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

4872. For Asst Secretary Oliver and Sanders ARA/Panel. Subject: Possible New Crisis in National Guard.

New GN crisis is presently in the making. Dept has by now received reports submitted this morning through intelligence channels.2
At noontime Col Urrutia asked MLGP CMDR Arias was not keeping his earlier promises relative to the GN and that the GN officers feared the President was eventually going to destroy the GN organization. As examples of broken promises he mentioned (1) Arias’ latest intent not formally to name Pinilla as first commandant because of shortage of funds and (2) Arias’ statement to Urrutia (which Urrutia says he did not pass on to the officers concerned) that Torrijos and Boris Martinez would have to go. Urrutia did not mention to Seddon anything about a coup.
Urrutia said he wanted to be sure that Ambassador Adair was aware of the current situation and that he would like an opportunity to talk with me. He did not specifically ask Seddon to make an appointment for him. Seddon promised to convey Urrutia’s explanation to me. Seddon, having talked with me before meeting Urrutia, told the latter that the Ambassador could not involve himself in changes of personnel in the GN. Seddon also commented that as CMDR in chief the president had right to assign GN officers as he deemed fit. Urrutia acknowledged this but added that the officers “were not fools and could see the handwriting on the wall.”
A few minutes after talking to Urrutia this noon, Seddon talked with Vallarino who told him the outlook was not good and that he should watch developments closely. He expected trouble—not now— but in about six months time.
The question is whether I should speak with Urrutia and if so what to tell him. My door has always been open to anyone wanting to see me. If Urrutia calls on me, Arias will know it soon thereafter. I feel it would be almost imperative for me to tell Arias of Urrutia’s call. Urrutia probably would not object. By such action I and the USG would be in the middle. Other GN officers as well as political supporters of both Arias and Samudio would soon know of my involvement.
If Arias and the GN should become reconciled thereafter, we might gain good will. If the GN should reluctantly abandon the reported but still unverified plans for a coup on grounds of an inferred disapproval on part of US after my talk with Urrutia, the opposition press would probably charge interference and claim this was proof of US support of Arias in the recent elections.
If a coup occurs and Urrutia should claim he asked for an appointment beforehand with the US Ambassador and was refused, we may come in for criticism from other sources.
In the event Urrutia should come to my office, I could make the following points:

(1) The USG has made clear its stand on respect for constitutional processes. (2) USG has maintained strictly neutral attitude in Panama’s recent elections and does not intend to interfere in Panama’s domestic politics. Relationship between President of Republic and GN is domestic matter. (3) Panama has established reputation in recent years for law and order. Panama has completed three 4-year terms of office without an unconstitutional change. These are important facts to bear in mind relative to GOP’s image both at home and abroad. (4) I trust that whatever GN does, it will have good of country at heart rather than individual personal advantage. (5) Suggest that GN make every effort resolve its problems through peaceful discussions.

I propose (but will await Dept reply) to send Seddon back to Urrutia to say he has given me Urrutia’s message, that I appreciate the information and that I hope differences can be resolved through friendly reason and discussion. If Urrutia again raises point of meeting with Ambassador, Seddon would tell him the door of my office was always open and if he wanted to make an appointment Seddon would arrange it. If Urrutia asks for the appointment, Seddon will tell Urrutia that I would probably feel compelled to inform Pres Arias of the discussion.
If Urrutia comes to my office, I would subsequently seek an appointment with Arias. Failure to do the latter would almost inevitably lead to greater criticism of US involvement if a coup were to follow my talk with Urrutia.
Embassy has no hard evidence which would support claim of some GN officers that Arias is planning to destroy the GN although intelligence reports do indicate that Arias is planning further changes [Page 951] to consolidate his control over the GN. On the contrary, the statement issued by Arias immediately prior to the inauguration bespake respect for GN and intent not only to preserve promotion system but to raise salaries. Torrijos and Boris Martinez are both strong-minded officers and being the most vulnerable may well be the force behind the present crisis.3
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Memos to the President, Walt W. Rostow, Vol. 98, October 5–9, 1968. Secret; Exdis; Immediate. Repeated to Pancanal Govt and USCINCSO. Rostow sent a copy of this telegram to President Johnson at 7 p.m. October 9 and commented: “The attached indicates that there are now again thoughts within the National Guard in Panama of a coup against Arias.” (Ibid.) On September 26 the CIA had sent the White House a memorandum alerting them to “coup talk” among members of the National Guard likely to be affected by Arias’ proposed changes in the leadership of the Guard. (Ibid., Vol. 96, September 26–30, 1968)
  2. The White House received information indicating that a group of National Guard officers reached a decision to stage a military coup and take over the government within the next 48 hours. (Ibid., Country File, Panama, Vol. X (2 of 3), May to December 1968)
  3. On October 9 Samuel Lewis of the NSC staff sent a memorandum to Rostow stating that “there is substantial danger that a coup is in fact being contemplated.” Lewis wrote that there was “nothing more on this situation than contained in the two messages [see footnotes 1 and 2 above]. I have talked to State and stressed the importance of doing everything we can to avoid the demise of another constitutional government on the heels of the Peru affair. Oliver will get guidance to Adair tonight. [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] of what is in the wind, in case he has not already sniffed it out.” (Ibid., (3 of 3), May–December 1968) The guidance telegrams have not been found.