102. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Canal Treaties, Etc.


  • General Omar Torrijos, Chief of Government of Panama
  • Panamanian Ambassador to U.S. Gabriel Lewis
  • Various Advisers
  • Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, Terence A. Todman
  • U.S. Ambassador to Panama William Jordan
  • Hamilton Jordan, Assistant to the President
  • Robert A. Pastor, NSC Staff Member


During the course of an extremely long conversation on Sunday, General Torrijos and I were joined by most of Torrijos’ personal advisers. For breakfast on September 25,2 we were joined by Hamilton Jordan, Assistant Secretary Todman, and Ambassador William Jordan.

1. Human Rights

We discussed the invitation to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which Torrijos had sent to Andres Aguilar, Chairman of the Commission. The Deputy Foreign Minister of Panama is apparently a close friend of Andres Aguilar, and he, as well as other Panamanians, have been trying to phone Aguilar without success to work out a convenient time for the visit.3 Torrijos concluded that Aguilar was trying to avoid the issue, but he did not know why. He was worried that Winston Robles, a conservative Panamanian currently in exile, and other Panamanians in exile, may have tried to contact Aguilar in an effort to become members of the visiting Commission. Torrijos was very anxious about such a development, and asked whether I knew anything about that. I said that I didn’t, but that my sources on the Inter-American Commission said that they did not expect the visit to [Page 292] cause any problems. We agreed to continue to monitor this issue. In a joking mood, Torrijos said that he was keeping one well-fed political prisoner in the prisons so that the IACHR could release him and proclaim with great finality that there were no longer any political prisoners in Panama.

In answer to my question, whether Panama would be able to ratify the American Convention on Human Rights, Torrijos said that it would, and instructed Foreign Minister Nicolas Gonzalez-Revilla to take steps to see that the Pact was ratified at the next Panamanian Legislative Assembly.4

Torrijos was extremely complimentary about the importance he attached to President Carter’s moral leadership. He said that he considered the President a “beacon” who has had a significantly favorable impact on Latin America. He said that he was concerned that something terrible would happen to President Carter.

2. Message From Fidel Castro

I told Torrijos that I had learned from the Federal Aviation Administration that a Panamanian plane thought to be carrying him and intending to fly directly to Miami from Panama had gone to Havana instead. In a conversation the previous day, Ambassador Lewis said he did not know about such a journey, but after checking with Panama, he told me that the plane was carrying Panama’s negotiators, Escobar and Royo. I noted to General Torrijos that to succeed in the ratification process we would have to be extremely sensitive to the moderate and conservative views of many members of the U.S. Senate. I said that if such a trip by Panama’s negotiators were to become known in the U.S., it would not be helpful to the ratification process.

Torrijos did not address that question specifically, but rather immediately talked about the message that Castro had sent him. That message was essentially the same one that we had heard from Senator Frank Church, with significant additions of special relevance to the Canal Treaties. Castro said that he expected the process of normalizing relations between Cuba and the U.S. to be suspended because of the Canal Treaty negotiations. He did not have any problems with that, and, indeed, he believes that the Canal Treaty is of such great importance to the Hemisphere that he is willing to wait until it is ratified. He expected the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba would have to come much later.

[Page 293]

In evaluating the Canal Treaties, Castro said that the Treaties were not perfect, but they were okay, and he would endorse them. (Castro’s endorsement was quite obviously very important to Torrijos, particularly in his campaign to win over or to neutralize Panamanian students.)

Like Torrijos, Castro also has developed a special fondness for President Carter, a special feeling for his moral leadership, and a great concern about his safety.

(In his nightly message to the Panamanian people, Torrijos noted that Escobar and Royo had to stop in Nassau on their trip to the U.S. because of engine trouble. He never mentioned anything about a stop in Cuba, and no one else has become aware of it.)

3. The Boston-Panama Expropriation Case

In my initial conversation with Torrijos, I brought up a case which had been brought to my attention during the previous week. The Boston-Panama Company, a U.S. company which had extensive property holdings in Panama, had been subject to what it considered a discriminatory and unreasonably high tax. Over several decades, the Company had contested the tax in court, sometimes obtaining some satisfaction, other times none. Finally, in 1969, while the case was in the Appeals Court, the Company counsel was replaced by someone unfamiliar with the case, and the courts decided to pay the tax owed by the Company by auctioning the property. The Panama Government was the sole purchaser and when the Company protested, Torrijos broke off negotiations and made a “political decision” not to deal with the Company anymore. Within the last year, the Company has decided to exploit the sensitivity of our relationship during the treaty negotiating and ratifying process and have sought from Congress and the State Department to have sanctions imposed (the Hickenlooper-type Amendments on foreign aid and GSP)5 by the USG.

In order to try to head-off any complications with the Senate on this issue, and after extensive conversations with State Department lawyers, I raised the issue in the following way. I said that the USG did not wish to make a determination at this time on the merits of the Boston-Panama case. Whether or not they have a good case, however, is not so important as the political implications of the Company applying pressure on the Congress at so sensitive a time in the ratification process. It therefore seemed to me to make eminent sense for the Panama[Page 294]nian Government to reopen negotiations with the Company as well as permit them access to Panama’s courts. I said that I thought that is all that the Company wants right now, and even if Panama did not believe that the Company had a good case, still it appeared to me to be in Panama’s interests to open a dialogue, particularly since judicial proceedings would probably extend beyond February or March of 1978—after the expected time of ratification of the Treaties.

Torrijos listened very closely, appeared to be pleased that I was not making a case on behalf of the Company but rather on behalf of a smooth ratification process, and said at the conclusion of my remarks that he “heard my message.” The clear implication to all of us was that he would indeed instruct his advisers to reopen negotiations.

In subsequent conversations with Manfredo, the Minister to the Presidency, and with Ambassador Gabriel Lewis, we agreed that Lewis would be in touch with the Company’s American lawyers and reopen negotiations. A meeting was scheduled for Monday afternoon, October 3, in the Panamanian Embassy.

4. Bolivia’s Access to the Sea

In the course of our conversations, we spoke about almost every single issue in inter-American relations, and Torrijos had distinct views on every one. On Bolivia’s goal to have access to the sea, he said that he had spoken with Banzer and outlined the strategy that he had pursued in raising international consciousness to the importance of the Canal Treaty negotiations. He suggested a similar strategy be used to focus attention on Bolivia’s problem. The first step called for Bolivia to get a seat on the UN Security Council (as Panama had done in 1972) and to get the Security Council to hold a meeting in La Paz and discuss this issue. (Panama had a similar meeting in the Canal Zone in March of 1973.) He urged Banzer to begin to mobilize international support for that effort.

5. Middle East

Torrijos read to me a communique which he planned to issue in Israel, and I recommended a number of changes, particularly in areas which I knew would cause great concern among American Jews (e.g., the Palestinian issue). He accepted my recommendations.

It became clearer to me the difficulties he was having in the non-aligned movement and with Libya as a result of this trip. Even Castro had said to his negotiators that he had significant reservations about his trip to Israel. I reassured him that other countries would “understand” the importance of such a trip. We spoke about his trip to Israel and to Europe and he asked whether it would be useful for him to try to encourage the leaders to send telegrams to the Senate on the Canal [Page 295] Treaties. I said that I thought it would be more useful if the letters were sent to the President, and we publicized them from the White House. The last thing we wanted to do was to make the Senate feel as if we were trying to mobilize international public opinion to pressure them. He raised this issue again at breakfast with Hamilton Jordan, and got the same response.

I was surprised to hear him voice repeated concern about being out of the country so long. He made the following joke twice: “When I return to Panama after this trip, the Panamanian people will think I have only come home for a vacation.”

6. Dr. Hallah Brown

Dr. Brown had been involved in a car accident with a Panamanian cultural attache several years ago and threatened to take the issue to Congress. In conversations with Ambassador Lewis and with State Department officials as well as with Dr. Brown, it was agreed that the Panamanians would give her $100,000 to compensate her for her hospitalization. Torrijos had the check with him, but asked that no publicity be given to it.

7. Puerto Rican Nationalists

Torrijos said that he was in very close contact with many important Latin American cultural figures, including many of those from the Left, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He said that Marquez believed that Carter symbolized a new America, and that gradually Carter would begin to win over Latin America’s greatest writers, many of whom have been anti-American for most of their careers. He said that this would take time, but he thought that by conscious gestures, the President could do that. At the moment, if the President invited Garcia Marquez or others to a reception, they would have to refuse, but if these writers sent a representative like Marquez to discuss an important issue of concern to them, then that would be a significant first step.

Marquez asked Torrijos if he would convey a message to the President that Marquez, Juan Bosch (ex-President of the Dominican Republic), the ex-governor of Puerto Rico, Cardinal Arns of Sao Paulo, the Cardinal of Puerto Rico, Olaf Palme, the ex-Prime Minister of Sweden, and Coretta King, would like to meet with President Carter to discuss the problem of the Puerto Rican Nationalists who are in prison in the U.S.

Torrijos was extremely secretive about conveying this message, but said that he thought that it was an extremely good and important idea. He asked me my opinion. I said that I didn’t think the time was right for such a meeting. I thought that the President would not be well served to extend himself to the Latin American Left at a time when he was going to have such great problems with the North American Right over the Canal Treaties. Torrijos was inclined to agree with [Page 296] me but asked if he should raise it with Hamilton Jordan during a breakfast the next day. I said that his raising of the issue with Jordan would not present me with any problems.

8. The Treaties

Naturally we spent a large part of the time talking about the chances for Senate ratification. All of the Panamanians were very much bothered by their meetings with Panamanian students, who had called them “traitors” and “bad Panamanians.” They were clearly having a rougher time than they had expected. Torrijos, himself, was forced to wait for four hours in a hotel room for student leaders to meet with him. (He told that story twice.)

In speaking about the status-of-forces agreement, he said that he had developed a “special formula for the School of the Americas” but he did not elaborate. He asked me to talk to him privately about this later, but the opportunity did not arise.

I mentioned to him that the U.S. position on reservations, amendments, or even understandings, would be to oppose all of them to the very end. But I noted that we may have to consider them if the ratification depended on a few votes which could be swung by our accepting such a reservation. I said that we would certainly maintain very close liaison with Ambassador Lewis throughout the ratification process, and if it appeared that we needed this reservation, we would discuss it at some length before taking a public position.

He joked about a telegram he had sent to the Governor of South Carolina (“home of Strom”) when he flew over his State. He said that he hoped that the understanding necessary to build such an important dam could be used to help South Carolina better understand Panama’s case.

9. The President’s Latin American Trip

I told him that the President was sincere in his hope that General Torrijos would continue to counsel him on Latin American affairs. In particular, I asked him for his advice on ways to approach the Latin American part of the President’s world trip.6 He said that he thought that the trip would be an excellent one, but he wanted to think about the question a bit longer and said that he would send me an aide memoire on his ideas.

He also strongly recommended that General George Brown accompany the President on the trip. He said that the military dictators in Latin America (and it was very clear he was not referring to himself) [Page 297] believed that General Brown really made U.S. policy, and not the President. He said that it would be a good lesson for these Generals in Latin America to see the U.S. General taking orders from the U.S. President.

In other discussions about Latin American countries, he showed his extreme displeasure for Somoza’s right-wing dictatorship in Nicaragua, not because he disliked Somoza (because he didn’t) but because he considered it such a feudal country. In talking about Argentina, he basically supported President Perez’s line of argument and said that Videla needed our support. He talked about the rivalry between the Army and Navy and had a very good sense of the politics of that country. He also promised me an aide memoire on Argentina.

10. Educational Exchanges

He said that if the U.S. and freedom are to win the battle for the minds of the next generation of Latin America’s leadership, then we would have to begin a massive campaign—as the Soviet Union has done—to find many young, talented but poor Latin Americans and give them complete scholarships to U.S. universities. He said that he thought we were losing to the Russians in this effort, and he hoped that we would increase our efforts to educate the poor and talented. I said that I had thought we were indeed financing many more scholarships for students of the developing world to come to the U.S. than the USSR, but I promised that I would check on this and give him a more detailed aide memoire.

11. Overall Impressions

I was deeply impressed by the man, the thinker, and the idealist Omar Torrijos. He has a very fine wit, and a very good sense of himself, his limitations and his capabilities. He said to me at one point that he would have liked to have been a humorist but “the design of my face is bad.” “I am actually smiling all the time,” he said, “but you can’t tell that by looking at me.” He said that he had asked Jimmy Carter to teach him how to smile properly.

He was extremely nice to me, repeating several times that he wished I would come back to Panama to work with him and that he wished he could have a son like me. A very warm and candid person who is at the same time capable of being very profound, although in a very simple and direct manner. There is no veneer of education around this man, but he has the simple raw intelligence and common sense of a leader.

Robert A. Pastor
  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Brzezinski Office File, Box 38, Brzezinski Office File, Country Chron, Panama, 10–12/77. Confidential. The meetings took place at the Panamanian Embassy.
  2. The breakfast meeting took place on September 26. See Document 103.
  3. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights performed its onsite observation in Panama from November 29–December 7. According to the Commission’s final report, Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Panama, dated June 22, 1978, the Special Commission designated for the observation visited Panama City, Colon, and David.
  4. In telegram 161003 to all American Republic diplomatic posts, June 23, 1978, the Department reported that Panama had ratified the American Convention on Human Rights (also known as the pact of San José) on June 22, 1978. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780263–0289)
  5. The Hickenlooper amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 “required that the United States terminate foreign assistance programs in countries that had expropriated U.S. citizens’ (corporate and personal) property without conforming to standards of international law.” ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. IV, Foreign Assistance, International Development, Trade Policies, 1969–1972, Document 148)
  6. Carter visited Venezuela from March 28–29, 1978; Brazil from March 29–31, 1978; Nigeria from March 31–April 3, 1978; and Liberia on April 3, 1978.