15. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Informal Meeting of the Negotiators February 1977 Round


  • United States

    • Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker
    • Ambassador Sol M. Linowitz
    • Mr. Anthony Hervas, Interpreter
  • Panama

    • Sr. Romulo Escobar Bethancourt
    • Sr. Edwin Fabrega
    • Sr. Jorge Carasco, Interpreter

(For the use of the negotiating team only)

Ambassador Escobar: First, as the Foreign Minister did at the airport, I would like to welcome Ambassador Bunker and Ambassador Linowitz on the occasion of your visit to Contadora Island. We expect Ambassador Linowitz will enjoy his stay here. We already know Ambassador Bunker enjoys his visits. I have had the honor to participate in many of these meetings with Ambassador Bunker, and I want to give new recognition to the positive attitude he has always shown in the negotiations between our two countries. I wish to express to you that we are grateful for your presence here as well as for the declarations that President Carter has made, and we sincerely hope that this round will be the most fruitful one between our two countries. We are convinced that you have arrived here with this purpose and I can assure you that our side also shares the same purpose. With these words of salutation, I would like to end my remarks and listen to the distinguished representatives of the United States Delegation. Thank you.

Ambassador Bunker: Mr. Escobar, Ambassador Linowitz and I are very pleased to be here. We are colleagues and old friends and have worked together on many things over a number of years. Because we want to achieve an agreement on a new treaty we felt it would be useful to hold this preliminary talk before our session this morning to explain our concerns and our views. We feel this will facilitate agreement. We want to inform you about the procedures we would like to suggest and we would like to hear how you feel about these procedures.

As you know, with a new administration we have a new ball game. As you know, and as I mentioned in the statement regarding our [Page 66] conversations with President Carter,2 Ambassador Linowitz and I have talked with the President, and with the Secretary of State of course. We have received his views and his concerns. He is anxious to see some progress toward the conclusion of a treaty. However, he is also concerned that such a treaty should be on a basis that will protect your interests as well as the interests of the United States. These interests, as I stated in my last talks with Minister Boyd,3 are that the United States must see its security in the Canal adequately maintained and protected. A country which is as large as the United States has to fend for itself in order to provide for its own security and cannot depend on someone else for its own security. Any agreement must protect your interests and the United States interests. Ambassador Linowitz and I talked to the President. Ambassador Linowitz knows the President very well, and he will explain to you how he sees the matters before us.

Ambassador Linowitz: First, let me tell you that it was a deep honor to be asked by the President to join Ambassador Bunker in the negotiations. I share with most Americans great respect and admiration for Ambassador Bunker and as a friend and admirer I feel it is a great responsibility to join him in these talks. Perhaps you already know, without me further protesting the point, of my friendship for Panama and of my desire to see a new Canal treaty. I want to say this first to establish my credentials as a friend of Panama. In this context, as Ambassador Bunker suggested, I will offer you my views on the problems and issues we face as well as on President Carter’s attitudes and position.

I had an opportunity to discuss the matter with President Carter both during the campaign and since the campaign ended. I can assure you, like Ambassador Bunker has stated, that we are seeking a new Panama Canal treaty which is fair and equitable and which meets both the interests of the United States and Panama. I can also tell you that the President feels that he is under an obligation not to approve a treaty that does not have adequate protection for the long-term interest of the United States. He will not sign a treaty that will not be ratified by the Senate. It is clear that he feels a responsibility toward the people of the United States to work in a cooperative manner to achieve a new treaty which is fair and properly meets the needs of Panama and fairly meets the needs of the United States. With this in mind he asked that [Page 67] I convey to you that what we seek in the negotiations is not confrontation but cooperation. What we seek in the negotiations is an effort to cooperatively meet our mutual needs. We need your help in reaching an agreement that will be approved by President Carter and will be ratified by the Senate. If this is not achieved, there will be no treaty. Unless we understand this, both our sides would be working to our disadvantage. One more thing I would like to state, in this same spirit of friendship and candor, is that you should understand that it is politically costly for the President of the United States to engage in a strong fight for a new Canal treaty. The forces that in the United States have already aligned themselves against a new treaty are quite formidable. Politically, any gains are not internal gains for the President. He wants a new treaty because he feels that it is both right and important to reach one. However, when he asked me to come to negotiate, he mentioned that he recognized the political costs, yet was willing to bear those costs if the treaty reflects the objectives we want. In such a case he is willing to make the effort that is required.

Ambassador Bunker: In the talks Ambassador Linowitz and I had with the President before we left he said to us: “If you can get the kind of treaty which satisfies Panama’s aspirations and US security interests, I will go all out in support of such a treaty.”

I think we are aware of your aspirations. You have made clear how you feel about the matter of duration, a matter which is tied up to the question of adequate neutrality guarantees for the United States and to arrangements for post-treaty defense of the Canal. These, from our point of view, are as important to us as the matter of duration is to you.

I thought it would be useful before we go into the formal talks to have this informal exchange to tell you about our fundamental concerns in the interest of making greater progress, progress which I hope we can achieve during this session. I did wish to make clear to you where our concerns lie.

Ambassador Linowitz: With this in mind, it is that we are proposing, as Ambassador Bunker indicated earlier, that we leave aside now the questions of duration, post-treaty neutrality, and defense, and focus first on the other issues, with the intention of making a constructive contribution, as will be set forth in our position paper.4 And that we leave for later the questions of duration, post-treaty neutrality, and defense. I thought that you should know about this in advance of our formal session. That is why we chose this informal private meeting to tell you the reasons why we will be proceeding in the manner I have [Page 68] described and in case you had any questions that we could answer before the formal session.

Ambassador Escobar: I am happy that Ambassador Bunker and Ambassador Linowitz have both referred to this issue because we feel that it is truly the “gordian knot” of our problem. The basis for any progress in our negotiations is precisely the determination of the term of duration of the treaty. During many years we have been negotiating with the United States. Ambassador Bunker can witness to the fact that in previous years, when we were asked to meet the greatest security concerns of the United States, which were to clearly establish that the defense of the Canal would be the responsibility of the U.S., the Panamanian side worked very seriously on this matter. That is the reason we reached the draft of the SOFA. At that time we also reached the decision that the United States would have the primary right of defense of the Canal. That is also why we accepted to continue having in our own territory defense sites and U.S. troops. Both our teams have also been working hard with the purpose of determining the necessary areas for operation so that guarantees would be real ones. We also agreed that the operation and administration of the Canal should continue to be under U.S. responsibility. At all times during our negotiations Panama has been searching not for confrontation but for cooperation with the United States in order to find solutions to those problems which are vital to both countries and important to the rest of the countries of Latin America and to many nations throughout the world. I bring this up so you can clearly see that the policy of the Republic of Panama, the policy of the government, and the policy of General Torrijos has always been a policy of understanding and of seeking solutions to the difficult problems that are confronted. Along the same line of thought, we also expect the U.S. to understand what the vital interests of Panama are. These vital interests of Panama are: to perfect its sovereignty; to have jurisdiction over its entire national territory; and to be free to direct its own destiny, as all nations do. We honestly believe that the new administration that has assumed office in the United States, led by a President who is looked upon now as a man of great moral authority, as a man of great personal character, not only by his own people but also by the people of Latin America, and I would also say by many countries throughout the world, has in its power the capacity to disseminate within its own country the truth about all these issues in the assurance that the American people will be sufficiently qualified to fully understand the situation. The people of the United States have never been colonialists. The US has not been a country intent on subjugating other countries. We feel that in the case of Panama, with the exception of some groups in the United States similar to some we also have in Panama, there is a general consensus [Page 69] that on this issue we should proceed with justice and equity. I would say that what the US people need to know is the fact that we have already agreed on measures that will guarantee the interests and the military security of the United States in relation to the Panama Canal. This matter has already been established. The other matter that we also have to clearly establish is that both countries are committed to agree to a new treaty with a duration date.

Panama has already made political sacrifices in agreeing to: the draft SOFA; the draft document on defense sites; and the draft document on administration and operation of the Canal.5 These have had an internal cost and have met with considerable opposition among certain sectors of Panama. However, General Torrijos, demonstrating great responsibility, understood that this was the only way in which both countries could advance toward the solution of existing problems. He also felt that, in a certain manner, this could also offer an example of how to conduct relations between such a powerful country as the United States and countries in the rest of Latin America. Panama has set forth a very reasonable term for the duration of the treaty. We feel that a treaty to the year 2000 is very reasonable. Even Senator Humphrey told us while we were in the United States that he felt this was a reasonable term for duration.6 Upon reaching the year 2000 Panama must assume all attributes inherent in a sovereign, independent nation. After the year 2000 the US should not fear for the security and operation of the Canal because first, it is a basic interest of Panama that it be so, and secondly, because the General has stated that a declaration of neutrality by Panama can be strengthened, through the United Nations, by all the countries of the world. If all the countries of the world agree to the neutrality of the waterway, we honestly believe that it will be assured. This will represent a greater assurance of real neutrality than that which can be individually guaranteed by any one country alone. We feel that the concept that the United States, after the year 2000, should continue to have defense rights and a guarantee of neutrality is not realistic, because it is unnecessary for a great power such as the United States, and also because it does not conform to the manner in which agreements between nations operate in the world.

I honestly believe that the administration of President Carter, with the assistance of a negotiating team of great intellectual caliber and a vision of the future, can face up to this problem knowing that the [Page 70] concept of a need for a guarantee extending beyond the year 2000 is not realistic and that it would be impossible for Panama to accept it. No government in our country would be able to present to our people a treaty with the United States that does not place a termination date for the duration. I would like to say, with all due respect to Ambassador Bunker and Ambassador Linowitz, that the procedure in the present round should be directed to the decision of the issue of duration of the treaty. In our country public opinion is conscious of the fact that, if after 13 years of negotiations we cannot make a determination on the matter of duration, these negotiations cannot continue eternally.

Though it is true that we face a series of problems in other related areas of the treaty, a decision on the issue of duration would permit both teams to work faster in search of a solution to the remaining problems. Otherwise, no progress is practicable because we would be working without knowing until when the arrangements would have to last. I would therefore propose, with all due respect, that we try a discussion in depth on this matter and arrive at a decision that is clearly useful to end our negotiations.

Ambassador Bunker: I think we have already recognized that Panama’s objective was to perfect its own sovereignty. We have also agreed, in the principles,7 that the treaty would have a termination date. We have gone a long way, in the area of jurisdiction, towards perfecting Panama’s sovereignty over the Canal. However, equally important to a country of over 200 million people, a country which is the most powerful country in the world, is to make sure that its vital interests are protected in the Canal not only during the term of the treaty, but always. The Canal is of vital interest to the United States. The matter is how do we compromise your aspirations and our security interests. Ambassador Linowitz has said that there are other issues that are equally important to us during the term of the treaty. You have made a unilateral declaration on the year 2000. We feel it is clear that agreements, adjustments, and compromises on other issues are essential to the progress of our negotiations before we can reach agreement on a date. We want to discuss these issues and find a solution to many that are hanging fire and see if we can achieve some progress. The issues of neutrality and post-defense arrangements are vital to the United States. We cannot take back a treaty to the Senate unless we can convince them that US interests are protected. I personally think, and I believe Ambassador Linowitz agrees, that we can find formulae to resolve these issues if we address ourselves to them. Let us meet on [Page 71] these key issues and then take on the matters of our interests and your aspirations.

Ambassador Linowitz: I would like to supplement very briefly what Ambassador Bunker has said. We have both come here in a spirit of cooperation and we want to ask you to understand US needs in the same manner as you wish us to understand Panama’s needs and we want to ask for your help in developing a position that may have good prospects of approval. It will not help the President and it will not help a new treaty if we come back with a position that we know is not acceptable to the President and to the Senate. We would be doing you a disservice if we did not point out the risks of reaching a solution that would not have a chance to prosper. If we go back with an agreement on duration and we have not satisfactorily solved the other key issues, the treaty does not stand a chance of approval by the President or by the Senate. We have to deal with the other interests if we are to serve our mutual interest to reach a new treaty. One more word. You mentioned Senator Humphrey. Ambassador Bunker and I met with him a few days before our departure and he himself pointed out the importance of returning to the Senate a treaty which, while taking care of your aspirations on duration, deals appropriately with U.S. concerns regarding post-treaty arrangements.8 You know that Senator Humphrey is very “simpatico” and he is aware of the aspirations of Panama. He recognizes that if we try to help with your concerns on duration, you also must help us regarding the other issues that are important to us.

Senor Fabrega: I wanted to say that we are apparently in a situation in which we are trying to find out what came first, the chicken or the egg. Ambassador Escobar has said that once the two fundamental aspects of duration and defense are decided, it will be very easy to reach agreement on all other remaining matters which would be part of the treaty. It would be very easy to reach an agreement on all other issues relating to the operation, maintenance, and defense of the Canal, both with respect to the fundamental and to the practical aspects. We believe that if we could get from you an integrated proposal, we would be in a position to give consideration to it and to provide an answer to your position.

Ambassador Bunker: Thank you for your response Mr. Fabrega. We have first a presentation for you9 which in part responds to your [Page 72] October presentation, as you had asked.10 However, our feeling is, and we want to propose, that we deal first with other issues that are important to the United States and then deal with the questions of duration, neutrality, and post-defense arrangements.

Ambassador Linowitz: I would like to say a word in that connection. We understand your chicken and egg dilemma. Sometimes I don’t know which is the chicken. It is not our intent to place you in a difficult position. We understand what you must have regarding duration, but we must look at our common ground to achieve some progress. In line with Ambassador Bunker’s remarks regarding our presentation, it might be helpful in the discussions on the other issues for you to make the assumption (without having in any way our formal acquiescence) that we will deal properly with the issue of duration. In this manner you would not feel that we are moving in an unrelated way. It would help us to move forward if we discussed as if a satisfactory solution to the issue of duration would be forthcoming, and later on we will deal specifically with duration, neutrality, and post-treaty arrangements.

Dr. Escobar: The problem we have is that there are a number of outstanding issues on which we have been working intensively. For instance, the teams of Architect Fabrega and General Dolvin have been making progress in the area of lands and waters. We have also discussed the problems of US citizens working in the Canal Zone. We have also discussed military housing, outside defense sites. We have also discussed the status of defense sites and of military and civilian personnel. We have even discussed issues unrelated to the management of the Canal. The problem that we face is that we are not advancing on these issues because we do not know the duration of the treaty. We do not know until when such measures will exist and we are simply speculating, thus simply prolonging the negotiations. We ask that we should center this round on the solution of the problem of duration because we are conscious that once this is resolved, all other problems will have an easier solution. We can assure you that on all other issues, we have had in the past, and we continue to have, a positive attitude with a view to resolving such issues in a manner that satisfies the interests of the United States and of US public opinion. On these problems we do not have an intransigent attitude. What happens is that when we get into those issues we are working in thin air, because we do not know when the treaty will end. The fear we have is that in this round, which has aroused great hopes and expectations among the people of Panama and the Government, as well as in the United States [Page 73] and in many Latin American countries, we will simply limit our discussions to the status of U.S. employees in the Canal Zone, or to how the Entity will function, or to the size of the Entity. Without denying the importance of those issues, as far as Panama is concerned, they are all contingent on duration. What would happen in practice is that we would sit around for another round, during which we would reiterate our points of view already expressed in October, and the U.S. Delegation would simply respond to those points. It would be just one more round in our negotiations, and we want to avoid this because we feel that the new US Administration is interested in finding an equitable solution and we are willing to collaborate. However, because of our experience of many years of negotiations, we know that in discussing issues of secondary importance we are not defining the basic problems and we are unnecessarily prolonging the negotiations. That is the reason we are advocating a procedure that would center our work on the issue of duration. Panama is not interested in causing harm or difficulties to the United States or in losing the cooperation of both countries. These are not negotiations between two enemy countries but between two countries that have always cooperated and therefore no fear should exist on the part of the United States. On the contrary, I would suggest that arriving at a just solution would increase the cooperation and solidarity between our countries as well as strengthen the US position vis-a-vis the other nations of Latin America. We feel that the Carter Administration, with its present negotiators, has sufficient authority and sufficient prestige in the United States to assure that no U.S. citizen would dare think that you have failed to defend the interests of the United States. Because of your reputation, because of your prestige, because you are known as just men, it is that we appeal to you to help us find a solution to that which is a basic problem for our country.

Senor Fabrega: I would like to confirm whether I have understood correctly. Do you indicate that we could go into the rest of the issues always assuming that our basic requirement would be satisfied? In other words, contingent upon the satisfactory solution of our basic requirement?

Ambassador Linowitz: You can proceed on the assumption that the solution on duration will be one that you will find acceptable if we reach agreement; that is, you are not committed until we reach agreement on [Page 74] duration, neutrality, and post-treaty arrangements.

Ambassador Escobar: Does it mean that consideration of all issues in this round will include consideration of the term of duration?

Senor Fabrega: Will we be able to cover all issues in this round?


Ambassador Linowitz: I want to clarify to make sure that we understand each other. We believe that the most difficult issues to settle are duration, neutrality, and post-treaty arrangements and that if we both apply ourselves to the other issues on a “what if” basis or on a contingency basis, we can assume that those three issues will receive a satisfactory solution. In this manner we may be able to work and find out how close we are. It is President Carter’s charge to us that we come back with a set of proposals regarding what is required to achieve a treaty. In this manner we will be able to resolve as many issues as possible and to define the common ground. We can discuss all matters, excluding duration, neutrality, and post treaty arrangements, on the assumption we will find a satisfactory answer to these later.

Ambassador Escobar: The problem is that in October Panama submitted its global position which included the problem of duration.11 Therefore, if as Ambassador Linowitz and Ambassador Bunker have stated, the U.S. is going to answer our October document, it is very difficult for us to conceive how their reply could possibly exclude precisely the problem of duration. We would like to ask you whether in your presentation in response to our October document there is an answer to the question on duration.

Ambassador Bunker: There is an answer and it is that duration is tied to neutrality and post-defense arrangements.

Ambassador Linowitz: I think it is fair to say that we will be in a position to put before you answers to the entire range of issues even though our formal presentation does not deal with duration, neutrality, and post-treaty defense arrangements. However, after our presentation, we will be in a position to talk about it.

Senor Fabrega: We will consult and we will call you to see if it is possible to hold a meeting this afternoon.12

Ambassador Bunker: Who will you have with you?

Ambassador Escobar: Architect Fabrega, Minister Ahumada, Jaime Arias, Ambassador de la Rosa and myself. We do have some advisers but their participation will not be necessary. We have two who are working on the subject of lands and waters.

Ambassador Linowitz: We asked because we would not want to overwhelm you.

Senor Fabrega: We thought that once we had reached an agreement on principles, our working group on lands and waters could meet with General Dolvin’s group to continue discussions.

Ambassador Escobar: I wish to express to Ambassador Bunker and Ambassador Linowitz that both Mr. Fabrega and I will consider with [Page 75] deepest sympathy any suggestion regarding any meetings that you consider advisable to be held only between the four of us. Sometimes discussions with fewer people can make more progress, and we have authorization from the General to meet privately any time we feel it is necessary.

Ambassador Bunker: That can be very helpful indeed.

Ambassador Linowitz: We will await your word regarding an afternoon meeting.

  1. Source: Department of State, American Embassy Panama, Panama Canal Treaty Negotiation Files, 1964–1977, Lot 81F1, Box 127, POL 33.3.2. Confidential. The meeting took place in the conference room at the Hotel Contadora. The meeting ended at noon.
  2. Presumably a reference to arrival statements, transmitted by the Department in telegram 32525 to Panama City, February 12. (National Archives, RG 59, Official and Personal Files of Ambassador at Large Ellsworth Bunker, Lot 78D300, Box 1, Negotiating Round, Feb. 13–23, 1977)
  3. See Document 9.
  4. See Document 17.
  5. See Document 9.
  6. According to telegram 23441 to Panama City, February 2, Boyd met with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. After the meeting, Senators Sparkman and Case issued a joint press statement endorsing the Carter administration effort to negotiate a new treaty. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770037–0895)
  7. The Tack-Kissinger principles of February 7, 1974. See footnote 10, Document 3.
  8. This meeting took place on February 9 in Humphrey’s office. A memorandum of conversation of the meeting is in the National Archives, RG 59, Official and Personal Files of Ambassador at Large Ellsworth Bunker, Lot 78D300, Box 3, Panama, Congress.
  9. See Document 17.
  10. See footnote 5 above.
  11. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XXII, Panama, 1973–1976, Document 137.
  12. See footnote 4 above.