456. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Panama1

283324. For Ambassador. Subject: Arias’ Plan for Reestablishment of Democracy in Panama: AriasOliver Conversation.

[Page 962]
Arias and Oliver met alone, December 6, at Department. Conversation was based on Arias’ Nov 19 letter to President.2 Arias agreed that conversation was to be held under “strict rules of confidential state security”, as his letter to President had suggested. Oliver said he was going to listen, as President would have, pointing to a wall photo of President listening to Oliver.
Conversation was cordial. Oliver found Arias in good control of himself and seemingly objective about his problems. At four points in conversation, Oliver was able to warn and advise against adventurism on Costa Rican-Panamanian frontier,3 thanks to way in which conversation was steered. Arias agreed throughout that he did not want bloodshed and that he sought ways of keeping groups on frontier from engaging in use of force.
In letter to President Johnson, Arias had said he wished to present a “simple pragmatic plan” to restore Constitutional Government. In conversation with Oliver, Arias outlined plan as follows:
USG to continue policy of keeping all types of assistance relations with present Junta at minimum and seek all opportunities to indicate moral displeasure and concern at continuation military regime in Panama.
Arias to continue and intensify his efforts to work out a united front of civilian politicians. Front would include all elements of Panamanian traditional politics that could be brought together, including Samudio and practically everybody else, except Eletas, who are only civilians playing ball with Junta. (Arias insisted that Junta had shown disrespect and distaste for all civilian politicians except Eletas and a few of their hangers-on.) Arias intimated that he might be willing to deal with other civilian politicians on question of who would lead in first reinstallation civilian government.
Build up of pressures under lines of action (a) and (b) should be directed toward displacement top command of present Junta and its replacement by wiser and more moderate National Guard leaders. After this transitional change in Junta had been made, in due course [Page 963] Panama could go back to some form of civilian government, either on basis of past election, de facto shift from military to civilian Junta, or some new electoral basis. Arias insisted present Junta leaders would not permit this evolution to take place; hence they have to be displaced;
To make (a) effective, according to Arias, Seddon and Angueiras should be replaced on U.S. MilMission by new men, loyal to prospect of shift back to civilian rule. These men must be very able and astute. Arias explained that regardless of their personal attitudes and viewpoints, Seddon and Angueiras are popularly thought to be in cahoots with present Junta leaders. Their replacement now would be signal to people that USG not in fact overly friendly to Junta.
Probably best man to replace top of present Junta under (c) would be Col. Abel Quintero, presently on duty at Inter-American Defense Board here. Arias seemed to dismiss Vallarino and Urrutia.
In conversation Arias complained mildly at outset about attitude U.S. Embassy in San Jose as being opposed to needs of Panamanian refugees in Costa Rica. This led to first of several Oliver tacks on dangers of border adventurism. In synthesis Arias came to these positions:
He is opposed to violence and does not want to see operations from Costa Rica;
He recognizes that violence may bring other leaders to top, using his name, and that present Junta might be strengthened by a frontier challenge;
He cannot be sure he can control the frontier groups unless he has something to give them in the way of hope, such as by evolution of proposal in para 3. (At this point Oliver made it clear that he did not think Arias ought to try to “bargain” his dissuasion of frontier elements against USG “acceptance” of Arias Plan. Arias then recast his position, saying that main thing was to see what could be done to take care of refugees who could not safely return to Panama. Arias insisted there were far more unarmed and homeless refugees than potential guerrilla fighters along Costa Rican border and expressed belief that proper refugee care would reduce danger armed conflict.)
Arias tried throughout to establish environment for further discussions on basis “Arias Plan”. Oliver made no such commitments but said he would transmit Arias’ views.
Department will now begin study of situation and shortly will instruct as to further passing of this information and as to possible lines of action. Meanwhile Amb’s comments on basis this report are invited.4
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 15 PAN. Secret. Drafted and approved by Oliver. Also sent to San José and USUN for Anderson.
  2. Not printed. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Special Heads of State Correspondence, Panama, Presidential Correspondence) In informing the President of the Arias letter on November 23, Lewis indicated that Arias had said that “such a meeting could head off unspecified dangerous problems in Panama.” Lewis also reported that although the Department did not recommend that the President meet with Arias, Lewis thought that he should be seen by “a responsible U.S. Government official” and suggested Covey Oliver. (Memorandum from Lewis to Johnson, November 23; ibid.)
  3. In a December 3 memorandum to the President, Rostow reported that, “ex-President Arias’ followers have started some guerrilla efforts along the Costa Rican frontier. Only one encounter with the Panamanian National Guard has been confirmed, but the prospect is for continuing skirmishes.” (Ibid., Country File, Panama, Vol. X (part 1 of 3), May–December 1968)
  4. During a December 10 meeting Anderson “strongly advised Arias to withdraw from public view, stay out of Panamanian affairs, go where he can be comfortable and unnoticed, and sit and wait.” Arias “expressed warm appreciation for this advice and assured Anderson that he will follow it.” (Telegram 285234 to Panama City, December 11; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 15 PAN)