447. Telegram From the Embassy in Panama to the Department of State1

3434. Subject: Minotto2–Vallarino Conversation.

Minotto met privately with Vallarino at noon today for approximately half an hour. His report on meeting follows:
Having met General Vallarino twice before in 1965 and 1967 there was no problem in immediately resuming our previous cordial relationship.
I advised the General that I was on a business trip to Panama and points south and that prior to leaving my hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, the superintendent of the Arizona Highway Patrol had given me a personal letter for the General and also a large gold star appointing him a Colonel in the AHP (the highest rank this organization had to confer). Vallarino was very pleased and said he would thank Superintendent James Hegarty of the AHP in a personal letter for the honor conferred on him. Having successfully disposed of the “cover,” I then asked the General if he would be good enough and give me 10–15 minutes of his time for a private and confidential discussion. His answer was, “I will be very happy to talk to you.”
I started our conversation by making it very clear that I was not connected with the U.S. Government at this time, not like a year ago and other times when I was a staff member of the United States Senate, Committee on Appropriations.
I also made it very clear that the Ambassador, or any person connected with our Embassy in Panama, was not aware of what I would discuss with him, nor had I seen the Ambassador prior to my visit to him today.
I informed the General that on my way from Arizona to Panama I had further discussions with people of authority and particularly in Washington with Members of Congress, people with a long record of service (such as Senator Hayden) and who had over the years gone by shown a warm interest and a friendly feeling towards Panama and its people.
These people, whose names I did not elaborate on (except Senator Hayden) were all quite concerned about the newspaper reports emanating from Panama and gave a rather detailed and vivid account [Page 947] of the presidential elections and the present status of uncertainty and unrest.
I told the General that I as a private citizen and being fairly familiar with Latin America was equally concerned with the people above referred to, that Panama’s image was in grave danger as not being a democratic republic that adhered to the democratic principles of the people electing their president, but that unscrupulous forces were, according to many newspaper reports, and I emphasized that my knowledge was solely obtained from newspaper sources, trying to manipulate the election of their candidate, even though he had been defeated by a substantial majority at the polls.3 I did not mention the name of this candidate. I continued to explain to the General the seriousness of this situation in our relations with Panama, because the American people get their information about what is going on in the world from newspapers, TV and radio, and that the large volume of critical reports about the honesty of the Panamanian election could have very damaging repercussions in the political and economic field as well.
Congress has its ears tuned to public opinion, and if the thought were to prevail that Panama had a government that did not represent the choice of the Panamanian people, such programs as aid, military assistance, and the pending Panama Canal negotiations could be seriously impaired.
I said to General Vallarino: “General, I am speaking solely in a private capacity, but let me tell you that people of great prominence in the United States feel that the future of Panama lies in your hands. You have had over many years an unblemished record, you yourself told me a year ago that you had no ambitions to be President, that you were dedicated to your job as head of the National Guard of Panama, the only armed forces of your republic, to maintain law and order and to protect the constitution and the rights of the people.
I have assured my friends at home that you would never tolerate any crooked practices and that you would stand firm for an honest election. I also understand that at present the National Election [Page 948] Board is checking the presidential elections returns and rejecting any irregularities. May I ask you the one and only question that I would like to have your views on?” His answer was, “Yes, go ahead.” Then, sir, please tell me if you would stand by the decision of the National Election Board and if necessary enforce it. His answer was, “I will enforce the decision of the constitutionally created National Election Board, and I will not tolerate any act that would void the will of the people.” I added, regardless who the presidential candidate is, who would get the majority of the popular vote? His answer was, “Yes”.
Finally I mentioned the National Tribunal, which I understand is composed of three men, to whom complaints about irregularities are submitted. I also mentioned that there was a rumor that such a small group of men could be swayed by material promises, thus nullifying the will of the people.
He smiled and said: “My actions will be guided by the decision of the National Election Board, and I will not go beyond the decision of the NEB.
As I bade the General goodbye, I told him that I would pass on to my friends at home what he had told me and that I felt sure they would be very happy to hear this and that he (General Vallarino) was doing a great service to his country, to the cause of democracy, and to the continuance of amicable and useful relations between his country and the United States.
In conclusion, I wish to state that our conversation was at all times an extremely friendly and open discussion, and I very definitely gathered that impression that the General was sincere in what he told me and that his statements honestly reflected his stand in this matter.
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL PAN–US. Secret; Exdis; No Distribution Outside the Department.
  2. James Minotto, former staff member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
  3. On May 17 Hughes informed Secretary Rusk that “Arnulfo Arias apparently received such large majority in the May 12 election that the government cannot impose its presidential candidate, David Samudio, without resorting to extensive and blatant fraud. Nevertheless, the Samudio forces seem determined to arrange their victory. Once again the National Guard is caught in the middle, but this time internal dissension is threatening the unity of the Guard. Commandant Vallarino, who is wavering in his support for Samudio, must contend with a powerful clique of officers so deeply committed to Samudio that they fear a NU victory would cost them their jobs.” (Memorandum from Hughes to Rusk, Intelligence Note 360, May 17; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 14 PAN)