525. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1 2

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  • Panama Coup—Final Wrapup

General Omar Torrijos, Panama’s strong man and dominant political force, has successfully foiled the attempt by two subordinate officers in the National Guard, Col. Ramiro Silvera and Col Amado Sanjur, to oust him from power.

Taking advantage of Torrijos’ absence from Panama, Sanjur and Silvera siezed control of Guard headquarters the night of December 14, and informed Torrijos in Mexico City that he would not be permitted to return. Officers loyal to Torrijos resisted the power play, however, and garrisons in the interior of the country made known their opposition to the coup. Torrijos himself returned to Panama late December 15 and successfully rallied his supporters. When word of his return reached Panama City, loyal troops moved on Guard headquarters. With virtually no fighting they gained control of the city, and General Torrijos led a triumphant motorcade back to the capital Tuesday December 16. He arrived in Panama City late December 16 and was greeted by a very large festive crowd of supporters.

Silvera and Sanjur have been arrested and will be tried for subversion. The titular leaders of the Government Junta, Colonels Jose Pinilla and Bolivar Urrutia, are reported detained. Torrijos has not yet removed these figureheads from office, however.

Colonel Sanjur was clearly the instigator of the coup attempt. His motives were a combination of ambition and self-preservation. He knew that Torrijos was increasingly critical of his outside business activities, which were common knowledge throughout Panama, and that he was less and less a member of the General’s inner circle.

He must have concluded that if Torrijos remained it was only a question of time until he himself was forced out. He in effect decided to get Torrijos before Torrijos got him. He may also have been worried about the drift of Torrijos’ reform program and feared it was [Page 2] too “left”, but his primary worry seems to have been that Torrijos was too powerful for Sanjur’s good.

There are persistent reports that members of the “oligarchy” supported and conspired with Sanjur. There is no hard proof of this, but there are strong suspicions. The business community and the old elite were unhappy with Torrijos, and the Chamber of Commerce was quick—too quick it may turn out—to announce support for Sanjur.

A period of reorganization and readjustment will now occur. Torrijos unquestionably emerges personally stronger than ever. His distrust of the old “oligarchy” will be reinforced by the reports they supported his ouster. He is sure to be more intent than ever on reform, and he may increase the pace and the radical nature of those reforms. He is in a position to be repressive and effect purges. He has publicly said he will not seek vengeance, but some changes in the Guard hierarchy and the Government are sure to occur. The General will probably also proceed with plans to form an official party which would exclude the traditional elites and traditional parties they controlled from participation in the political process.

An important question is the effect of the situation on US-Panamanian relations. There have been widespread stories circulated in Panama that the US Government was somehow involved in Sanjur’s attempted coup, which the Embassy believes some extreme elements are circulating for their own purposes. There is no evidence adduced to support the rumors, but the fact that Sanjur has the reputation of being very pro-US and close to the US military in the Canal Zone may make the stories believed.

Torrijos has always had a great mistrust of the State Department and the previous Ambassador, who he felt opposed the coup last year that ousted President Arias and who he felt pressured him unnecessarily for a return to constitutional government. These stories reinforce his suspicions, and he may become more nationalistic in his relations with us and in his stance on such key problems as the Panama Canal treaties. Thus our future attitudes and responses to his programs and requests will be important in overcoming suspicions and shaping his perceptions of the value of close cooperation with the US. The great rapport which he established with Governor Rockefeller and his great trust and friendship for the Governor may well stand us in good stead in keeping US-Panama relations on an even keel.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 790, Country Files, Latin America, Panama, Vol. 1, January 1969–February 28, 1970. Secret. Sent for information. Written on the document was “ret’d [returned],” which was stamped December 22.
  2. Kissinger discussed the recent unsuccessful attempt to overthrow President Torrijos. Because Torrijos suspected that the United States was involved in the coup attempt, it reinforced his existing mistrust of the U.S. Government. Kissinger concluded that U.S. officials should attempt to shape Torrijos’s attitudes so the Panamanian leader would act in a more pro-U.S. fashion.