supreme Court of Panama, with one dissenting vote, ruled the Robles impeachment proceedings unconstitutional, and Robles, with the support of the National Guard, retained the Presidency. Additional information is in circular telegram 136251 to all Latin American posts, March 26 (ibid., POL 15–1 PAN), and in a memorandum from Rostow to President Johnson, April 1. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Panama, Vol. IX, June 1967–April 1968)
  4. In a March 25 memorandum to Rusk, Oliver noted that “the position taken by the Guard has aroused considerable resentment in opposition circles, who interpret it as evidence of Guard partiality to Robles.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL–PAN)