132. Letter From Panama Canal Treaty Co-Negotiator (Linowitz) to President Carter 1

Dear Mr. President:

I am taking the liberty of sending along these comments with respect to the next steps in connection with the ratification of the Panama Canal Treaties. I do so based on the long discussion I had at lunch on January 13th with Senator Robert Byrd and my further conversations with various members of the Senate—on both sides of the aisle.

There has, of course, been considerable talk about the need to “amend” the Treaties in order to meet the questions or objections of various Senators. The problem is that the words “amendment”, “reservation”, “understanding”, “interpretation” are often used interchangeably based on a misconception as to how one differs from the other. Thus both Senator Byrd and Senator Baker, among others, have referred to the need for “amending” or “clarifying” or “interpreting” the Treaties on the issues of our right to defend and expeditious passage.

During my conversation with Senator Byrd I pointed out that it should be possible to find a way to have the Statement of Understanding issued by you and General Torrijos incorporated in the approval by the Senate without actually changing the language of the Treaties themselves. I stressed the fact that since the Chief Executives of both countries had clearly agreed that the Statement sets forth what they had both intended when they signed the Treaties, the Senate could approve the Treaties on the condition that the Statement of Understanding be appended to the Treaties with the same force and effect as though contained therein. Senator Byrd seemed impressed with this as a possible answer.

The Constitution of Panama specifically provides that the Treaties made by the Executive with respect to the Canal “must be submitted to a national plebiscite”. In the plebiscite actually held on September 13, 1977,2 the Panamanian voters were asked to vote yes or no on the following proposition: “I am in agreement with the new Panama Canal Treaty, the Treaty concerning the permanent neutrality and operation of the Panama Canal and the Connected and Annexed Agreements [Page 361] between the governments of Panama and the United States of America signed by them on Wednesday, September 7, 1977”. From this language it appears likely that any textual change in the Treaty could require another plebiscite. The same need not be true if ratification involves incorporating the Statement of Understanding between you and General Torrijos and, thereby, makes explicit what was implicit in the Treaty language as approved by the Panamanian voters who were aware of the Statement of Understanding before the plebiscite.

Although General Torrijos has apparently indicated to Senator Baker that he would not object to a new plebiscite, the fact is that amending the Treaties will open up the negotiations for other proposed amendments from the Panamanians. (There is good reason to believe that there are some things in the Treaties which Panama would like to change if it could—although this has not yet been made clear.) Certainly it should not be necessary for the Panamanians to have to go through a whole plebiscite procedure again in order to reaffirm what they have already approved.


Sol M. Linowitz
  1. Source: Carter Library, White House Central Files, Subject File, FO 3–1, Panama Canal, 13. No classification marking. According to a routing document, this letter was overtaken by events and a response was not deemed necessary. (Ibid.)
  2. The Panamanian plebiscite on the treaties was held on October 23.