131. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Meeting Between President Carter and President Jose Lopez Portillo of Mexico—10:40 a.m.–11:40 a.m.

In addition to two interpreters, the participants at the meeting included, from the American side:

Vice President Walter Mondale

Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Zbigniew Brzezinski

Deputy Secretary of State-designate Warren Christopher

Assistant Secretary of State-designate Terence Todman

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico John Joseph Jova

NSC Staff Member Robert A. Pastor

From the Mexican side:

Jose Lopez Portillo, President of Mexico

Jose Ramon Lopez Portillo (his son)

Secretary of Foreign Relations Santiago Roel Garcia

Under Secretary of Foreign Relations Juan de Olloqui

Mexican Ambassador to U.S. Hugo Margain Gleason

President Carter opened the meeting again.

President Carter: I have thoroughly enjoyed your visit, both officially and personally, as well as the meeting of our families. I know that my Cabinet officers have also been very impressed in the meetings that they have held with you and your Cabinet officers. I would appreciate your suggestions on how we should follow up the decisions that we made yesterday2 and how we might deal better with the other nations in this hemisphere and in the world. At the outset let me say that we plan to prepare a letter outlining the agenda items, and I will send this letter to you personally within a week.3

Lopez Portillo: I greatly appreciate the welcome. The case of Mexico is a typical one. U.S. relations with Mexico are representative in many ways of U.S. relations with Latin America and the developing world. [Page 285] In the case of Mexico, all factors become more acute because of the proximity of our country. Therefore, in a sense, Mexico can serve as a laboratory of what can occur and what should or should not occur between nations at different levels of development. Mexico can also serve as a sounding board for new ideas on the dialogue between the North and the South. Wherever the United States goes in Latin America or in the developing world, it will find problems similar to Mexico’s—countries embarking upon industrialization, raw materials producers with trade problems. And these problems of trade are complicated in turn by financial problems. Politically, there are problems of repression and the loss of freedom as well as the absence of social justice. The solutions devised at Bretton Woods are just not sufficient for dealing with the problems of today. I do not believe that the IMF or the World Bank or the Inter-American Bank or even the OAS have been able to address these kinds of problems adequately. Yet, these problems cannot be ignored just because they are difficult.

There is no way that we can divide the economic issues from the political issues. If the United States seeks to maintain other countries in a dependent relationship, eventually there will be loss of democracy in those countries. However, if the relationship is to be based on equality, then the U.S. will have to be more forthcoming in the economic field. Once it is decided what kind of political relationship is wanted, then there must be a willingness to accept the economic consequences.

Yesterday I discussed my theory of the tripod. I underlined the point that Mexico is standing right now on only one leg—political stability. We will not last long on this leg if our economy is permitted to deteriorate. Or if labor, which has been very understanding up to now, withdraws its support from our government and decides to press its demands for high wages. But if business does not respond sufficiently to the cries of injustice, then labor indeed might withdraw its support and then prices, of course, would rise dramatically. We cannot postpone solutions to these problems. If wage increases do not keep pace, there will be disorder, and the government will be pushed towards repression, and democracy will be seriously threatened, if not lost. This is what has happened in many Latin American countries. The fascist shadow is already a reality. Even countries as rich as Argentina have not been able to find democratic paths.

Therefore, if we wish to solve the political problems of Latin America, we should approach them from an economic perspective, and we should try to solve the trade problem. Anything else will be mistaken. Any alternatives can only postpone decisions which need to be made.

This is my analysis. I understand the specific problems you have with Panama, Cuba, and some part of the liberal sector in American society have with human rights, especially in Chile. I want to underline [Page 286] that the relationship between the United States and Latin America is not solely Panama, Cuba, or Chile. The real basis of U.S. foreign policy to Latin America and the real basis of the relationship is economic.

It is true that the U.S. lacks a policy to Latin America, but we must also recognize that Latin America does not have a policy to the United States. The system is not working. But we should not react to the system’s failure by creating other systems, instead of improving this one.

This is basically the way I visualize the position and the policy of the United States to Latin America.

President Carter: I particularly like your statement that the creation of new mechanisms is not an answer to a problem but often only an artificial covering-up to delay a solution. I also agree that there is little coordination in economic policies to the region. For example, there is no coordinated economic policy between the IMF and the other international financial institutions and with United States bilateral assistance programs and other financial flows.

We can make the OAS more effective by looking at real, basic questions. At the next General Assembly meeting, we should begin preparation and do a lot of staff work and address the specific problems that you raised. I also think that the broad economic policy issues that you mentioned should be dealt with on a multilateral basis rather than just on a bilateral basis. I would also like to involve or at least to inform Latin American countries with respect to decisions which we make which will have a great impact on them. This is something that we had not taken into account previously, but we should.

We have long-standing problems with Cuba. You have made progress with your dealings with Cuba. We plan in a quiet way to search with Cuba for common ground. But the basic question we have with regard to Cuba is that of human rights and the treatment of political prisoners and others in Cuba. We have hundreds of thousands of Cuban refugees in the United States who have a deep interest in the way this problem is resolved. Cuba, on the other hand, has a basic interest in reestablishing trade relations. And I think both our countries have a common interest in trying to reduce the influence of the Soviet Union as well as to have peaceful relations with one another.

To the extent that the U.S. and Mexico and you and I can cooperate, we can help each other to deal better with other Latin American countries. The same general principle of cooperation and mutual respect applies also to the Panama situation. Although there has been a delay, we have every intention to terminate a mutually advantageous treaty as aggressively as possible.

There are other nations in the Caribbean which over the last 10 or 15 years have drawn away from us, and we would like to reestablish our close relations with these countries.

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There are also other Latin American countries which have moved away from the United States since the time of President Kennedy. We would like to repair this damage and to establish better relations with them. Your frank and continuing advice in a personal and confidential way would be very, very helpful.

One possible serious problem we have now is with Brazil regarding the reprocessing of nuclear fuel which can be used to make weapons. We want international control of such material, and we have been working closely with Germany and Brazil to prevent the sale of such sensitive material. We recognize we have no authority to prevent the sale, but sometimes if other voices are heard along the same lines, our own voice could be strengthened.

In addition to communicating on specific agenda items, I would like an exchange of personal correspondence with you on a continuing and confidential basis.

President Lopez Portillo: I agree that an appropriate forum to normalize relations between the United States and Latin America is the OAS, if all hegemonic aspects disappeared. That was the idea of the Alliance for Progress, which was fine in its purpose, but made little progress. It had the problem of awakening expectations, but not realizing them.

With the premature death of President Kennedy, very little was achieved, and disillusion and disappointment set in among the Latin Americans. The climate for U.S. initiatives then was far more favorable than it is now. Latin America was more united then. At present, we are divided. Only Costa Rica, Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico have tolerable democracies. This, contrasted with the existence of many totalitarian governments in Latin America, makes for deep divisions in the area. Many Latin American countries have no relations with Cuba while Mexico has none with Chile. There are disputes and contentious issues among many of the countries. Argentina distrusts Brazil. Brazil distrusts Argentina. SELA developed as a substitute for the lack of effectiveness of the OAS. In the effort to build better relations with Latin America, you will have to start from a much lower point than President Kennedy did.

President Carter: Why do I have to start from a lower point?

President Lopez Portillo: In the current atmosphere among the Latin American countries there is no possibility for substantial agreement among the Latin Americans to accept any U.S. initiative. A new move would have to struggle against the shadow left by the disappointment of the failure of the Alliance for Progress. Latin American nations today are far more divided. Our nationalism has become more aggressive. Brazil has a new kind of manifest destiny. It is like an island in Latin America and has a strong personality. This was strengthened by the special treatment given to Brazil during the Ford Administration and [Page 288] especially by the visit of former Secretary of State Kissinger. This action by the United States was somewhat understandable but it didn’t help to solve the problems in U.S. relations with Latin America. To solve the problem, we need a general structure.

I know that the United States does not need Mexico’s help, but in any event I gladly offer to assist in any way that Mexico can. For example, Mexico’s good relations with Cuba could be helpful. Mexico already has helped to solve one problem by a trade-off under which Mexico will ship oil to Cuba in exchange for the Soviet Union shipping oil to some Mexican markets in Europe and Asia. This saves transportation and ties Cuba closer economically to the Latin American area. The breakdown in the Cuban economy cannot be repaired if it does not participate in the region’s economy. With regard to Brazil, the purpose of the Tlatelolco meeting was to try to obtain agreement on denuclearization in which Mexico firmly believes.4 I believe that it is by this international and non-hegemonic approach that the problem could be solved. Thus, Mexico shares U.S. desires in the field of non-proliferation.

Foreign Secretary Roel: There were two protocols coming out of the Tlatelolco meeting. Brazil, Argentina, Cuba and Chile have not signed the first protocol. Yesterday, on the tenth anniversary of the Tlatelolco Treaty, the Soviet Union reportedly indicated its willingness to sign. I wonder whether this might be attributed in some way to the present visit.

President Carter: I appreciate your offer and hope that Mexico will be helpful. It may be too late to work for a serious effort to discourage reprocessing at the next meeting of the OAS but for the September meeting there should be a full exchange of views on a whole range of issues to make that meeting meaningful. At the one meeting of the OAS which I attended, in 1974, I found it to be involved in discussing many superficial matters when it should have been treating basic issues. We will review our policy toward other countries on a bilateral bais to try to repair what damage has been done.

I feel that in the past we had been guilty too often of treating the Latin American countries as a group instead of individually. I will treat the large and the small countries on an individual basis in the years ahead and hope that this will bear fruit.

President Lopez Portillo: I welcome your statement that you will try to make progress in general solutions without ignoring bilateral [Page 289] relations. I am reminded of the statement by Aristotle that “equals should be treated equally and unequals, unequally.” The same solutions cannot be applied to each country and the treatment of each country would have to consider the differences among them. Although the individual problems may be small, the consequences can become large and affect relations seriously. Justice requires that we treat unequals as equals. The expectations are high that this Administration will be able to accomplish a great deal although it will have to fight the Kennedy shadow. I hope you will not be discouraged.

President Carter: I hope that the expectations will be kept low enough so that the results will exceed them.

Mr. Brzezinski: Mr. President, you have stated that Mexico could serve as a laboratory for relations with Latin America and other developing countries. This raises a fundamental question. Every new Administration has talked about the need for a new policy. I believe we do not need a new policy, but rather a different approach. I think that the focus on Latin America should be in the global context rather than as a separate entity. This approach should concentrate on general problems and on bilateral relations. Rather than excluding, we should emphasize our neighborly relations. But we should move away from a policy which, even with our best intentions, has been seen as paternalistic. This led us to be blamed for Latin American failures and to be expected to deliver more than we possibly could. I see the need now for more of a “normalization” along the lines I have indicated.

President Lopez Portillo: I think your (Mr. Brzezinski’s) observation is correct. That is why President Carter’s statement was so good. If the goal of the U.S. is to assist, then it is badly stated because a country that is assisted is not earning its own way. What Latin America wants and needs is balanced economic and political relations which would permit it to manage its own affairs.

For example, Mexico is seeking an equalization in trade relations with the United States. It must be remembered that Mexico is the fourth largest buyer of U.S. goods and the U.S. is the largest seller to Mexico. If trade is based more on balance, then the money of the two countries will stabilize and the relationship will not be one of dependence. Except for the most desperate cases, the way out is not paternalism but balanced trade.

The problem is that trade relations are often regulated by private companies including multinationals whose principal interest is in private gain. The government’s part is minimal, and therefore decisions of equilibrium are not made. Corporations think of profit; only governments can think of balance. But since improving the balance of trade is so important, the real question is what can be done by the governments to improve the balance in the face of the attitude of the private [Page 290] companies and the multinationals. I know this is a delicate issue, but I want to speak frankly and only ask that you become aware of this problem. The U.S. must not have a paternalistic attitude. The real problem is whether the government can control the selfishness of the multinationals and other private companies. I do not know how this can be worked out but something must be done.

President Carter: In our private correspondence, I would welcome specific explanations and details including mention of any companies involved. I will not make any promises but at least the letters will help me to understand the problem, to let the companies know and to make whatever corrections or improvements are possible.

President Lopez Portillo: I will do that.

Ambassador Jova: I want to sound a note of caution after years of experience. I think I heard you (Mexico) asking for a special relationship at the same time, you were saying that the U.S. should renounce its special relationship.

Foreign Secretary Roel: I do not agree. The world’s problems are global. We are not asking for special treatment but for just and balanced treatment. I agree with Dr. Brzezinski that there should be no paternalism. What is needed instead is a mature attitude to see our problems clearly, and to see the world as a unit. I would move further in that direction.

I want to raise one other matter which I have not discussed with my own President but which seems important to mention. I think it would be helpful if there could be talks between Mexico, the U.S. and Canada—the three nations of North America and three democracies. This could in time lead to agreements with the other democracies of the hemisphere from which the strength of the democratic forces could be built. Mexico is very concerned with human rights as is the United States. The problem is how to proceed and how to avoid backing governments which end up as dictatorships.

On practical matters, I would like to know what steps will be taken to implement the conclusions reached during the discussions.

President Carter: As soon as the list of subjects is agreed upon, we can appoint representatives of both countries to meet for discussions and explore the possibility of agreement and report back. After that, we should move some of the issues to the Presidential level; others to multilateral global discussions; other issues might go to the OAS. But at the sub-Cabinet level, we should begin looking for areas of agreement. These meetings would not preclude the continuing personal and confidential correspondence between President Lopez Portillo and me. I will also move to strengthen U.S. relations with our other neighbors and with other countries of the area.

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I want to state again what a personal pleasure it was to have President Lopez Portillo and Carmen make this visit. I believe that relations in the area will be well served by the signs of cooperation between us.

I will ask Mr. Christopher and Dr. Brzezinski to work with you to prepare a Joint Communique to give to the public.5 There will be a Press Conference at 2:00 p.m. where it could be released. (In a brief exchange after the meeting, President Carter and Foreign Secretary Roel agreed that it could be issued later—perhaps Wednesday or Thursday—if more time was needed.)

President Lopez Portillo: Before saying a final word of thanks, I want to take one moment so as not to leave any doubt about Mexico’s views on the question of a special relationship. The mention of Brazil was not done with any thought of criticism or envy but rather out of a feeling that it was the wrong way to proceed. I realize that any general policy will have exceptions due to differences between individual countries. However, where exceptions are made or special treatment is accorded before a general policy is stated, then it creates suspicion. Latin America is not monolithic. There is no Latin American policy towards the U.S. or even a policy among Latin American countries. Mexico is not motivated by selfishness or by a desire for any special treatment.

Finally, I want to thank you, Mr. President, for the splendid hospitality. I have to admit that I am very attracted by your personality and have a feeling that we have become friends. I hope that we will be able to meet again and to deepen our friendship. I believe this will help our countries very much.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Brzezinski Office File, Country Chron, Box 29, Mexico, 1–6/77. Confidential. Drafted by Pastor on February 24. The meeting was held in the Cabinet Room.
  2. See Document 130.
  3. See Document 133.
  4. The meeting was held in Mexico City in February to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean, or the Treaty of Tlatelolco.
  5. For the text of the joint communiqué issued on February 17, see Public Papers: Carter, 1977, Book I, pp. 178–179.