130. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Ratification of the Panama Canal Treaties: Panamanian Views


  • Gabriel Lewis, Panamanian Ambassador to the U.S.
  • Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, Department of State, S/AB
  • Ambassador David H. Popper, Department of State, S/AB

Ambassador Bunker lunched with Ambassador Lewis at the F Street Club on January 10, 1978.

The discussion centered predominantly on the prospects for ratification of the Panama Canal Treaties, in the light of the visits of various groups of Senators to Panama, most recently Senator Baker’s party.2

Ambassador Lewis was plainly encouraged by what he regarded as the successful results of the meetings between General Torrijos and Senators Byrd and Baker. He felt that the General had handled himself well, and that the prospects for favorable votes on the Treaties by the visiting Senators had been improved. It seemed to him that a great deal now depended on how Senators Baker and Byrd concerted in working out tactics in the Senate. If both of them applied themselves energetically, he thought the prospects for ratification were bright. He emphasized, however, that this was not a matter which he, as a Panamanian, could influence.

We inquired as to General Torrijos’s views on treaty amendments. Perhaps for tactical reasons, Lewis was emphatic in stating that the language of the Treaties could not be changed without requiring a second plebiscite—and they did not intend to have another. This meant that the text of the October 14 Statement of Understanding could not be included in the Neutrality Treaty through an amendment of its terms. What Lewis does envisage is signature of the October 14 text by President Carter and General Torrijos. But this must take place only at the final and decisive moment, so as to have the greatest impact and not to open the door to additional proposals for change.

Lewis confirmed that Torrijos really did not care whether the provisions of Paragraph 2, Article 12 of the Basic Panama Treaty relating to [Page 358] a sea-level canal were included in the Treaty. He said it would require a plebiscite to remove them, but made this comment without the conviction he had applied to his remark on the October 14 statement.

In his discussion with Torrijos, Senator Baker asserted, according to Lewis, that anywhere from 40 to 80 amendments might be proposed as the Treaties were discussed in the Senate. However, almost all of these would disappear as the Senate moved toward a decision. The Panamanians should not be alarmed.

We asked Ambassador Lewis whether any other Treaty changes had been discussed by Senator Baker. He answered in the negative. Responding to specific inquiries, he said that nothing had been said about amending the financial arrangements in the Treaties; the problem of ratification was an emotional, not a financial one. He also said that the question of flags had not been raised, but that if it were, nothing was to be expected, since the Panamanians would not agree to anything which would impinge on their sovereignty.

There was some discussion of the human rights question. Lewis stressed the extent to which Torrijos had gone in restoring democratic practices. As the most recent example, he described the convention of the Panamenista Party of Arias, which had met in Santiago on January 8. It had been extremely critical of Torrijos.

Lewis also commented on the possible return of Panamanian exiles. He said that Torrijos was willing to permit the right-wingers, members of the oligarchy, to come back; but there was no way to do so without at the same time admitting the 25 or so left-wingers, most of whom were in Cuba. If they were admitted, it would be after ratification.

According to Lewis, the visit of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission was successful.3 The Commission might criticize the conditions in Panamanian prisons, which were admittedly poor, but would also take note of the improved situation with respect to human rights generally.

Lewis relayed some words of advice given by Fidel Castro to Torrijos. In dealing with the Americans, Castro said: “You must never do three things: never say they are a second-rate power; never mention Puerto Rico; and never accuse them of bad faith.” It seemed to Lewis to have been good advice.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Official and Personal Files of Ambassador at Large Ellsworth Bunker, Lot 78D300, Box 8, Chron. Jan-Apr 1978. Confidential. The meeting took place at the F Street Club. Drafted by Popper.
  2. See Document 129.
  3. See footnote 3, Document 102.